A little more persuasion, a little less reaction

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

When European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker took sides a few days ago ahead of possible snap elections in Greece, he overstepped the boundary that keeps EU officials from openly expressing an opinion about domestic politics in another country. The gradual scrubbing out of this dividing line can only damage the EU’s interests in the long-term. In the short-term, this type of intervention is detrimental to Greece.

Perhaps upset that SYRIZA’s MEPs in Brussels proposed that he stand down after revelations of Luxembourg’s secret tax deals while he was the country’s prime minister, Juncker may have sought revenge on the leftists by saying he would like to see “familiar faces”, not “extremist forces”, in power in Greece. He later claimed that the “extremist” reference concerned Golden Dawn rather than SYRIZA, but a man with such an open and frequently declared affection for Greece would surely know that Golden Dawn is garnering support in single digit figures and will not lead the next government.

Juncker’s comments came after the slightly less interventionist tone of the European Commission’s comments on the presidential candidacy of Stavros Dimas, a former EU commissioner. Brussels trod a fine line between identifying someone who had been one of its own a few years ago as a “committed European” and openly expressing its support for his candidacy, which had yet to be put to the legally elected representatives of the Greek people.

On his visit to Athens following Juncker’s comments, European Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici initially appeared on the same wavelength as his superior, highlighting what a “pity” it would be for Greece to leave the eurozone – even though SYRIZA has long abandoned its flirtation with the idea of going back to the drachma. Moscovici was a little more guarded on his second day in Athens, saying simply that the commission had its “preferences” about who it would like to deal with in Greece.

There are two negatives that stem from these types of comments. The first is that it compromises the EU’s democratic principles. What was supposed to be a forum for compromise, albeit imperfect, is dangerously becoming an arena in which the monolith imposes its will. It is impossible to overlook the ease with which George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi, regardless of the faults they may have had, were pried from their positions in 2012 with the active support of the EU and key players within it.

This does nothing to convince an increasingly sceptic public, prone to the nationalist musings of an assorted range of cranks, that the EU’s mission is to nurture democratic principles and promote the idea of progress through the synthesis of opinions and ideas. “It would help if, rather than fearing democracy, European leaders got better at it,” wrote the Wall Street Journal in an editorial this week after the prospect of snap elections in Greece stirred concern across the continent.

The other damaging knock-on effect from the comments by EU officials is that it feeds into the frenzied atmosphere within Greece. In a childish tit-for-tat, New Democracy and SYRIZA – the two parties that will compete for power if there are early polls – have traded accusations while standing over Greece’s lukewarm body. If SYRIZA comes to power there will be a bank run, says New Democracy. The government is even capable of staging a bank run to damage us, says SYRIZA. A leftist government would lead us to bankruptcy, say the conservatives. Greece is already bankrupt, argue the leftists. And so it continues.

Each side has used the comments from abroad about the potential dangers ahead or preferences for which side comes out on top to support its own cause. New Democracy points to the comments from EU officials as evidence that it is not scaremongering, that SYRIZA is a real threat. The opposition party says the expressions of opinion from Juncker and others are evidence that the European elites are concerned about the prospect of SYRIZA coming along and breaking up their cosiness, which has been assisted by the presence of a compliant government in Athens.

Meanwhile, the Greek people, most of whom are locked in a daily battle to keep their heads above water, are stuck in the middle of this charade, trying to work out who is telling them the truth and who is having them on. This only feeds distrust. A recent Public Issue survey indicated that only 11 percent of Greeks trust their political parties, making them the country’s least respected institution. They are closely followed by the media on 13 percent. It is no coincidence that the media has been actively involved in sensationalising the claims of one side or the other without examining whether they have any basis at all.

And that is really the problem in all this. As soon as the discussion gravitates towards talk of a Grexit and financial collapse, any coherent or constructive debate about the options open to Greece and the eurozone is stopped dead in its tracks. New Democracy can get away without being questioned about its lack of vision beyond the confines of the programme handed down by the troika, while SYRIZA can dodge legitimate questions about how it plans to fund the country, especially if Greece’s lenders are reluctant to agree to its demands.

Instead of forcing both of them out into the open, for the good of Greece and the EU, biased comments from European officials simply allow both sides to take cover and hide in the war of words. European Commission vice-president Jyrki Katainen took a more balanced and helpful position when he told www.euractiv.com that Brussels “will respect democracy and is ready to cooperate with any government in Greece”.

If the EU wants to play a constructive role, it either needs to act like the adult in the room and support the democratic process or it has to provide full disclosure. If it is going to insist on casting doubts about SYRIZA, then it also has to come clean about its view of Samaras, a leader who the WSJ argues is trying “to scare voters rather than persuade them”. Opting for persuasion rather than fear would be good move for all those concerned.

Follow Nick: @NickMalkoutzis

An earlier version of this article was published in last week's electronic newsletter, which subscribers can receive via e-mail or mobile app. The apps can be downloaded for free at the App Store and Google Play.

2 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    >"And that is really the problem in all this. As soon as the discussion gravitates towards talk of a Grexit and financial collapse, any coherent or constructive debate about the options open to Greece and the eurozone is stopped dead in its tracks."

    There is an obvious reason why discussion of Grexit is difficult: The contracts do not foresee that and none of the officials of EU has dared to talk about it. Everyone thinks that if Grexit happens, they will have to see how to deal with it.

    There are a few scientific papers which discuss possible scenarios, but they are much too complicated for politicians or media...

  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    There are several issues here:

    1. Dimas is an uninspiring candidate with zero appeal. He has no capacity to draw votes.
    2. The whole setup looks contrived. If Samaras couldn't gather the 180 votes then why did he start this (early presidential process)? One has to assume that Berlin has already secured the 180 votes (German secret service has lengthy and extensive files on each Greek politician; so all it takes for vote gathering is just a friendly reminder - even a nicely coded message in your twitter account).
    3. EU interference is far deeper than public preference displays. One has the distinct impression that Samaras in no longer in charge of a Greek government and all important decisions are made in Berlin. So why the theater about the so called "elections"? what elections? This whole thing is as fabricated as they come. The bottom line is that Greece has ceased having a government sometime in 2012. So why bother with this overplayed nonsense we are witnessing?

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