ANEL leader Panos Kammenos arrives for a cabinet meeting. Photo: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty
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The Syriza-ANEL alliance shows the new Greek government has one goal: ending austerity

After a rebuff from the Communist Party of Greece, ANEL became an unlikely coalition partner. But the deal shows Syriza's priorities.

The announcement of the composition of the new, Syriza-led government of Greece was delayed for a few hours yesterday, apparently over a spat between coalition partners Syriza and Independent Greeks (ANEL) regarding the possible appointment of ANEL’s Nikos Nikolopoulos to a cabinet position. Nikolopoulos became famous, or rather infamous, when, in August 2014, he made a homophobic jibe at Luxembourg’s gay Prime Minister Xavier Bettel on social media.

The fact that the two parties now governing Greece could have such a disagreement before the composition of the government was officially announced is highly revealing of the tensions, or even contradictions, inherent to the unholy alliance forged between Syriza and ANEL. In the 25 January 2015 elections, Syriza garnered 149 seats in the Greek parliament, two short of a majority, and therefore had to seek a coalition partner in order to be able to govern. What may seem surprising to many, particularly outside of Greece, is that a radical left-wing government chose to ally itself with a socially conservative, virulently nationalist right-wing party whose leader, Panos Kammenos, espouses xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic views and who has a particular fondness for the “chemtrails” conspiracy theory. The very existence of such a coalition is in turn highly revealing of the state of utter decay of the Greek political scene – put simply, if Syriza wants to govern at this point and to push forward their anti-austerity agenda, their only possible coalition partner is ANEL.

The rationale behind Syriza’s choice is twofold. The first aspect has to do with the fact that calling for repeat elections to seek an absolute majority in parliament would be an extremely risky political gamble. The fact that, with unemployment nearing 30 per cent, youth unemployment 60 per cent and some 30 per cent of households in or at risk of poverty, Syriza garnered only 36.34 per cent of the vote shows that the party is still struggling to persuade Greek voters. Many perceive Syriza as untested because of its lack of experience in government. Calling for repeat elections does not guarantee that it would gain a larger share of the vote – it could even result in a backlash if the electorate is disappointed with Syriza failing to deliver a modicum of change. Furthermore, the fact that neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is the third largest political force in the newly-elected Greek parliament means that a new election campaign would begin in a toxic atmosphere, as the Greek constitution requires the three largest parties to take turns and seek to form a coalition before parliament is dissolved and new elections are called.

The second aspect of Syriza’s rationale has to do with the composition of the new parliament. The core of Syriza’s electoral platform is rolling back austerity, which rules out coalitions with New Democracy and PASOK but also with To Potami (“the river”), a so-called centrist party founded in February 2014 by journalist Stavros Theodorakis. To Potami has failed so far to present its programme – Theodorakis announced during the campaign that it would be presented on 26 January, i.e. after the elections, and also failed to deliver on that promise – but it is clear that the party considers any policy seeking to revoke the bailout agreements as a threat to Greece’s position in Europe. Furthermore, according to research conducted by investigative magazines HotDoc and UNFOLLOW, To Potami is funded by, and would thus be essentially a front for, Greek oligarchs – another challenge to Syriza’s platform, which includes front and centre the issue of dealing with high-level corruption.

This leaves two parties as possible anti-austerity coalition partners, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn being obviously off the cards. The first and obvious choice for a left-wing coalition would be the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), a well-established party that controls a powerful labour union. Alexis Tsipras stated repeatedly during the elections campaign that he would seek an alliance with them, only to be rebuffed by the KKE general secretary, Dimitris Koutsoumpas, who did not even agree to meet with him on the day after the elections, let alone discuss the possibility of cooperation. The fact that KKE chose to stick to a hard line of ideological purity and rejection of the European project itself meant that Syriza’s only possible choice of a coalition partner became ANEL.

The establishment of a Syriza-ANEL coalition, as awkward as it is, sends a clear message to Greece and Europe alike: the new Greek government has one and only priority, ending austerity. Every other issue will take a back seat to this. The road ahead is bound to be fraught with problems, and it is difficult to see how such a coalition can last for more than a few months, perhaps a year. It is highly likely that there will be new elections in Greece in the near future unless MPs defect from third parties to join Syriza, thus securing for it a straight majority in parliament. However, yesterday’s events ended in a rather unexpected way: a day that started with a spat over the inclusion of a far-rightist in government ended with the formation of what can truly be described as a leftist cabinet. With Panos Kammenos’s flamboyant past, it is obvious that there will be several more hiccups along the way, but there is cause for extremely cautious optimism.  

A longer version of this article first appeared on Theodora is on Twitter @irategreek

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle