In Greece’s Populism, Precious Lessons for Europe

It may just be coincidence, but in the year since a radical left movement and an extreme right-wing party joined forces to govern Greece, the resilience of the European Union has been tested. But it may be also that the forces released in Greece have emerged in many other countries, poisoning relations among member states.

The glue that holds Greece’s paradoxical coalition together, and which we see across Europe, is populism. Not some coherent ideology that puts the people’s interests first, but a policy based on opportunism, on cultivating a grandiose sense of national identity and then presenting that identity as being threatened by domestic and foreign enemies. It uses current problems to undermine efforts at solutions, and conjures past and future utopias rather than trying to keep up with dizzying change.

Greece has been plagued by domestic divisions for most of its modern history. It is easy to see foreign creditors’ supervision of our economy, and their pressure on our political system, as a new chapter in a national epic of resistance.

Similar forces are at play, to some extent, in Poland, Hungary, Portugal and Spain — wherever foreign domination or domestic dictatorships still loom large in national narratives. In France, the National Front sees Brussels and immigrants as the enemy. Demagogues are able to claim that they represent the people against foreigners and their lackeys in the local political and media elites, especially when European institutions and local politicians do not seem to have easy solutions to problems.

In Germany, politicians and the news media presented the Greeks as moochers trying to get their hands on Germans’ hard-earned cash. Coping with a flood of refugees makes some Germans feel they are victims of circumstances once again, and lays the ground for xenophobia and nationalism. Several other wealthier European Union countries also feel their way of life and identity are threatened, and fear further unification. In Britain, an argumentative minority found a reason to exist by accusing Brussels of interfering with national sovereignty, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to risk his country’s membership in the European Union with a referendum.

A chasm separates the social liberalism and internationalism of Syriza from the Christian Nationalism of its right-wing partner, the Independent Greeks. When the government presented a law allowing civil partnerships of same-sex couples, it was passed with votes from Syriza and opposition parties; most Independent Greeks voted against it.

Yet the two parties stick together. Before their election a year ago this week, they presented themselves as patriots fighting foreigners and local elites. They built on anti-German anger in public gatherings and the media — where German politicians were routinely portrayed as Nazis — demanding reparations from Berlin and paying highly charged visits to memorials of wartime atrocities. They backed a campaign of civil defiance (called “We won’t pay”), arguing that it was not Greece that owed money to its creditors, but the other way around. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, undermined every reform effort by previous governments, promising voters that the “day after” his party’s election he would scrap the bailout agreement, with its hated austerity and reforms.

Demagogues oversimplify things by making false promises and excessive accusations. They — and, through them, their supporters — are always in the right, no matter how mixed up reality may be. At the same time, they complicate things needlessly, often employing primitive conspiracy theories so that no one can understand what must be done.

In Greece, the populist narrative was that the local and foreign elites ran up huge debts that the citizens were then forced to pay through reduced incomes, higher taxes and unemployment. Instead of noting that the Greek state was spending beyond its means and had to be reformed, Syriza argued that simply by voting for it, citizens could end the pain, and all the measures of the past few years would be reversed.

Technicalities — European Union regulations regarding the rule of law, the possible suspension of loans, the fact that the European Central Bank could withhold emergency funding — were depicted as machinations aimed at undermining the pure patriots in power.

The argument was so convincing that even after the coalition government was forced to default on the International Monetary Fund, close Greece’s banks, impose controls on the movement of capital and then accept the terms of an onerous new bailout with creditors, the two parties were returned to power in snap elections last September. Anyone in Brussels or Berlin who thinks that Warsaw, Budapest or any other member state’s capital will give in to pressure on issues they see as pertaining to national sovereignty need only look at how far the Greeks were prepared to go before capitulating, and how the voters stayed with them.

We noted this in the economy; now we see it in the refugee crisis. Greece is accused — simplistically — of not stopping the influx. Countries that backed a German idea to suspend Greece from the eurozone last year are among those threatening to suspend Greece’s membership in the open-borders system known as the Schengen Agreement. Some of them, however, are also opposed to a German-inspired plan to spread refugees among all European Union members, prompting Germans to feel they have been left in the lurch. The end of civility among members is contagious. Scapegoating Greece helps gloss over this problem — another populist trick.

Populist demagogy is a highly effective way of gaining power and consolidating it. Playing the people against elites, dividing citizens into patriots and quislings, seeing the world as “us versus them” and oversimplifying issues in a complex, pluralistic world provide the illusion of national determination and an outlet for public anger.

But however effective populism is in domestic politics, it’s a dead end: Countries that give in to its charms cannot find the strength to reform, and are alone when facing the problems that inspired their inward turn in the first place. In Greece, a rising wave of anger at inevitable reforms signals the failure of easy promises. In the globalized world, economic competitiveness, climate change, mass migration, terrorism and other challenges can only be dealt with collectively — no matter how much any nation, party or citizen may feel that isolation is an option.

Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.

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