Following month after month of crucial deadlines, last chances, and make-or-break negotiations, the stand-off between Greece and its creditors finally reached a turning point yesterday.
In the game of chicken between the German supertanker and the sputtering Greek jetski, the Prime Minister finally swerved at the last minute, avoiding (for now at least) a disastrous collision that would have seen Greece’s already crumbling economy and teetering banking sector collapse outright.
Until now, Tsipras had succeeded in keeping his hand close to his chest, with few being able to say with any real confidence whether or not the former member of the communist youth party (KNE) was actually willing to preside over an irreversible rift with Greece’s European partners that would have seen Greece crash out of the Eurozone and facing an uncertain economic (and diplomatic) future. Would he ultimately pivot as much as necessary to accede to Greece’s creditors’ demands and clash with hardliners in his own party? Or did he see is role as that of a historic leader of the left who would finally lead Greece away from ever closer union with the imperialist west?
The answer to this question was ultimately provided between Sunday night and Monday morning. By finally proposing an offer that covered much of the ground between Greece and its lenders, Tsipras provided a clear signal that he will ultimately do what is necessary to keep Greece in the euro.
This goes a long way to explaining much of his behavior over the past weeks. As a young, novice prime minister one might have wondered how he managed to appear so calm in the face of what might prove to be a significant turning point in Greek history, determining the country’s future for years, if not decades. For a man with the weight of a country on his shoulders he has always appeared remarkably laid back.
The answer is probably that Tsipras always knew that he would fold but would only do so at the last minute – both to extract as many concessions as possible from the lenders and to protect himself from domestic critics.
The last point is also the explanation for all those wondering why it had to take five months for us to get here. Tsipras and Greece’s lenders may well have had a good idea of the form any ultimate compromise (if indeed one is reached) would take as long ago as February.
However had Tsipras accepted anything approaching the current Greek proposal months or even weeks ago, he would have been accused by suspicious Greek minds of capitulating too soon and having done bad a deal behind the country’s back.
Whatever his faults, as a leader Tsipras has proven himself to be a savvy protector of his own political capital, spending it only when necessary and maintaining supporters’ trust in his desire to protect their interests.
Even the way the last conciliatory proposal was submitted by the Greek side appears to have been one final attempt to wrong-foot the eurozone’s stern finance ministers who, led by the chief Schaeublite Jeroen Dijsselbloem, appear to delight in their own inflexibility, dressing down with glee the Greek delegation, secure in the knowledge that might makes right.
By submitting the proposal late on Sunday night, then ‘correcting’ it on Monday morning, either by luck or design, the Greek side both met a deadline to ensure the summit went ahead, but left the Eurogroup marginalized, with little to discuss.
As such Tsipras managed to get at least the outline of a political agreement at the highest level that is to be confirmed later by the Eurogroup – rather than the other way around. While on Monday morning the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble described the latest Greek proposal as ‘nothing new’, he was ultimately overruled by the political leaders of Europe who concluded that there had been significant signs of progress.
The Prime Minister rather than coming out browbeaten by the unflinching technocrats appeared to have hammered out a deal with his political equivalents.
It’s time for SYRIZA to grow up
After a psychologically exhausting five months of negotiations no one can say that the Greek side did not negotiate ‘hard’ enough (a claim often made about previous New Democracy and PASOK governments), thus protecting Tsipras’s image as an incorruptible defender of the average Greek taxpayer.
Was SYRIZA’s confrontational us-against-the-world style the best approach to take in negotiations with its European allies, or should it have adopted a more conciliatory tone?
Should the government have sought to build more alliances and avoid becoming isolated? Perhaps. Certainly the government has come across as chaotic and disorganized and has done Greece's international standing few favors.
But at this point the discussion as to whether a better deal was possible is a moot point.
The Greek proposal, or some slightly harsher variation of it, will likely be the basis for an agreement going forward. The only other option is default and likely Grexit. That is where this government has led us. That is where we are now.
While the Tsipras government has secured some key concessions – namely lower primary surplus targets - with over 8 billion euros in taxes and spending cuts over two years the proposal will be difficult for SYRIZA (or anyone) to swallow.
This is where the party will ultimately decide whether it will develop into a cohesive political force that could potentially lead the country for the next four years or fragment into pieces.
Part chameleon, part confusion, the party and the officials within it, have sought to have their cake and eat it too, being everything to everyone
For a long time SYRIZA has gotten away with forming both the government and its own opposition. Trying to establish what SYRIZA’s view is on, say, privatizations, is next to impossible as different ministers and MPs routinely take radically different positions.
Part chameleon, part confusion, the party and the officials within it, have sought to have their cake and eat it too, being everything to everyone: both anti-capitalist and pro-business, a reformer of the public sector and a protector of the entrenched interests of public sector unions, a pro-European force that will stick it to the evil ECB at the first available opportunity.
This can only go on so long. Alexis Tsipras ultimately had to make his choice and pick a side of the fence.
Now the party’s MPs will be called on to do the same - and they should know that they have no good or easy options. In voting for the legislation SYRIZA will effectively be implementing more austerity. While that is a bitter pill to swallow, the party will be able to (and should) argue that under their watch they have sought to protect the average citizen better than their predecessors and things will get better.
Unfortunately some MPs will likely seek to protect themselves politically by voting against the agreement, safe in the knowledge that it will pass anyway with votes from the opposition. Already a number of MPs have argued that ‘no government of the left’ could possibly vote for these measures.
However this would be a cowardly and ultimately foolish option. For one, it would be a clear admission of failure. SYRIZA was not thrust into power but actively provoked snap elections by refusing to support the government’s candidate for President of the Republic in December. It did so arguing that it should come to power as it was ready, under Alexis Tsipras, to enter into tough negotiations that would lead to an easing of austerity while keeping the country in the euro.
That is what Alexis Tsipras and the other negotiators did to the best of their ability. Any MP arguing that that has not been good enough, or complaining about the mean old Europeans, is effectively saying that the party has failed, that its entire strategy was wrong from the beginning and that this whole exercise has been a gross waste of time which has come at great expense to the Greek economy and the frayed nerves of a battered populace.
Furthermore should the unthinkable actually happen and Greece not succeed in approving the agreement by the end of the month, it would probably lead to elections. But not to ordinary elections - elections that would have to take place against a backdrop of a thoroughly collapsed banking system, and frantic, chaotic attempts to set up a new currency for which there is almost certainly no plan. The consequences would be unpredictable and likely very unpleasant. Leaving the euro is akin to jumping out of a plane - not necessarily a terrible idea, but provided one has a parachute. Greece does not have a parachute.
For many years SYRIZA’s MPs walked the ideological high road while in opposition, certain that under their leadership it would be sunny every day and the crops would be always well watered. Now the party faces its first major test of whether it will support its own administration in the difficult task of actually governing.
If the party fails to remain united then it could likely split into a pro-euro and anti-euro wing and Tsipras would either need to call elections or cobble together a coalition with PASOK and/or To Potami.
Whatever the case it would bring a swift and ignoble end to the supposedly historic ‘government of the Left’.
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