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Do the Winds of Change Portend a Moderating Political Climate in the European Union?

December 10, 2019
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March 26, 2018: Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance minister, second right, announces his new left-wing party, MeRA25, in Athens. (AP Photo)

Over the 25 years that I have been studying Greece, the country has often served as a canary in the coalmine for the global economy and the global body politic.  In the 1990s, I was struck by the level of governmental corruption and the tight relationships between business interests and the political parties.  Then I watched as lobbyists expanded their tentacles into virtually every aspect of governance in the United States and as corporations and wealthy individuals, aided by the Supreme Court’s 2008 Citizens United v. the FEC decision, began to increasingly dominate electoral politics.  Similarly, I was struck by the politicized nature of news reporting in Greece, which was so different than the relatively balanced nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC with which I had grown up.  Then, I watched the increasing politicization of cable news, and the transformation of FOX News into American Pravda—a party organ masquerading as a national network.

These experiences have continued during the past decade.  As the financial chaos of the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States spread globally, Greece was an early bellwether for the Sovereign Debt Crisis, which spread to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Cyprus.  It also foretold the rise of extreme right-wing, anti-immigration politics in Europe and the US.  The transformation of Greece’s Golden Dawn from an irrelevant neo-Nazi political sect into a movement capable of attracting enough support—as much as 7% in national elections—to enter Parliament foreshadowed the subsequent electoral success of Alternative for Germany; the successful turn toward right-wing populism of the Austrian People’s Party, which has pursued an increasingly anti-immigrant line under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz; the reinvigoration of France’s National Front under the leadership of Marine Le Pen; and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

I used to attribute this canary-in-the-coalmine phenomenon to what anthropologists George Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer termed “anthropology as cultural critique”: The act of observing another culture destabilizes and defamiliarizes one’s gaze so that, returning to the home culture, one sees that culture in an entirely new light.  Today, I am more inclined to see the phenomenon in geopolitical terms.  Greece exists on the margins—or in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, the semi-periphery—of the West, of Europe, and of the Eurozone.  A small nation, it is more structurally, politically, and institutionally vulnerable to the winds of geopolitical change than are larger, wealthier nations.  Phenomena that are fundamentally global in nature thus manifest themselves first in Greece and other similar countries and then later make their appearance elsewhere.

Today, I find myself hoping that the canary-in-the-coalmine effect has gone into reverse: that instead of being a bad omen, events in Greece are auguring positive change.  Greece’s July 7th parliamentary elections saw a decisive victory by the center-right party, New Democracy, which took nearly 40% of the votes and, with the electoral bonus, holds a majority in parliament (158 out of 300 seats).  Normally, this isn’t something that I would celebrate.  The way the victory was achieved, however, gives me some cause for hope.  Greece’s new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won by running to the center, by promising to govern for all Greeks and by promising better, more efficient government that improves the quality of life for everyone.  His pre-election rhetoric was effective if I can judge from the multiple friends and acquaintances who confessed to me that they voted, for the first time ever, for New Democracy.  Mitsotakis also sounded the right notes after the election: he spoke in a unifying language about wanting to work cooperatively with other parties and find agreement on policies that can move the country forward.  His cabinet appointments represent a broad coalition of the center and the right, including three former members of PASOK as well as hardline conservatives like Makis Voridis and Adonis Georgiadis.

The election also had two other positive outcomes.  First, Golden Dawn failed to make the electoral threshold for entry into Parliament.  For the time being, their political voice is returning to the margins, and they will not be entitled to the constitutionally mandated access to the airwaves that comes with representation in Parliament.  Second, MeRA25 (Day25 or the European Realistic Disobedience Front), the Greek version of the German party DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe 2025) and part of the European Spring network of political parties, made the electoral threshold and is represented in Parliament.  MeRA25 and DiEM25 are  pan-European, left-wing, anti-austerity parties that are the brainchild of  Croatian philosopher and activist Srećko Horvat and economist and political scientist Yanis Varoufakis.  Varoufakis, whom I hosted at IU in 2013 in conjunction with the Modern Greek Studies Association Symposium and the Tocqueville Program, is a lightening rod.  He was Greece’s Finance Minister during the failed negotiations with the EU in 2015 that led to the imposition of capital controls on the Greek banking system and the  imposition of a third, extremely onerous memorandum of understanding between Greece and its Troika of Lenders (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF).  He is also a very innovative thinker with a strong pragmatic streak who has the potential to add a lot to the national and federal conversations.

Thus far, the results are decidedly mixed for New Democracy.  The Mitsotakis government has hit the ground running, showing a level of activity and efficiency that stands in stark contrast to the first 6 months of the previous coalition government, which was led by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).  New Democracy has devoted a lot of energy to law and justice issues: revoking the country’s university asylum laws; devoting increased energy to policing Exarcheia, a downtown bohemian neighborhood in which both anarchists and organized crime thrive; and enforcing anti-smoking laws.  These moves are politically popular with the broader populace but carry risks.  Greece’s university asylum laws, which were passed by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in the 1980s, are symbolically fraught.  Ensuring the free speech of students and their right to protest, they honor the memory of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising which helped lead to the eventual downfall of Greece’s Junta of the Colonels in 1974.  In recent years, they have been abused by common criminals, mostly drug dealers, to evade prosecution.  Anarchists also use universities as safe havens for preparing and launching protests, including the preparation of Molotov cocktails.  University asylum is still, however, lionized by significant segments of the population who will not surrender it easily.  Likewise, the confrontation with the anarchists of Exarcheia has the potential to degrade into a war of attrition that will gradually sap the government’s energy.  The anarchist movement in Greece is strong, determined, and complex.  They have created bonds of solidarity with recent immigrants to Europe—who have found themselves stranded in Greece and neglected by the Greek state—by taking over abandoned buildings and organizing squats that provide housing and a measure of integration into the local community.

On the economic front, New Democracy has been working—thus far unsuccessfully—to restart the stalled Hellenikon Project, a major development on the southern coast of Athens that will be built on a large plot of land that used to be the Athens Airport. The development promises new residential and office high rises, a hotel and an integrated resort, a major park, a marina, a public beach, a museum, research centers, an aquarium, and a casino.  Though critiqued by the left as a space that will benefit the global elite more than it will benefit Greece’s own citizens, the development will provide a substantial number of jobs, contribute significantly to economic growth, and provide Athens with much needed green spaces.  The government has also provided some much-needed tax relief to broad sectors of the population and has been pursuing foreign direct investment including, unfortunately, investments in extractive industries like gold mining and oil and natural gas drilling.  It is difficult to see how the environmental risks that these projects entail are worth the relatively small number of jobs and economic growth that they create.

Thus far the signals from outside Greece seem mixed as to whether the winds of political moderation will be blowing in the rest of Europe.  In early October, Portugal weighed in on the side of moderation, reelecting Prime Minister António Costa, a Socialist who nonetheless pursued fiscal discipline and presided over economic growth that outpaced Europe as a whole.  Spain, however, is a different story.  Though Spanish elections in early November saw the Socialists come out on top again, the far-right nationalist party, Vox, emerged as a political force, more than doubling the number of seats it has in Parliament, going from 24 to 52 and putting to rest the notion of a Spanish exception to the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe.  Elections results in Poland and Hungary are somewhat ambiguous.  Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party lost seats in the Sejm, the powerful lower house of Parliament, but maintained a majority.  They lost control of the Senate, however, and failed to obtain a majority in the Sejm that will allow them to unilaterally pass constitutional changes.  In Hungary, opposition politicians made significant strides in city elections despite a playing field that was decidedly tilted against them.  In an interesting op-ed, Sławomir Sierakowski argues that there are hopeful signals in both Poland and Hungary.  In Poland, Sierakowski suggests, the Law and Justice Party seems to have hit its electoral limit, failing to expand its electoral majority even though the party passed generous social spending provisions that were designed to increase their vote count.  In Hungary, opposition politicians won despite Fidesz’s control of the mass media and the organs of the state.

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