Syriza buys four months of breathing room, but at what cost?

Greece’s government must use the time to mobilize and build anti-austerity links at home and abroad
Photo: Day Donaldson

Assuming its plan of reforms is accepted by the Eurogroup on Monday, Greece’s Syriza government has gained four months of breathing room — albeit in the same stuffy space, already full of the nauseating fumes of austerity, the window barely cracked.

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No one was humiliated in Friday’s compromise between Greece and the Eurogroup. Nevertheless, Syriza had to concede much, most painfully the continued involvement of external observers from the Troika. In return, Germany’s no-compromise hard line was finally broken. Friday concluded but the first skirmish in a long battle.

If anything, the resulting agreement demonstrates the weakness of Syriza’s position. Syriza has inherited an economy and financial system in tatters — years of economic depression compounded by sadistic austerity. Yet its leaders, for now, calculate that change outside the bounds of European institutions, including the euro, would open the gates to something far worse. Whatever the precise distribution of gains and losses, which will only come to light as the agreement is implemented, the fact remains that Syriza has four months to act.

Four months to stop the bleeding

First, of course, there is the pressing need to start enacting change in state policy. Existing austerity measures will be hard to dislodge for the time being. But breathing room means that Syriza will be able to spend more, even run a smaller primary surplus this year than stipulated in the old program, perhaps by up to 3 per cent of GDP. It can also start breaking the old oligarchy’s grip on the Greek economy and go after the unpaid taxes of the rich.

Beyond this, there is space for creativity. One Greek journalist tweeted that he’d already overheard Greece’s delegation at the Eurogroup talking about creative ways to raise the minimum wage. Though a far cry from simply raising the minimum wage, such creativity would be a testament to Europe’s intransigence.

Altogether this amounts to a program that can stop the bleeding and subtly fortify the patient before the next round of negotiations.

Four months to stare default and exit in the face

In the meantime, debates over a Greek exit from the euro (dubbed “Grexit”) will be a key unfolding dynamic within Syriza. The euro was already a dividing line within the party (with the left wing largely in favour of exit), and the number of people in the party who see default on debt and exit from the euro as a reasonable option seems to have been boosted by these first negotiations.

The debt still hangs over Greece, and one appeal of exit is that it also means default. Few see Grexit as a panacea for the country, but arguments that it is the lesser evil will become louder. Already during the past weeks there have been rumblings that Germany would be willing to kick Greece out of the euro to serve as an example. Why not do it ourselves if it will happen anyways, some ask.

Others will continue to state that the immediate financial hardship in a depressed economy after unilateral exit would be too grave. Some conditions on the ground give credence to this line of thought. Take the already heightened rate at which Greeks, especially the rich, have been taking money out of the banks, or the extent to which Greece relies on imports for basics such as food, medicine and fuel, whose prices would soar after exit. These issues are compounded by the real political danger that economic chaos would unleash fascism.

The even bigger question, of course, is whether European institutions can be reformed from the inside — not just the euro monetary pact, but all the political institutions that make up the European Union. Germany and its satellites showed their vindictiveness, even as they were able to compromise somewhat for now. Can integration be turned against its current form, which gives financial and industrial elites ever greater control over the political process? On the other hand, would exit really undermine those same elites enough to truly allow a different path?

To the question of whether an integrated Europe can be separated from the austerity straightjacket that currently fits it like a glove, Syriza’s leadership has so far answered yes. The next months will surely put this answer internally to the test.

Four months to mobilize

Most importantly, Syriza has four months to mobilize. Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of Syriza's central committee, wrote this last week:

“And herein, maybe, lies hope. It can’t be ruled out that the escalating demands of the EU and the lenders will be rejected by a government that has undertaken some basic commitments to its people. And, more importantly, that they will be rejected by a people that is believing in hope again and taking to the country’s streets and squares.”

What differentiates Syriza from the major parties of the old system, including those of social democracy, is not just its anti-austerity politics, but its commitment to deep political work in the trenches throughout society. This is not to say that Syriza is fully a party of the movements, for it is not; it is, however, willing to integrate them and allow for mass mobilization.

The Syriza government already registered over 70 per cent popular support in polls done within its first weeks in power. This is remarkable, but such support may also be fickle. Material gains from the process of implementing change can build more durable support, as can greater democratic ownership over the process and integration of the social solidarity networks that have sprung up across Greece in response to the crisis. Given Greece’s weakness, little else can bolster Syriza’s bargaining position in the upcoming rounds of confrontation with European institutions and creditors.

Four months in Canada

All factions within Syriza are waiting for political developments across Europe that could bring left parties to power elsewhere. Spain and Ireland are the big two with a chance this year. A larger block of anti-austerity parties in government would materially affect the dynamics within Europe.

What can we do during the next four months? Unlike the left in other European countries, Canada's can have little direct impact. We can, however, spread word of what is happening in Greece further into the mainstream press, we can talk within our communities and we too can take to the streets in solidarity. And we can build real links with anti-austerity forces in Europe by opposing CETA, the trade deal between Canada and the European Union.

More importantly, we can continue to build against austerity at home. There is a language that many of us understand, but cannot yet link to a political program. Anti-austerity can unite many experiences — the parent dropping her child off at an understaffed and underfunded school, the patient waiting too long for a medical procedure, the pensioner living in poverty and the unemployed worker watching as the CEOs rake in ever more — and it can bring us within the orbit of an international current that is building strength against the elites who have been screwing us all.

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