Snap! Snap! Alexis Tsipras must like the sound. In the midst of so-called negotiations with the European Union in June, Tsipras walked out and demanded a national referendum on what would turn out to be an abject capitulation to the demands of his European paymasters. He got the support he craved for a policy he couldn’t deliver on, and then, having turned bad terms into worse ones, snap! again, he tendered his resignation as prime minister in mid-August and called for new elections to reinstall him as Enforcer-in-Chief for the dictates of Berlin and Brussels.
Honor would have called for Tsipras to fall on his sword, and retire from the political arena. But the man elected on the promise to curb austerity who had brought Greece to the brink of economic collapse before caving in to terms that will leave the country a debt colony for decades, found a new platform to run on. In place of false hope, Alexis Tsipras was now offering his countrymen the prospect of despair: and who, after all, was better suited to administer it than the man who had brought it?
Administered despair? It’s a new idea in democratic politics, but Tsipras, who’d submitted himself to a public humiliation unprecedented in modern times, was the ideal man to introduce it. Bill Clinton used to tell us that he felt our pain. Tsipras invited the Greek public to feel his pain—and deftly postponed the new round of tax hikes, pension and service cuts, and forced asset sales until the ballots were cast.
No one wanted this election, and everyone knew it to be unavoidable. Tsipras returned from Brussels with his party in revolt and his parliamentary majority crumbling; he could no longer govern. He had placed the country in the position of facing economic chaos and political anarchy if it did not swallow the broken glass cocktail Europe had prepared for it. Parliament choked it down, thus putting the seal on surrender. Not a single vote was cast except under the most extreme duress—which meant that the world’s oldest democratic body was compelled to turn democracy into a mockery of itself—but Tsipras could now claim that he had only accepted the worst after trying his best. He had spread the guilt of failure, and the responsibility for it as well. This is exactly what leaders do not do.
It was a cynical, not to say a pathetic gambit. But it paid off in the September 20 election, whose result was almost identical to that of the January 25 one. Tsipras’ Syriza coalition, stripped of its left wing, polled 35% of the vote, down only 1% from its January showing. New Democracy, the rightist alternative, came in at 28%, identical with its previous showing. Fascist New Dawn, the still-distant third party, gained 1%. You could simply have overlaid the January result on the September one, and saved people the trouble of getting out of bed to vote. Many simply didn’t. The real winner in the election was None of the Above, because 44% of the electorate abstained from voting at all.
There was, nonetheless, one significant electoral result. The Popular Unity Party of Panayiotis Lafazanis, formed in July when Syriza dissidents broke ranks with Tsipras and refused to approve the “bailout” terms (another Orwellian euphemism of the banking racket, which receive a bail-in for themselves amounting to 12% of Greek GDP under the new ‘agreements’), failed to meet the 3% threshold to win a single seat for themselves in Parliament. This was in part a stinging repudiation of the new party’s most visible figure, Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister whom Tsipras threw under the bus last spring when he shifted policy from colorful tantrums to unconditional surrender, but it also reflected the deep skepticism of the electorate toward any possibility of resistance to the country’s Euro-masters. The prevailing mood of the country is simple exhaustion and a desire for stability on any basis, even the stability of the absolute bottom. That was the final product of the summer’s crisis, a crisis that has not yet passed as capital controls have not been fully unwound. In other words, the horizon of Greek hope is simply a return to the circumstances that preceded the country’s romance with Tsipras last January.
In a more ordinary situation, this would have led to New Democracy’s return to power. But, although its core constituency held, the electorate’s deep resentment of the parties that led Greece into its debt trap remains unabated. Tsipras was the default beneficiary of this mood, at least for the time being, although his majority remains shaky and his party is still fractious. But the only winner at the September polls was fear, nihilism, and despair. That, at least for the present, is the legacy of the Greek political process.
Tsipras, for his part, claimed a fresh mandate for himself. Flush with victory, he said that Greek voters had sent a “message” to Berlin and Brussels. One can only wonder what he thinks it is. As for the message voters sent him, it is an anti-mandate: Don’t promise us you’ll make things better. We know you can’t, or won’t. Just don’t make them worse.
Unfortunately, things will soon get worse as the new conditions imposed on the country take effect. Greece has the look, the feel, and the funk of a conquered province. On top of its own misery, too, it must deal with the desperate migrants who flood its borders from even worse conditions in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The good news is that the migrants have no desire to stick around; they know there’s no meat on the bone for them in Greece. They think Shangri-La is Germany, or Sweden, or England. Ironically, though, they do Greece a favor in their passage. They have exposed, on a mass scale, the fraud of the European Union as a generous, welcoming welfare society, a model of open borders and common solidarity dedicated to shared prosperity and perpetual peace. The experience of Greece since 2010 had given the lie to this, as had the fascistic coup in Ukraine in 2014. But these events could be explained away, and largely were in the international press: Greece was a profligate state that had piled up irresponsible debt and lied its way into the Eurozone with fudged figures, while Ukraine was a peace-loving democracy still in the grip of the Russian bear and awaiting its rescue by EU investment and NATO protection. There were few to contest these narratives, and, even if the suffering of everyday Greeks was painfully evident, still, others had swallowed the bitter pill of austerity without serious complaint. There was no reason for Greeks to expect a better deal than others had received, and it was ill grace of them to demand it.
There’s nothing like the sight of a drowned three-year-old, though, or of people being herded behind barbed wire in an EU state, to get the media’s attention. Ironically, Europe probably deserves more sympathy (though not much) for its response to the migrant crisis than for its handling of Greece. It didn’t produce the cascade of failed states and civil wars that have crumbled much of the contemporary Levant; America did, with its ruinous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and its only slightly more indirect destabilization of Syria. To be sure, these were ventures in which our European partners in NATO joined, and in the case of Libya actively egged on. But it’s Europe that is now paying a disproportionate cost for America’s criminal follies.
Still, the refugee debacle underlines the fundamental lie of the European Union. Through a process called “convergence,” EU member states, widely disparate in income, economic development, and traditions of democratic government, were supposed to gradually achieve a rough parity of prosperity and stability. How this was to happen was never credibly explained, but the brief story is that it didn’t. Rich states and the banking interests behind them teased poorer ones with cheap money and credit bubbles, and when the gum blew up in everyone’s face, the poor were left to pay off the rich. The nations thereby immiserated were left to suffer behind their own borders, however, except for the young, skilled workers skimmed off the top to make up the deficits of aging populations in Germany and Scandinavia. This, of course, was the blood tax: the steepest, most devastating, and most permanent one of all, the tax on the future.
The slow, steady drip of a brain drain isn’t immediately visible, and so the outflow of young Greeks to points north—by some accounts, now in the hundreds of thousands since 2010, although, conveniently, no one keeps tabs—has immediately affected only the families they leave behind. The same’s been true in Italy and Spain. These migrants, though needy, are generally welcome; there is work for them, and they are relatively easy to assimilate. But the refugees from the Middle East and Africa are a different story: they are far too many; in far too big a rush; far more alien culturally; and far more suspect politically. No one planned on them, as the brain drain from Europe’s southern tier was part of the calculus of austerity. They arrive traumatized, impoverished, and in desperate need of the most elemental provisions of food, clothing, and shelter. Poverty you can systematically cultivate and then exploit, poverty you can profit from, is one thing; poverty that shows up uninvited on your doorstep is another.
The refugee issue isn’t new, only the volume of arrivals is. The EU previously handled the problem through the Dublin protocols, which required countries of initial entry to keep and maintain refugees. Since those countries were overwhelmingly those of the Mediterranean, particularly Italy and Greece, this arrangement was highly convenient to everyone else: one more burden to be borne by the south. This system, however, has broken down in the sheer crush of humanity: more than a quarter of a million migrants in Greece alone in the present year, many literally swimming ashore. Such a flood has been uncontainable, and the efforts to check it in Hungary and Croatia have produced some of the ugliest scenes on the Continent since World War II.
The difference, then, between the quiet exodus of young Greek talent and the uncontrolled flow of Levantine migrants is the difference between the usable and the unusable poor. There are many Greeks living in a degree of poverty that differs little from those of many war zone migrants; for those above a certain age or without skills in demand, however, there are no options but to suffer in place. They would no doubt meet the same welcome the Syrians have if they, too, were to head north, crowding the roads and jamming the trains. From this perspective, the migrants have put a face on European poverty itself, and on the largely silent devastation wrought on Europe’s poor by the regime of austerity. This is what we would look like, they might say, if you had to see us.
There is a much larger north-south problem than that of Europe, of course, and it is likely that we have seen only the beginning of an age of epic migrations, now driven by civil strife and poverty but soon to be joined by environmental dislocation. But Europe alone promised that greater unity would produce greater and more evenly divided prosperity. It hasn’t happened, and it was never genuinely attempted: from our present vantage, the surrender of national sovereignties to an unaccountable, centralized bureaucracy and the submission of national economies to the discipline of the euro has exacerbated the divisions of Europe and created greater political and economic inequities than ever—has, in fact, produced a German hegemony that two world wars were fought to avoid. Shuttered banks, emptied homes, and silent meals—or meals simply skipped—don’t produce a suitable image. Nor do mass rallies and even hunger marches necessarily do the trick. But a dead child and despairing eyes behind barbed wire have finally shown Europe the true image of its own face. Here is what the European Union has finally come to; here, perhaps, is the course it was embarked on from the beginning.
Greece, meanwhile, has receded to the inside pages. Its misery will, if submitted to, only worsen in the months and years to come, and what was once a lost generation will be a lost nation—still flying its own flag, but merely as the mocking symbol of a conquered province. There is, however, another path, which Greeks can still choose if they summon the will to pursue it. If that happens, the Tsipras episode in Greek politics will not have been wholly in vain. The governments that preceded Syriza bowed to external pressures and plunged Greece into its worst economic crisis since World War II. Syriza tried, and dramatically failed, to secure relief while still accepting the essentials of the regime imposed on the country five years earlier. This failure has been laid to its posturing and ineptitude, and certainly the Tsipras government has exhibited plenty of both. Had it been more ciplomatic and more competent, however, the result would almost certainly have been the same. Berlin was not about to budge, and so Brussels did not either. Greece was shut out of the program of quantitative easing begun by Mario Draghi in imitation of the Federal Reserve Bank’s policy of money printing and asset purchase, and specifically designed to avoid the “contagion” of the Greek economic collapse—a collapse ordained by the European Central Bank itself. When Alexis Tsipras offered complaint and suggested resistance, the hammer came down hard.
There was a lesson in this, if painfully learned. There is no mercy for the fallen. If Greece wants to get back on its feet, it will have to fight its way up, inch by inch.