What could Trump's victory mean for Greece?

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Gage Skidmore https://flic.kr/p/EzvJ67
Photo by Gage Skidmore https://flic.kr/p/EzvJ67

The reverberations of Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections are so great, coming after Brexit and the rise of populism and far-right extremism in Europe, that their implications for Greece pale into insignificance.

Nevertheless, Athens will have many reasons to be concerned about developments on the other side of the Atlantic. The immediate cause of anxiety will be what a Trump presidency means for American foreign policy.

Greece is in a precarious balancing act in an increasingly unstable region, so it might not take much to tilt things in direction that will be disastrous for the country. If, for instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently questioned the 1923 Lausanne Treaty establishing Greek sovereignty over Aegean islands, feels he has a good working relationship with Trump or can take advantage of his isolationist stance then things could become very complicated.

Equally, the negotiations for a reunification deal on Cyprus are currently in a very delicate phase, with the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders locked in talks in Switzerland. Washington has been active in supporting a coming together over the last few months and a change in its approach could have a domino effect that could undermine the slow and complex talks.

Greece is also one of the few NATO members that abides by the commitment to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defence, while it also purchases arms from the USA. Trump has displayed scepticism of NATO, while flirting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a reluctance to have the US footing the bill for defence operations in Europe.

“I think we have to prepare for the fact that American foreign policy will be more unpredictable for us in the future,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “We have to be prepared for the fact … that America will be more inclined to make unilateral decisions in the future.”

This is something that Greece will have to brace for as well. New Democracy spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos said the wise thing would be to wait to see Trump’s policies rather than react to his election pledges. SYRIZA MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis expressed hope that the “shock” of the businessman’s win would create an antifascist international “democratic front”.

The Defence Minister and leader of the coalition partner Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos, suggested that one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Greek-American George Papadopoulos now has an “important role” to play. But this seems a case of the nationalist politician clutching at straws, not only because Papadopoulos has very weak credentials (a 2009 DePaul University graduate that lists attending a model UN in 2012 as one of his achievements and has published a few articles on energy relations between Israel, Cyprus and Greece) but also because the idea that his Greek background will influence policy has been yanked out of the 1950s.

Economic implications

On the economic front, current President Barrack Obama and his administration has been very supportive of Greece receiving debt relief from its eurozone partners. This may be one of the items on the agenda when the outgoing POTUS visits Athens on November 15.

However, during the crisis Europe has consistently overlooked the US view on how to handle Greece. Who can forget, for instance, the dismissive response for then US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in February 2010, when he warned the Europeans not to let moral hazard be the defining principle of their crisis strategy. “They just wanted to take a bat to them,” Geithner wrote in the notes for his book Stress Test.

In this respect, Trump (who suggested in the past that Russia would be only too glad to step in and solve the Greek issue if Germany did not) will make little difference to how the eurozone deals with Greece and plans for debt relief.

Domestic and European politics

Where the bigger impact from Trump’s astounding victory will come is in how it could tip the political balance within Europe. The rise of the far right and Brexit have already created a feral atmosphere in European politics and Trump may be the one to help slip the chains. Elections are coming up over the next few months in Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany and the far right has built a strong presence in all these countries. As we saw in Britain, an election result can be enough to allow latent anger to boil over and claim victims (in an actual as well as political sense).

An economically weak Greece in desperate need of debt relief and stimulus would whither in a European political environment in which the populists of the extreme right set the agenda. Under such conditions, which eurozone policymaker would want to turn to an increasingly pugnacious electorate and tell them that the Greeks, so long painted as the feckless laggards of the single currency, are to be given a helping hand?

At home, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has already hailed Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton as a victory for the idea of ethnically “clean” states. MPs and members of the far-right group were active recently in the protest against the construction of a mosque near central Athens, while the Republican candidate for the presidency claimed he would ban Muslims from entering his country. Greece’s third largest party (in Parliament and in the latest opinion polls) and others on the nationalist right will be banking on the idea that a larger number of Greeks will look at the result of the US elections and think, with a sense of abandon rather than fear, “if it can happen in America, then why not here?”

The difficulty for the government, which already has an alarming tendency to propel itself with the fuel of confrontation, and the mainstream opposition is that the policy tools at their disposal for addressing dissatisfaction in Greek society (87 percent of voters feel the country is heading in the wrong direction, according to a Macedonia University poll published this week) are severely limited.

On the fiscal front, the rules of the adjustment programme Greece is under means that it must produce significant primary surpluses (1.7 percent next year and 3.5 percent the year after), which exerts immense pressure on the revenue and spending side. Growth is expected to return next year, should the current programme review be completed soon and then followed by debt relief and inclusion in the European Central Bank’s QE programme, but many economists doubt that it will reach the projected 2.7 percent.

Amid this fragile recovery, keeping the sense of exasperation and proclivity for revolt that is spreading throughout Europe in check is going to prove an immense task for any Greek government. Even more so when this is set against a global backdrop of a liberal democratic order that has lost touch with too much of the electorate and, as a consequence, lost its way. In the complacency stemming from the years of stability and prosperity, it spent the last few years obsessively warning about the threat posed by those who challenged the status quo rather than making the effort to tackle the problems that fuelled support for populists and extremists.

Trump’s victory means that a series of global, European and local challenges have been slammed down on the table with almighty force. We’ll soon find out if we have the political personnel capable of meeting the task.

*Nick is the editor of MacroPolis. You can follow him on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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