Greek Crisis: Syriza's Failure Is Europe’s Failure, Too

By not accepting Syriza's demands, Greece's creditors are putting the nation's political stability at risk.

Syriza has failed. Elected six months ago on a promise to ease the domestic costs of Greece’s gargantuan burden of debt, the government of Alexis Tsipras has now caved in to most of its creditors’ demands—albeit after a spirited struggle to avoid this fate. Still, the Eurozone’s finance ministers ought not to feel too triumphant; for while they might have succeeded in forcing austerity down the throats of the recalcitrant Greeks—pending parliamentary approval soon, that is—there is a very real sense that Syriza’s failure is Europe’s failure too. What is more, the effects of that failure could be quite profound.

Syriza’s non-fulfillment has not been for a lack of trying on its part. For months, rational economic arguments have been married with emotional appeals to European solidarity. Its leaders even tried to gain leverage over the rest of the eurozone by dallying with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, hardly a natural comrade for leftists. Most dramatic, of course, was Tsipras’s surprise referendum gambit—a populist move that seemed for a moment to bring Greece to the brink of “Grexit.” Syriza has been nothing if not creative in its bid to find wiggle room vis-à-vis its creditors.

To many lay onlookers, it has appeared as though Syriza has had common sense and basic decency on its side, too. It is obvious that Greece cannot afford to repay its burgeoning obligations in full. And, in any case, it seems wrong to expect ordinary Greeks to pay the price of an economic crisis that they had no knowing part in creating. Gutting the Greek welfare state and deregulating its labor market are hardly compassionate responses to a friend in need. The forlorn hope of Syriza’s negotiators, perhaps, was that grassroots empathy across Europe would overwhelm the eurozone’s less compassionate leadership.

Of course, charitable observers will be able to recognize that the principal brokers within the eurozone—Angela Merkel chief among them—are not driven by indifference or cruelty, but rather by the material interests of their own constituents. Because despite all the talk of European unity, it is to non-Greeks that the leading figures within the troika of the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank owe their political allegiance. The citizens of rich countries like Germany but also poor countries like Latvia and Lithuania can be forgiven for wondering why the burden of bailing out Greece should fall on their shoulders.

As Yanis Varoufakis recently argued, Syriza failed in its six-month bid to extract more favorable terms from its creditors because of this cold political reality: because, in the final analysis, the people that Syriza has been charged to represent are not important enough to force the troika to think again. Despite some signs of movement on behalf of the IMF, the eurozone’s heads of government and finance ministers have been resolute that their job is not cater to Greece’s needs alone, but rather to act in ways that satisfy a broader array of interests—lenders, yes, but also their respective national electorates, which if push came to shove might not thank them for transferring yet more resources to Greece.

But there is at least one reason why the troika—and especially the eurozone’s key decision-makers—cannot be let off the hook so easily; a reason why Syriza’s failure to secure a lifeline for the Greek people cannot be explained away and justified with reference to the political self-interest of the creditors; a reason, moreover, for why Syriza’s failure should be seen as Europe’s failure too.

The reason is this: if not Syriza, then who?  Since 2008, Greece has already seen governments of the right and left—not to mention the supposedly non-partisan technocratic ministries of the recent past—ousted for appearing to mishandle the country’s financial troubles. If the Greek electorate resolves to condemn Syriza to the same fate after its failure to reach a modus vivendi with the troika, who will remain to fill the void?

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