The 2019 EP Election from A Greek Perspective
EU elections in post-memorandum Greece
Post-memorandum[i] Greece has entered a new phase in which it is important to further consolidate structural adjustment achievements, that is the austerity acquis. Indeed, the country delivers good governance on budgetary discipline, reaching a primary budget surplus of 4.3 % in 2018, 0.8 % higher than the initial target. After a series of Greek pension reforms, the system is considered viable and in surplus. Privatization proceeds should turn out to be higher and more business-friendly investment policies must be pursued. This agenda also encompasses the US and NATO-supported upgrading of the regional role of Greece in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean region.
"the 2019 EP election campaign remains national but increasingly ‘Europeanized’ in the sense that EU’s agenda-setting influence on domestic policy and electoral debates has significantly increased."
During the prolonged pre-electoral period, with the next municipal and regional elections taking place the same day as the 2019 EP elections and the next legislative election to be held in principle in October 2019, the Syriza government tries to capitalize on this momentum, benefiting from the marginal easing of fiscal austerity. In the current Greek political context, national concerns are highly intertwined with issues of European concern. The government announcement of small tax and pension relief measures as well as public subsidies for employer social security contributions provoked immediate and strong reactions from the EU and the IMF. Consequently, the 2019 EP election campaign remains national but increasingly ‘Europeanized’ in the sense that EU’s agenda-setting influence on domestic policy and electoral debates has significantly increased.
In a context marked by serious Franco-German divergences - specifically on socioeconomic issues - EP electoral competition is mainly focused on how to re-occupy the political space at the national level in order to maximize chances for extracting global political gains on the basis of a more and more Europeanized national agenda. As the Greek political system as a whole has turned to the right, governing party Syriza grabs the opportunity of deploying the rhetoric of polarization, already under way in the rest of Europe, between ‘Progressives vs. Nationalists’. This kind of strategic polarization is particularly useful for preparing the general election coming only some months afterwards. Indeed, the rise of supranational ultra-nationalism[ii] in Europe corrodes the domestic array of partisan interests.
Game plan of governing party Syriza
Syriza’s latest pro-Europeanism advocates that staying in the Eurozone and pursuing specific regulatory reforms enabled the government to better address negative externalities and spillovers between Greece and other EU Member States. Syriza deliberately fails to mention that the ways of governing during the crisis negatively affected the Greek government’s ability, and obligation to their own public, to shield core democratic values from arbitrary attacks.
Since Syriza joined the social democratic mainstream in 2015, it has sought to take advantage, as much as possible, of the decline of the traditional PASOK and its ideological alignment with the right-wing party of New Democracy. In the wake of the Prespa agreement’s success[iii], Syriza boasts about its achievements, like the fact that the IMF forecasts a GDP growth rate of 2,4 % in 2019, that the unemployment rate (according to the International Labor Organization's definition) decreased further to 18 % at the end of 2018, or that there has been an increase of middle-class income in 2015-16. So, after an exhausting decade of structural transformation and downgrading of the economy, Greece’s membership in the Eurozone proved nevertheless, according to Syriza, to be beneficial to both Greece and the EU.
"Currently, Syriza’s main aim is to delineate confrontation lines by narrowing the public debate, thus deliberately excluding from discussion the key policy issues."
Currently, Syriza’s main aim is to delineate confrontation lines by narrowing the public debate, thus deliberately excluding from discussion key policy issues such as tax fairness and redistributive justice, quality public services, or the role of the state in promoting economic and social development. Following Putnam’s two-level games logic[iv], at national level - without taking seriously into account public interest considerations - Syriza pursues a realpolitik agenda: implementation of post-memorandum requirements, adoption of deregulatory environment legislation, promotion of permissive legal provisions for Asian medium-scale investment, or the facilitation of procurement activities in the utilities market. At the European level, while positioning itself as a great defender of the Enlightenment, it promotes the idealist left’s traditional agenda in favor of climate change mitigation policies, ecology, welfare and social cohesion policies, refugee protection policies, fiscal federalism and democratization.
In that respect, it is not surprising that the list of Syriza MEP candidates covers a large spectrum of ideological[v] and political backgrounds, gathering people from small-scale movements and networks of the center and center-left, mainly ex-members of PASOK and more recently of the Movement for Change (the center-left alliance of PASOK with other minor center-left parties). By launching this ‘progressive coalition’, Syriza seeks to normalize itself as a ruling party of the center-left and to secure the support of voters on the center-left and in the center, of which a significant percentage voted for the party in 2015.
Response of the opposition
The biggest opposition party, New Democracy[vi], claims its own clear political identity, trying to gain support and show privileged relationships with an important part of the EU establishment. It embraces its role as the main pro-European liberal conservative party in the country with a winner-take-all attitude. It also shows commitment to an ‘aggressive reform and growth program’ faithfully following the EU’s economic governance precepts, while fully assuming its shift towards more radicalized positions, like being against the Prespa agreement or being in favor of securitization policies and a more Thatcherite neo-liberal approach.
"The Greek economic and refugee crises constituted a ‘window of opportunity’ for the reintegration of most of the extreme and radical right into the political system."
The Greek economic and refugee crises constituted a ‘window of opportunity’ for the reintegration of most of the extreme and radical right into the political system (for example the rise of the harsh nationalist wing within New Democracy under A. Samaras’ leadership, the participation of the radical nationalist party of LAOS in the Papademos technocratic government, and the parliamentarization of the Golden Dawn in 2012). While Golden Dawn - currently being prosecuted on serious criminal charges - has been isolated from the ongoing broader discussions among European nationalist forces, ex-members of adjacent extreme-right parties assume leadership positions within the party of New Democracy.
Greek politics during EP election campaign
In this 2019 EP election campaign, Greek political parties do not operate nationally. In fact, they use European narratives to build their national strategy. What is worrisome is that this new line of confrontation between conservative Europeanists and progressive Europeanists sounds more like election rhetoric than a real ideological divide.
The two major parties, Syriza and New Democracy, seem to have resigned from all serious efforts to contribute to the reform of asylum and immigration policies within the EU, either supporting irrelevant decisions (more EU border guards) or unrealizable proposals ("regional disembarkation platforms" in Africa) or repeating empty slogans (controlled centers across the EU). Occasionally, the blame game over corruption feeds current debates, which distracts voters from pressing issues such as flexible, precarious and low-cost employment, Greek pensioners already living below the poverty line, or the growing gap between real wage growth and labor productivity trends.
Up to now Greek citizens have been only marginally attracted by right-wing chauvinist ideas, political anti-liberal discourse, liberal sovereignist values and identity politics. However, voters’ preferences may shift in that direction in future as current trends show a dramatic increase of undecided and swing voters and the transition from voting to non-voting is becoming more porous and fluctuating.
[i] Post-memorandum Greece refers to the period of time since August 20, 2018 when the third and final Economic Adjustment Programme for Greece expired. From this time, Greece is subject to an advanced post-program monitoring
[ii] The term of ‘supranational ultra-nationalism’ refers to the large-scale mobilization and networking of far right parties at the European level looking to build a united alliance in the next European parliament.
[iii] The Prespa agreement on the 12th of June 2018 between Greece and North Macedonia, under the United Nations’ auspices, resolved a long-standing dispute over the latter’s name.
[iv] In 1988, Robert Putnam conceptualised diplomatic negotiations as a two-level game in which national and international politics often collide. Two-level game theory explains that domestic politics influence international politics and vice-versa. Putnam argues, ‘the political complexities for the players in this two-level game are staggering’. Neither of the two games can be ignored by central decision-makers, so long as their countries remain interdependent.The interaction between the two levels manifests in the fact that a leader who ignores domestic pressures or fails to minimize the adverse consequences of foreign developments will be unable to successfully negotiate at the international level (win-set).
[v] Ranging from the Italian communist L. Castellina to the Greek entrepreneur P. Kokkalis, a strong advocate for pro-business sustainable development.
[vi] New Democracy has been in the opposition since 2015 (after governing in a coalition with PASOK for 3 years). The party has 79 of the 300 seats in the Greek Parliament. In the European Parliament it has 5 of the 21 Greek seats – while being part of the EPP.