No, Syriza Has Not
Tom Walker looks at what Greece's government
has agreed – and argues that buying time is
not the same thing as breaking promises
By Tom Walker
February 24, 2015 "ICH"
Surrender! Capitulation! Betrayal! Syriza
hasn’t even been in office for a month, but
already the obituaries are being written.
Some on the left, of course,
had written them long before January’s
election. Syriza, you see, has failed to
declare the revolution. So far, so familiar.
But over the last few days some more
sensible forces seem – as with the coalition
deal in the early days of the Syriza
government – to have got a little carried
away in their horror at this week’s debt
deal, believing the German government’s
crowing rhetoric that Syriza has suffered
This is a deal that has
been described in quite the opposite terms
by Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras: he
called it ‘a decisive step, leaving
austerity, the bailouts and the troika’.
Unless he has quite suddenly and
unexpectedly taken leave of planet Earth,
there is more going on here than meets the
To discover the truth we
need to not only look at the deal, or even
the media spin around the deal, but examine
what the text they have signed up to will
mean in practice.
No agreement to
Much of the reporting of
the deal led on the claim that Syriza has
‘signed up to austerity’ – and that would be
a massive U-turn if it were true. But this
rests on some mischief with the terminology.
What the Greek government
has signed up to is to continue running a
budget surplus, as opposed to a deficit.
That is not, in itself, austerity. Austerity
is the practice of balancing budgets
through cuts in public spending.
Yet the agreement, as
Tsipras has said, cancels the previous Greek
government’s planned cuts to pensions, as
well as scrapping VAT rises on food and
medicine. The reforms Syriza will submit as
part of its end of the deal look set to
include a massive crackdown on tax evasion
and corruption – meaning a shift away from
spending cuts towards raising the revenue
The Eurogroup statement
also includes some flexibility for surpluses
to be ‘appropriate’ given economic
conditions. In other words, until the Greek
economy returns to growth, the punishing
targets of the previous government can be
eased back – meaning there wouldn’t be as
much money to raise as previously. This
should free up some cash to tackle Greece’s
humanitarian crisis, through Syriza’s
promised measures such as free electricity
and meal subsidies for the poorest.
And Greek finance minister
Yanis Varoufakis has added a very important
and under-reported rider: ‘Nobody is going
to ask us to impose upon our economy and
society measures that we don’t agree with…
If the list of reforms is not agreed, this
agreement is dead.’
Of course, this is hardly
anyone’s ideal programme for government.
While it is not true that the hated ‘Troika’
has returned, Greece must still deal with
‘the institutions’ (the European Central
Bank, European Commission and IMF) – the
distinction being that it now has the
potential to negotiate with the different
institutions one by one. Greek democracy
remains partially suspended, at least for
the four-month duration of the deal, subject
to negotiation and oversight.
But look at the situation
Syriza were in before you condemn. Multiple
credible sources claim that, if they had not
agreed to the deal, Greece’s banks would
have collapsed within days – and Syriza
would have got the blame for taking the
country into a new crisis. As Varoufakis
said, ‘Greeks were being told that if we
were elected and we stayed in power for more
than just a few days the ATMs will cease
functioning… Today’s decision puts an end to
Defaulting on the debts
and leaving the euro might be preferable in
the long term – though support for that
course of action among Greece’s people
remains very low – but it would mean huge
short-term chaos and pain that Syriza’s
negotiation has managed to avoid.
In any case, the deal is
not signed in blood. It can be ended if it
goes as badly as some commentators are
saying. The option of ‘Grexit’ and default
hasn’t gone away. It is clear, though, that
it is not currently part of Syriza’s
mandate, and those who put forward that
alternative in the election received only a
fraction of Syriza’s votes. Default was
always going to be a last resort, not an
opening gambit: it will only be politically
possible if no alternative remains.
Give Greece a
Insofar as the Syriza
government is having to compromise – and
clearly it is making compromises short of
surrender – that represents not so much
their failure as our own. Syriza has always
been clear that we cannot expect Greece to
defeat austerity alone.
The various European
ministers on the other end of the continuing
negotiation with the Greek government need
to be feeling the pressure. We need a huge
movement across Europe in solidarity with
Greece, and we need to be throwing ourselves
into building that movement, not reclining
in our armchairs ready to say ‘I told you
We must put everything we
can muster into shifting the political
balance of forces across Europe. We now have
four months of space in which to do so: we
need to make them count.
There is clearly a
division among the elite now over the issue
of austerity, with the US government, the
Adam Smith Institute and various prominent
economists not usually associated with the
left backing Greece’s proposals. That crack
is waiting to be forced open.
This battle is a very long
way from over. There are more key moments
this week, and no doubt there are many weeks
and months of crunch points still to come.
The last thing we should be doing is
abandoning Syriza because it hasn’t
fulfilled all our hopes in the first few
weeks after its election. And it’s also no
use flipping backwards and forwards between
enthusiasm and dejection based on each day’s
round of negotiations.
The future of austerity
across Europe now rests on what happens in
Greece. If we give up on them, we are giving
up on our own struggle too.
‘Give Greece a chance’ has
been one of the slogans aimed at the
European Central Bank et al. It applies just
as much to us on the left.