Is Greece leading the way to a new European crisis?

A fragile political elite is navigating the country towards a new phase of social and political tension.

The crisis in Greece has had a detrimental effect on the social fabric of the country [Getty Images]

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras visited Berlin in November for a 15-minute talk with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during which he presented the main achievement of six years of austerity: A primary surplus of 812m euros ($1.1bn) for 2013, and a projection for 3bn euros ($4bn) for next year. With these figures in hand, Samaras was hoping to get political backing in return, which could mean either of two things: The Europeans could accept further Greek cuts to sustainable levels, as agreed in the Eurogroup last year, or they could provide an extension period for the repayment of loan interests on smaller rates.

There was an even greater goal in the background of both demands: The Germans would support some form of political negotiations between sovereign governments, for the first time after three years.

Merkel acknowledged that Greece has “made substantial progress”. However, she suggested that the country should stick to the commitments it made, and finish negotiations with its technocrats as soon as possible in order to get the next portion of the bailout package – an outstanding 1.1bn euros ($1.5bn) for the service of debt obligations.

The political flattering was most probably meant to promote Merkel’s negotiating position in the formation of a coalition government in Germany, and there was nothing really substantial for the Greek side in it. Samaras returned home to a stiffening impasse in the negotiations with the troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank), and a worsening social crisis.

Unrealistic demands

The troika cancelled their appointment with the Greek government twice, based on a disagreement regarding the size of the fiscal gap that needs to be filled, if Greece is to meet the agreed primary surplus target.

The Greek finance ministry projects a budget gap of 500m euros ($680m) to be filled through structural reforms, while the troika’s projection reaches 1.5bn euros ($2bn) – a gap impossible to fill unless more cuts are introduced.

There are those who accept the government’s argument that there is no alternative, and those who struggle to restore democratic decision-making.

The troika and the Greek government also seem to disagree on the necessary reforms that need to be undertaken before the end of this year. The troika is asking for the lift on employment protections and a green light for massive layoffs of workers in the private sector. It also demands removing the ban on auctions of primary residences by banks for unpaid mortgages.

Beyond all that, the troika wishes the introduction of a single permanent property tax, even for empty apartments and rural land, and the laying-off of 15,000 more public servants in 2014.

The Greek government looks as if it’s moving between the monsters of Scylla and Charybdis at the moment, desperately searching for allies and valuable political time.

The “balanced budget” has been called a Greek “myth“, and criticism of it and of its feasibility is coming from both inside and outside of the country.

Only two days after the government announced its projection for a growth rate of 0.6 percent in 2014, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report that predicts a continuing recession, estimating a drop in GDP of 0.4 percent for the Greek economy next year, while casting serious doubts about the troika’s forecast for a debt of 120 percent in 2020.

Inside the country, the main opposition party, SYRIZA, calls the budget “conditional” and “colonial”, pointing out that it is based on assumptions that cannot not be realised before April 2014, when the troika will evaluate its implementation and impose more measures, if necessary.

Even inside the two parties of the ruling coalition, controversy around the lenders’ demands is gaining momentum among MPs who see the proposed reforms as irrational and inhumane.

Counting the Cost – Who are the winners and losers in Greece?

Finally, according to opinion polls, the Greek people are losing confidence in the government. SYRIZA seems to be leading the way towards the elections in May, but a critical point could be reached anytime earlier, especially in December, as the stability of Samaras’ government is quickly declining.

The crisis enters a new phase

The milestone of a balanced, even fictional, Greek budget, seems to be the end of a long chapter in the Greek story and the starting of a new one. Looking at it from a certain distance, it seems that for the first time Greek and European political time has ceased being mutually synchronised.

When Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras returns to Athens from the Eurogroup on December 10, he will probably not be bringing home good news. Instead of providing the necessary backing, they will most probably discipline Greece to comply with the demands of the troika, even if that means further social and political instability, or even the loss of their committed ally – the conservative Greek government.

Inside Greece, the government has to struggle to convince the confederation of labour unions who are going on a general strike on December 7, that more measures are absolutely necessary, in order to stay in line with the lenders’ demands, despite the fact that everybody acknowledges that society has reached its limits.

But the programme can only be sustained by increasing authoritarianism and further eroding democratic governance in Greece.

But when there is no debate, a democratic government should not be able to exercise authority.

Six years of austerity and depression have proven to be deeply divisive for the Greek society, not only because of the continuing failure of the programme, but most importantly because of the political mutations it imposes that do not allow democratic decisions to be taken and the consequent stress this is causing.

About a month ago, two young men were killed outside the office of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Neo Irakleio, a northern middle class suburb of greater Athens. The killing followed the lethal stabbing of an anti-fascist rapper two months ago by a mob of Golden Dawn thugs, in the southern working class suburb of Keratsini.

These events were not only shocking, but they also changed the way politicians polarise their audiences, after seeing what shapes this accumulated stress can take. At last, the populist “theory of the two extremes” was dumped, and consequently, the impunity that Golden Dawn enjoyed until then was lifted.

What was revealed, however, was that Greek society is indeed divided. There are those who accept the government’s argument that there is no alternative, and those who struggle to restore democratic decision-making. This is visible not only in the massive demos that rock the capital every now and then, but also in parliament, where conservative and progressive politicians are gradually resorting to two completely different political languages, which leaves no room for debate or consensus.

But when there is no debate, a democratic government should not be able to exercise authority.

Austerity and the far right

One of the striking elements of opinion polls after the arrest of the leaders of Golden Dawn – who were accused of forming a criminal organisation – is that the neo-fascist faction has kept its strength, and is still projected to get 6 to 9 percent of the electorate. This would have been a surprise, if the Greek people were not disenchanted with the ruling elite that brought Greece to this disaster. Not coincidentally, though, it has been quite clear that a momentum for reactionary politics is building in Europe, overall.

It seems that Europe hasn’t learned the Greek lesson regarding the correlation of economic dysfunction to political dissatisfaction, yet.

That’s what the rise of far-right eurosceptic forces indicates all over the continent. While the spotlight is on Greece, several parts of the continent face similar economic problems and also similar reactions, although on a much smaller scale.

The Le Pen-Wilders alliance is aiming to create the third largest group in the European Parliament, consisting of populist conservative, Eurosceptic, and neo-fascist parties.

On December 9, the conservatives in Brussels should think twice before they insist on their policy of fiscal discipline in the Eurogroup against an exhausted and discredited Greek representation. The Greek government may survive the pressure once more, but the dynamics on the national and the European levels show a strain that needs to be urgently addressed.

Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens.