Tsipras enhanced his power and menace with referendum result

CALLING the bluff of Greek’s European partners, and retorting with an immediate referendum demonstrated Napoleonic verve by prime minister Alexis Tsipras, writes Gerard Howlin

Tsipras enhanced his power and menace with referendum result

There hasn’t been such sudden anxiety within the European establishment since the emperor’s return from Elba. Tsipras rallied the Greek people and demolished his domestic opposition. He acquired the political, but not economic, menace he previously lacked.

Blowing the top off the froth from what happened last Sunday, it is unclear what changed. The thumb screws tighten daily on the Greek people. There is no sign yet, of any softening of hearts among creditors or partners across the capitals of Europe towards Tsipras and his Syriza party.

Sunday’s no vote may as likely harden resolve as deliver compromise. Initial signs are not auspicious. What fundamentally changed with the election of Syriza was the Greek issue ceased to be primarily about money. Instead it became about power. That wasn’t fully appreciated at first, but it’s clear now. In winning the referendum Tsipras radically enhanced his political position at home. His new clout may be put to one of two purposes. He can use it to stand up for his principles and thereby vicariously challenge governments across Europe. Alternatively he can use that same political capital, to cobble together again a compromise — a compromise he wouldn’t have survived bringing home to Athens 10 days ago.

Former French president François Mitterrand said indifference is an essential attribute in politics. His election in 1981 was the last full frontal assault on what is now called capitalism, until the arrival of Tsipras. Campaigning on the slogan “Change Life” and promising “complete rupture” Mitterrand included the Communist Party in a broad left coalition. Extraordinarily he proceeded to implement his promises. Wholesale nationalisation and huge state spending increases began. It was, and remains, the most serious implementation of left policies since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. What Clement Atlee and others did then, lasted for decades. Faced with a crisis in the money markets for the French franc, Mitterrand tacked sharply back towards the centre within 18 months. He cohabited twice with the right and went through seven prime ministers. In the end the scale of his “indifference” was epic. But he had contaminated and cannibalised the French Communist Party in the process.

In 1981-82 the euro was far in the future. However, it owed one strand of its genesis to that crisis. After its reunification, Mitterrand believed the euro would bind a more powerful Germany within an expanded EU and avoid a replay of the instability and humiliation of the currency crisis that precipitated the emergency of his first presidency. Ironically the threat of a currency crisis and a banking collapse to the same euro brought Greece down — and Tsipras into play. His political posture is eerily reminiscent of Mitterrand’s opening attitude as French president. However, seeing Tsipras stand down his finance minister on Monday hints at the icy indifference which followed. As Lloyd George remarked, “there are no friends at the top” — a variation of Lord Palmerston’s quip that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”. That cliché was quoted in this column last week, and rehashed by a Syriza minister on Morning Ireland. The knives are being sharpened for something, but what?

If this were only about money, it would have been solved two weeks ago. But it’s about power. That’s why Tsipras would not take the deal on offer in Brussels. His power in Athens would have fractured, even ruptured. Now with his base enhanced, he can cut a variation of the same deal he rejected, but perhaps survive returning home. A fig leaf can be given to suggest it’s genuinely different. And critically, in winning a referendum he can say the Greek people have stood up — for something. The “something” should preferably be unquantifiable, like democracy. On democratic values, plebiscites has as often been used in the service of demagoguery. But that spoils the narrative. It’s the application of fudge after all, that allows compromise successfully stick.

Another kerfuffle, followed by face-saving compromise, is the EU business-as-usual scenario. There are a lot of pressures leaning towards that, and Tsipras’s dispensing with Varoufakis may indicate, this is now his objective. It’s as much as he can get and survive, and he can’t survive unless he gets something.

But what if this isn’t business as usual, and Tsipras won’t trade principle for power. Or perhaps more accurately, what if he is, or perceived to be far more ambitious and consequently more dangerous. Part of the renewal of resolve across swathes of Europe, where mandates are as democratic as Syriza’s, is the fear of contagion. That contagion is political. If Syriza isn’t contained in Greece, it will mutate in variant forms across Europe, not least via Sinn Féin and Anti-Austerity Alliance here. It is no accident that Pearse Doherty and Paul Murphy, their own mutual opposition notwithstanding, were fêted by Syriza last weekend. Across Europe not only are established parties vulnerable, but an established narrative is at stake.

The problem facing Greece and its European partners was desperately simple. The desperate and simple bits were the same. How much reform delivered internally, and how much cash delivered externally was required to shore up the Greek state in the short term? A deal wasn’t done because Tsipras wouldn’t offer enough reform, and the EU wouldn’t offer enough cash. Now the threat is hugely increased. Allow the Greek government victory in any guise, if you are a centre-left government, or a government that depends on a centre-left party, and you will become sheep devoured by the wolves of the harder left in your own country.

Given where they ended up on the political spectrum, it’s hard now to imagine a Mitterrand or Pat Rabbitte striking terror into the bourgeoisie. Power, and a clawing for authority, saw one become the organ grinder, and the other the monkey in their respective national establishment. Social democracy in Europe is house-trained petit bourgeois liberalism, served with sanctimonious concern for causes that have limited influence on the voting intentions of the people they expect to vote for them.

Last week, Charlie McCreevy remarked “we are politicians, don’t forget, and we actually like to get re-elected”. Sryiza’s threat now is to the electoral interests of the governments it must deal with, to survive within the Eurozone. It is the audacity posed by last Sunday’s referendum that makes resolution more difficult, for both sides. The established European left, ideologically anaemic, is terrified of Syriza. They can only hope that Mr Tsipras has the same “indifference” to ideology or principle that ultimately left them so exposed to his challenge.

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