Will the real men of unity please stand up?
At first it seemed like a harmless joke. “And now for one member state, all the men need to take off their ties,” said European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans at the end of a recent photo shoot for the College of Commissioners in Brussels.
After all, the Greek government’s penchant for not wearing ties has been the cause of lightheartedness from the moment SYRIZA came to power. European Parliament President Martin Schulz, the first EU official to visit Athens after the January 25 elections, pointed to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s lack of neckwear as soon as he arrived at the Maximos Mansion and then cracked a joke. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gifted Tsipras a tie when he visited Rome, remarking that the Greek leader had promised to wear one when Greece’s public debt is reduced.
Both of these moments, like Timmermans’s initial remark, seemed in genuine jest. Tsipras, after all, has answered numerous questions about his refusal to wear ties and has been able to approach the subject with good humour. However, the Dutch politician did not stop there. He continued his remark by adding: “And take their shirts out of their pants.” Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’s tendency not to tuck in his shirt has also drawn numerous, mostly negative, comments in Europe but Timmermans’s decision to draw out his gag gave the impression of someone trying to denigrate rather than joke. After all, would humorous references about the way that politicians from other parts of the world, say Africa or the Middle East, dress be considered acceptable? It seems the Commission realised the joke may have gone too far as it cut out this section of the photo shoot video from its online audiovisual service.
Timmermans’s comments, though, are symptomatic of the breakdown in relations between Greece and many of its European partners over the last weeks. The abrasive style adopted by Tsipras and Varoufakis has not sat well with European officials and there have been numerous complaints that the government in Athens is not respecting diplomatic protocol.
Berlin recently accused Tsipras of “foul play” after he suggested that “aggressive conservative forces” in Spain and Portugal had attempted to “set a trap” for his government by driving a hard bargain at the Eurogroup. In essence, Tsipras was saying something that was common knowledge and had been widely reported, i.e. that Spain and Portugal were insistent that the new government in Athens should not receive favourable terms as this could be politically damaging in Madrid and Lisbon, where the left and the socialists are polling strongly.
Tsipras, however, did overstep the mark in suggesting that other governments were part of an “axis” aimed at halting his coalition in its tracks. These kneejerk reactions are a reflection of the inexperience of this government and its limited exposure to the outside world before January 25. The comments made by the prime minister and his office often sound like the statements SYRIZA put out while in opposition. The language reflects a mindset that is still very much in tune with the domestic political bare-knuckle fight between left and right. They do not seem to have yet realised that they are the ones in power and that international diplomacy is more nuanced. The fact this mental, and practical, transition has not yet happened is leading to diplomatic faux pas and unnecessary tension being created. It certainly does not seem to be helping Greece’s cause.
However, the often clumsy resistance from Greece appears to have banished diplomatic inhibitions on the other side as well. Listening to the doorstep comments made by finance ministers going into Monday’s Eurogroup, one got the sense that there was an appetite not just to criticise the Greek government but to ridicule it as well. Minister after minister made a point of referring to the “troika” of lenders, rather than the “institutions” mentioned in official documents, knowing this would embarrass the Greek coalition.
“I’m not a culture minister to judge words,” was the response from Slovakia’s Peter Kazimir to a question about Greece’s reform proposals, which obviously lacked enough numbers for his liking. Spain’s Luis de Guindos - who has repeatedly claimed the eurozone is in talks about a (politically toxic in Greece) third bailout despite European Commission denials, saw it fit to publicly comment on the Greek government facing liquidity problems.
It seems some European officials believe that since the new government in Athens has fired the first shots, it is fair game for Europe’s big guns, like German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. "I feel sorry for the Greeks at the moment. They've elected a government which is currently acting irresponsibly," he said in mid-February.
This is as cutting as any remark that has been made by officials in Athens but adds a layer of controversy because it drags the Greek people onto the diplomatic battlefield. Whatever the maladroit behaviour from Greek officials, Tsipras, Varoufakis and others have been very clear in their public statements that they have no bone to pick with the Germans, Spanish, Portuguese or any other people and that their differences are with the policies followed by the governments in these countries.
There is a fine line between tussling over political objections and allowing this to spill over into nationalist rhetoric that divides people, not just politicians. Tsipras rightly distanced himself from a recent cartoon in the SYRIZA-backed Avgi newspaper that portrayed Schaeuble as a Nazi concentration camp commandant. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, SPD, was also quick to condemn Bild newspaper for its front page headline: “No more billions to the Greedy Greeks.” However, it is clear that there is a nasty sentiment bubbling underneath the surface.
In truth, it has been there since the start of the crisis and has erupted at various stages when events have come to a head, such as Greece’s elections in 2012 and the Cyprus bailout in 2013. In March of that year, journalist Nikos Chrysoloras wrote of “an unthinking, subconscious racism at play”. “The current political discourse implies that all wealth accumulated in northern Europe is the fair reward of a protestant work ethic, while wealth accumulated in the south is a product of corruption (Greece, Italy), tax evasion (Cyprus), or unsustainable business models (Spain),” he wrote in the Guardian.
Economist Thomas Piketty expressed his concern this week in an interview with Der Spiegel that the desire for punishment is becoming too dominant an aspect in the eurozone’s policy making. “It is this egotism motivated by nationalism that disconcerts me more than anything else today,” he told the German magazine.
It cannot be ignored that for all the heavy handedness of the current Greek government, including its ill-advised comments about other countries, many European officials over the last six years have felt no inhibitions at all when they speak about Greece. For every comment from Varoufakis about Italy’s debt not being sustainable, there have been dozens from other Europeans about whether Greece should or should not remain in the euro. For every time Tsipras has railed against German policy, there have been dozens of comments from abroad about the ineptness of Greek decision makers. This apparent ganging up on what is currently the eurozone’s politically, economically and socially weakest member sets a very dark precedent for Europe’s single currency.
Greece has been a whipping boy for many European politicians since the start of this crisis and now some of them are getting a taste of what this public criticism feels like. Understandably, they don’t like it. and this is creating a perilous situation. With Greece balanced on the edge of the precipice, it could just take a misplaced word here or there for the eurozone to stand back and let it fall. But the sustainability of the euro and the fortunes of millions of people cannot rest on comments that overstep protocol, nasty cartoons and newspaper headlines or a failure to comply with a notional dress code.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in fighting to the east of the European Union, in Ukraine, over 3,500 migrants die each year trying to reach the EU’s southern shores and ISIS is wreaking destruction of unimaginable levels that is destabilising a whole region even further to the south. In this deeply troubling reality Europe appears petty, blinkered and self-destructive by allowing potentially ruinous divisions to open up over what should be manageable economic and technocratic issues.
The solution here does not lie just in the Greek side getting a crash course in European diplomacy and being more circumspect in what it says, it also requires true Europeans on the other side to quash any feelings of punishment or prejudice that are stirring within the corridors of power in Brussels and other European capitals. One of the EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monnet, spoke of his desire to unite men, not form a coalition of states. Now is the time for these men to step forward.
An earlier version of this article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers via e-mail or our free mobile apps. For free 30-day access, sign up here.
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