Alexis Tsipras in Athens, January 2015. Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Never mind the Euro: Syriza's win could threaten mainsteam politics across Europe

New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may be the man who consigns centrist politics to history.

When Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras first surged in the opinion polls in 2012, many in the eurozone feared that his election would destroy Europe’s economic order by forcing Greece to give up its currency. Three years on, the talk is of a political rather than an economic domino effect. Now that Tsipras has been inaugurated as Greek prime minister, it seems he could be the man to save the euro by allowing it to adjust its economic policies, upending the continent’s established political order in the process.

A couple of years ago I watched Tsipras introduce himself to the American foreign policy elite. “We are psychologically prepared for a clash,” he told a startled audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, “because in politics there is no such thing as tea and crumpets: there are interests that are conflicting with each other.”

The clash is now real: battle lines are drawn between Syriza and the eurozone. The party has set out a trifecta of goals: a €2bn welfare programme, an attack on “antisocial oligarchs” and a write-down of at least half of Greece’s public debt. At the same time, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, leader of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, is already warning about the dangers of not sticking to prior agreements.

There is a danger of miscalculation because both sides think they have the upper hand. When I saw Tsipras speak, he said: “If Greece was not in the eurozone, I have no doubt that nobody would care about Greece’s situation. [But] Greece is one of the links that make up the eurozone. And if one breaks, it won’t only be bad for the link, it’ll be bad for the entire chain. We know this, and our friends in Germany know this as well.”

On the other hand, the consensus in Berlin is that the fallout from a Grexit could be contained. There is now a bailout fund for sovereign nations and a European banking union. Private banks have divested themselves of Greek debt and the markets seem becalmed.

Most analysts think there is a deal to be made by extending the length of the debt, lowering interest rates and offering more flexibility on social spending. When I spoke to a political friend in Greece who strongly opposed Syriza, even he had to concede that Tsipras had a better chance of getting a good deal than Samaras and the mainstream parties. “If he gets some resources to alleviate poverty and a symbolic way to escape the clutches of the Troika, he will be able to sell an agreement. Berlin, on the other hand, has to be very careful. Imagine if there was a Greek exit as a result of confrontation with Germany. There would be uproar across Europe.”

The markets appear to agree. Economic commentators, from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian, seem to think that Syriza could save the euro by tempering Berlin’s self-defeating austerity.

Mainstream social democrats – including the prime ministers of France and Italy – hope to use Tsipras’s victory to persuade Angela Merkel to agree a settlement that caters to Europe’s social problems and helps avoid deflation. For much of Europe, the biggest danger of the Syriza win is less the collapse of the euro than the collapse of mainstream politics.

Tsipras’s election – and the annihilation of the once-dominant PASOK, which scraped barely 5 per cent in the election – is part of a larger trend of political fragmentation in which Europe’s established parties have been crowded out by insurgents from the left and the right. The most immediate challenge will be in Spain, with the emergence of Podemos, the Latin American-inspired party founded in 2014 with a mission “to stop Spain being a colony of Germany and the Troika”.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, who is writing a book about Podemos, thinks it significant that Syriza immediately went into alliance with the right rather than exploring alliances with centrist forces. “It shows that their goal is to change the axis of political competition from left v right to one that pits Europe against the nation,” he says. Torreblanca fears that Tsipras’s victory opens the door to a clash of populisms, with the anti-solidarity right rising in Germany, Finland, Austria and Sweden to counter southern populists of the left.

Last year’s European elections pitted insurgent parties (Ukip, Syriza, the Front National) against the technocratic elite who have driven the EU for the past few decades. But if the mainstream parties fail to find a way of reinventing themselves, politics in Europe may soon move beyond a battle between populism and technocracy.

Alexis Tsipras may be the bearer of a new settlement that confronts populism with populism, leaving the established centrist parties on the scrapheap of history. 

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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