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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.