Austerity, and income inequality, continue to feature prominently here in Britain and across Europe. Both in Greece and in Spain, countries whose economies have been particularly devastated since 2008/9, there have grown popular movements that questioned the common neo-liberal orthodoxy that there was no alternative to austerity measures; in Greece that movement swelled to the point of the January 25th electoral success of the Syriza party and the ascent to power of its youthful leader, Alexis Tsipras. His is a party born from a coalition of Eurocommunists, social movements and anti-globalisation activists. Syriza—the word is a Greek acronym for Radical Coalition of the Left—fell tanatalizingly short of an outright majority and so has entered a pragmatic coalition with the tiny right-wing Independent Greeks party. Its campaign had led on a promise to reverse recent budget cuts and to end austerity, boosting wage levels.
More broadly, commentators interpret its success as a long-awaited popular reaction to the austerity measures imposed across Europe and for which Germany, the continent’s economic powerhouse, is often blamed. The Spanish popular movement, Podemos (“we can do it”) is enjoying similarly spectacular support barely a year since its foundation. New Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, and Syriza, frequently claim that they do not want Greece to leave the troubled Euro single currency. But Tsipras prominently demands an end to the “fiscal waterboarding” [sic] which comprises externally-imposed budget cuts and painful restructuring of Greek debt. A clear collision-course has thus been set.
The EU technocratic elite, the bankers of Frankfurt-am-Main and the mandarins of Brussels alike, are determined not to loosen fiscal discipline or change any terms of the Greek bailout settlement. Hints that a Syriza-led Greece would repudiate its debt and start again are already met by not-so-veiled threats from the EU elite of retaliation, even to the extent of denying liquidity to Greek banks. Syriza central committee member Andreas Karitzis says that European societies are beginning to accept that they are not free to decide on economic policy. "There are historic times where you have to fight for your values, like democracy, liberty, dignity," he says. "We should try to give hope to people."
Syriza’s electoral success was a major blow to established politics in most western European countries. UK Prime Minister Cameron had pointedly rejected the possibility of a Syriza win, just before the poll. His line, shared with other European leaders, was to emphasize that the threat of EU-imposed sanctions, up to and including expulsion from the Euro, would scare Greek voters off a vote for Syriza. There is no precedent, or even legal mechanism, for expelling a country from the Eurozone. But elsewhere in Europe, the containment of this newly-confident anti-austerity groundswell might become a key policy matter in 2015, not least in a Britain facing a general parliamentary election in May. Europe is likely to be, yet again, the main backdrop to that election while even the omnipotent Chancellor Merkel in Germany faces her own version of Syriza/Podemos, the small but rapidly-growing Alterantiv für Deutschland. For this reason, Merkel might listen to arguments for the previously-unthinkable expulsion of the Greeks from the Euro.
No stranger to the politics of fear, from last year’s Scottish independence referendum, where fear-mongering won the day for the No campaign, UK PM Cameron was this time proved wrong; the Greeks look well prepared to fear and indeed, to reject the gifts that the Germans, and other powerful Europeans, come bearing.