I know what you did the summer before last
Absent of any tense negotiations with Greece’s creditors or another national drama, some Greeks have decided to relive the anguished days of 2015 again by arguing over what SYRIZA’s plan was during the first half of the year – until Alexis Tsipras capitulated – and who should be held responsible for what.
There is still no definitive take on what happened between January 25, 2015, when SYRIZA was elected to power and the morning of July 13, when a bleary-eyed Tsipras emerged from long negotiations in Brussels to confirm that he had agreed a bailout deal he had insisted he would never sign.
Former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has provided his interpretation of the events in his book, Adults in the Room. His account has received some complimentary reviews from respected figures outside of Greece. The economist’s take is undoubtedly engaging but should be treated with caution. We should not forget how often it has been said that much of Varoufakis’s analysis was correct but that his actions as minister exposed him to accusations of inconsistency, mendaciousness and self-aggrandisement.
However, something odd has happened in Greece and some of the people who argued that Varoufakis was a joker who could not be taken seriously are now treating every word he has written as gospel. This sudden switch is threatening to leave a whole nation suffering from whiplash. Apart from the threat of bankrupting the national health system with a mass order of neck braces, this about-turn does not help Greeks understand what happened to their country two years ago.
This is compounded by other officials and members of that government giving substantially different interpretations of that period. For instance, Varoufakis claims he devised a plan for a parallel payment system even before SYRIZA came to power, yet this scheme has also been claimed by American economist James Galbraith and, more recently, Finance Ministry adviser Glenn Kim. Varoufakis insisted that the plan was designed to keep Greece in the euro but ex-Energy Minister Panayiotis Lafazanis said in a radio interview on Saturday that he was busy securing cash from Russia (in the form of an advance for a gas pipeline) to help cushion the financial blow of transitioning from the euro to the drachma. It is becoming clear, that Plan X, which Galbraith says he worked on, was called this because plans A to W were already taken up by the SYRIZA-led administration’s other ruminations.
Amid this confusion, the opposition parties, led by New Democracy, have called for judicial and parliamentary investigations into the plans that SYRIZA made in the first half of 2015. But what usefulness would such inquiries have? Apart from the fact that there does not seem to have been a single coherent plan, it is not clear what offence could be committed by the government planning for several eventualities. After all, it was a long-running joke in the eurozone that all the member states had a plan for what would happen if Greece left the euro, apart from Greece.
Searching for secret plots now seems an absurd way for Greek politicians to waste given that whatever alternative schemes were on offer, they were rejected by Alexis Tsipras, who signed Greece’s third bailout and has since gone about implementing it, admittedly not always wholeheartedly or efficiently. From the opposition’s point of view, there is a huge paradox in lambasting Tsipras for adopting the tax hikes and pension cuts attached to the latest Memorandum of Understanding, designed to keep Greece in the euro, but at the same time wanting to unmask him as a Grexit mastermind.
This time and effort would be much more wisely invested in understanding how a small, radical party of opposition that was so detached from reality was able to gain power and bring Greece to the brink of what would most likely have been a catastrophic accident through a series of amateurisms driven by woolly thinking. This is a question that the Greek political system, the local media, voters and the country’s lenders have to ask themselves. The questions that should be directed at Tsipras need to focus on how he and his team kept missing such clear signs about the difficulties they would meet and were able to take control of eurozone member state without seeming to have much of an idea of how it was run or the difficulties they would encounter.
In an interview with The Guardian published on Monday, Tsipras admitted to making “big mistakes.” All political leaders make errors but questions have to be raised when they admit that these mistakes are the result of being unprepared or operating under false illusions. “When I came into this office, I had no experience, or sense, of how big the day-to-day difficulties would be,” he said. “I think, now, I have a very different picture from the one I had initially.”
This is a brutally honest admission for Tsipras but not one that reflects particularly well on him or those that played a part, directly or indirectly, in his ascent to the most powerful position in the country.
Roughly 12 months separate Greece from exiting its bailout programmes once and for all, allowing the country to draw a line under the worst economic crisis a developed country has experienced in recent history and an extended period of political upheaval and social pain. It has nothing to gain from trying to rummage in the closets in the hope of finding skeletons. In contrast, though, it has a great deal to gain from addressing the weaknesses that led to much of the country sticking its fingers in its ears and blocking itself off from reality.
Only if Greece accepts that SYRIZA’s rise to power and its first six months of governance were a collective failure stretching back many years – a resounding defeat with many absent fathers – will it be able to minimise the chances of something similar happening again. No prime minister in the future should be able to say that he was unaware of the state of public finances, as George Papandreou suggested when he came to power in 2010, or hope to wash away irresponsible behaviour as opposition leader with a simple “nobody is without sin” as Antonis Samaras attempted in 2012. And, above all, nobody should be allowed to lead the country along a haphazard and dangerous route without any idea of where they are heading, as Tsipras has essentially admitted to doing in the early part of 2015.
Then, perhaps, Greeks can look back on the long, hot summer of 2015 and see it as a watershed moment rather than a recurring nightmare.
*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis