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The Greek government, EU policy constraints, and the tension between responsiveness and responsibility

By Kyriaki Nanou

In January 2015, after failure to agree on the nomination of a president, national elections were held in Greece – a country at the eye of the storm of the Eurozone crisis. The main opponents were New Democracy, the main party in the governing coalition arguing in favour of the necessity of the memorandum agreements and the continuation of the reforms as part of the external support package; and, on the other side, SYRIZA, arguing that there is a different way for Greece to exit the crisis – involving renegotiation of the the terms of the bailout agreements and not undertaking all of the reform measures. Together with its governing partners, New Democracy stressed ‘responsibility’ and argued that Greece had no other way out of this crisis but to implement all of the austerity measures, which it argued had already improved the state of the economy, and to satisfy external creditors and EU partners. Their campaign was focused on a rightist agenda underlying the dangers of deviating from the implementation of the painful reforms, which had the potential of upsetting the creditors, stopping the transfer of further payments and leading to a potential ‘Grexit’ from the euro. On the other hand, SYRIZA emphasised ‘responsiveness’ and argued that politicians should listen to the needs and concerns of Greek people, who were disillusioned with austerity politics. It had a leftist agenda that aimed to provide hope to the Greek electorate by promising measures that would ease the burden of austerity – by either not implementing planned reforms or by changing or reversing some of the reforms implemented by the previous government.

The choice offered to Greek electorate was broadly between, on the one hand, responsibility and pragmatism; and, on the other, responsiveness and principle. This echoes Peter Mair’s argument about the increasing tension that party governments face between responsiveness and responsibility, as illustrated by the Irish case. The two main competitor parties in the January 2015 election in Greece were credible in their message in terms of their own policy agenda and their ideology but they emphasised different elements of the relationship between parties and citizens. New Democracy argued in favour of government for the people and SYRIZA emphasised government by the people. Though parties should perform both functions, these differing interpretations of the main contenders show how parties are now increasingly caught between responsiveness and responsibility. If New Democracy were to have won, the election result would justify the necessity of the reforms and the party’s view that it is acting in the country’s (and the EU’s) best interests, despite the unpopularity of many of the measures with the Greek people. If SYRIZA were to have won the election, what would they do? Would they implement all their pre-electoral promises and satisfy the Greek electorate that trusted them with their vote, but deviate from the country’s international commitments entered into by the previous government? Or would they perform a ‘U-turn’ similar to that PASOK undertook in the 1980s, where they changed their policy of being against the EU, becoming a party more positively-disposed towards Greek membership?

The outcome of the election was a new two-party coalition government, involving SYRIZA and ANEL, a nationalist right-wing party. The journey of the new government and the difficulties it is facing – and will continue to face – is testament to this recurrent tension between responsiveness and responsibility. The tension between what the new government wants to do, in terms of its preferred policies and the societal interests it represents, versus what the government can actually do, taking into account the policy constraints of being a member of the EU member and, within that, being in the Eurozone. This is a pertinent example of what happens when a government is caught between the demands of responsiveness and responsibility and is unable to reconcile the two.

The current situation in Greece is also an interesting example of the impact of the constraints of EU membership on party politics (and party policy) within the member states, as has been shown in comparative research on parties in Europe. Specifically, when a political party carries on with ‘business as usual’ by choosing to discount or ignore the impact of EU policy commitments and continues with its own policy agenda. Parties can act this way while in opposition, as the issue of whether their promises would conflict with what is feasible after taking into account external policy constraints is not put to the test. But what happens when such parties are in government?

SYRIZA is now caught between Scylla and Charybdis and the only way out to choose the least of two evils and perform a ‘U-turn’; but this is easier said than done. Doing this would entail sacrificing its preferred policies, held sacred by some parts of the party, and incurring potential electoral costs for being seen by the electorate as reneging on promises. The current European policy that Alexis Tsipras is following is not a forced choice between the two evils but a different option altogether. He is choosing to sail equidistant to the two mythical monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, believing there is a way to narrowly escape them both. The more he tries to do this the more he seems to be losing from both sides and the space for a narrow escape recedes. Tsipras needs to realise soon that the way things stand there can be no ‘win-win’ outcome – he cannot satisfy both the radical left faction of the party (‘the Left platform’, represented by Panagiotis Lafazanh) by staying true to his promises, and Greece’s EU partners and external creditors, at the same time. Something has to give. The current approach has not only angered this faction of the party, but it has also antagonised German creditors and served to unnerve potential allies in the EU that share a desire for a more ‘social Europe’ and a shift away from neo-liberal economic solutions.

At times like this, honesty is the best policy and he should admit that his hands are indeed tied. The attempts to save face by challenging technical aspects regarding the physical presence of Troika in Greece and the symbolic politics of challenging Germany by asking for historical reparations can perhaps buy some time and help underpin short-term public approval of the government. But he needs to be brave and pragmatic by admitting that the Greek citizens’ collective voice is much weaker than that of the EU and its member states, which are in a position to make demands of the Greek government and constrain its domestic policy choices.

This post first appeared on the blog ‘Who Governs Europe’ available here

Image credit: European Parliament 

Published inElectionsEUEuropean PoliticsGreeceInternational Political EconomyInternational Politics

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