Greece and the European Union in the era of Realism

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In the Melian dialogue, Thucydides presents us with a clear-cut case of [classical] political realism in inter-state relations. The Athenians asked the Melians for their unconditional surrender, appealing not to some universal moral value but to their instinctive self-interest for survival. We are taught that arguments for Justice are only valid among equals, while the strong do what they can as the weak suffer what they must. Such is the world of Realism presented by the ancient historian.

From the realist perspective, the international order is anarchic, in the sense of there being no supreme authority. Each state seeks to promote its own interests, care for its own security and, generally, struggle for control even at the expense of other states. The attainment of those ends is dependent on power and the circumstances that enable one’s supremacy.

Power politics as the new norm

European integration was hitherto a project in defiance of such worldview. It was, arguably perhaps, driven by an amalgamation of idealism, liberalism, and functionalism, depending on the constellation of forces throughout the years. Member States committed to an “ever closer union”, under the assumption that age-old tendencies for dominion over the continent would forever be overcome, for the sake of promoting the common interest of Europeans and for forging their common future.

The Euro Summit of July 12, 2015 must be considered a milestone in this process; a turning point. A desperate and confused government of an economically fragile state, whose domestic banks operated under conditions of severe monetary contraction, with no viable alternative at its disposal, was essentially forced into agreeing on a third reform programme that no one truly believes it to be optimal or indeed viable.

Mr. Schäuble’s gambit for a “time-out” from the Euro Area, in spite of its dubious legal status and irrespective of whether it was an elaborate bluff or not, ushered in the era of political realism in European affairs. Legality and morality are of secondary importance. Political expedience, narrowly-defined national self-interest, and the arrangement of forces are the real determinants in inter-governmentalist Europe (also read my latest analysis: The emergent contradiction of Europe’s inter-governmentalism).

No matter if a policy is “irreversible” or indeed not envisaged by the Treaties, for an alternative will always be in place, ready to be enacted in the appropriate balance of power. Couched in these terms, Member States should, for their own sake, always have a plan B up their sleeve in case conditions prove to be against them. That inevitably implies a context for competition rather than cooperation; what is also known as a “zero-sum game”.

These are troubling signs. We witness the beginning of the next phase of European history, characterised by the gradual recrudescence of hegemonism, with the concomitant rise of nationalism and racism. In other words, we experience the kind of political climate our foreparents lived through: one of suspicion, fear, and intolerance.

As a European federalist who no longer believes in the viability of the EU as is, I hope that, at least in private, not even the most fervent exponent of integration is satisfied with what the EU—the EMU in particular—has become and is expected to evolve into.

Does this mean that Greece is the victim and that its suffering is the cause of the machinations of some “bad Europeans”? 

Clearly not. Most of the factors contributing to the Greek crisis are endogenous, anchored in the country’s history and social-cultural path dependencies. As for any anti-German or anti-European sentiments, even if they rest on kernels of truth, they ought to be treated with caution and vigilance, and should ideally wither away as everyone eventually heeds the call of reason.

The absence of alternatives

I do not agree with the substance of the third bailout package for Greece. It is a product of inter-governmental bargaining rather than rational economic policy. Still, I do understand the predicament of the Greek government and the majority of deputies who approved of the deal. In practice, theirs is a case of no options, of having to admit—and submit to—the creditors’ preponderant influence.

Assuming political realism is the new way of doing European Union politics, we may argue that Greece has been found in this position of powerlessness due to its misreading of the forces at play coupled with its colossal failure to ever formulate, even concoct, an alternative to its main strategy.

A mere six months ago, Mr. Tsipras and his radical leftist party, Syriza, campaigned on an anti-austerity platform that relied heavily on the attractiveness of confrontational discourse. Given their impressive eagerness to rise to power, one would assume that they would have prepared some sort of a contingency plan in the event where European partners would not yield to their demands. Either that never was the case or, if they did have something in the works, it probably was not reliable enough.

Their shortcomings in foresight can also be traced in the events that preceded and followed the July 5 referendum. The government had no means of dealing with the European Central Bank’s failure to maintain the money supply in the Greek banking system. It dithered for far too long, while the potential of the plebiscite, supposedly an instrument in the broader context of the negotiations with the creditors, was not harnessed. Instead and perhaps ironically, the NO/OXI win only succeeded in making the Prime Minister realise the full extent of his mishandling of the situation.

Mr. Tsipras eventually brought Greece to a dead-end, due to his government’s lack of planning, inexperience, naivety, and the hubris of over-estimating its own strength. Given the inability to adjust in a timely fashion to the requirements of shrewd governance, one may even claim that Mr. Tsipras’ spectacular U-turn after the referendum was ultimately good for his own country and Europe in general, albeit at a great cost for all sides involved.

Change comes with strategy

The lesson to be drawn for leftists or progressives across Europe—present author included—is, I believe, two-fold:

  1. be grounded: if we really are prepared to challenge the European Union’s status quo in this era of Realism, we need to be fully prepared for the staunch opposition of the powers that be;
  2. be programmatic: vision guides our conduct but cannot shape the technical aspects of it, suggesting that we need to have a clear and precise understanding of the context in which we operate, and be aware of the feasibility of the policies we propose.

Syriza was delusional and ill prepared for the task. Rhetoric is crucial to one’s success, but it only is actionable—indeed desirable—when backed by concrete plans.