How Alexis Tsipras went from being the Greek Corbyn to the EU's poster boy

As loud-mouthed, ugly, anti-European politics surge in Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Brexit Britain, Greece’s prime minister has shown another way is possible

Denis MacShane
Tuesday 26 June 2018 14:42 BST
Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev sign agreement on Macedonia name change

At a time when it is fashionable to assert the European right and extreme right are on an unstoppable ascension to power it is useful to look at Greece where a socialist government, headed by a populist ex-firebrand, now turned well, almost a statesman, has just put on a tie.

Alexis Tsipras doesn’t do ties but he put a red one on to celebrate the end of Greece leaving the EU’s supervision programme, after €274bn (£241bn) of European taxpayer’s money had been poured into Greece to keep the country partnered with the rest of Europe. This week he is in London promoting Greece as an investment opportunity and embracing market economics with gusto.

It is quite a turnaround from three years ago as every commentator rushed to Athens to proclaim Grexit would soon happen.

Both the left and right denounced the iniquities of German politicians who didn’t feel able to tell their voters to hand over money to a Greece where the nation’s biggest industry, the ship owners, paid no tax; where the country’s biggest land owner, the Church, paid no tax; where trade unions copied the worst of British industrial relations practices that helped destroy Labour in the 1970s and where politicians of the left and right had taken the avalanche of cheap euros that flooded into Greece after 2000 and used them to buy votes.

Like Emmanuel Macron in France or Pedro Sanchez, who has just ousted a corrupt centre-right government party in Spain, Tsipras and his Syriza party soaked up votes to displace the alternating clientelist Pasok and New Democracy parties. One was nominally left, the other nominally centre-right, but both had brought Greece to her knees with populist policies that rejected modernisation and reform.

Soon after forming a government in January 2015, Tsipras held a referendum. It was formally to reject austerity policies and who could object to that? But the walls of Greece three summers ago were spray painted with appeals to vote “Ochi” – No to Austerity and “Nai” – Yes to Europe.

It was as if in the British referendum a year later voters could say yes and no to Europe simultaneously. Tsipras took his referendum majority and decided it was a yes vote to staying in the EU. He allowed Yanis Varoufakis, rather like Theresa May allows Boris Johnson, to fulminate against Brussels and wallow in headlines as he proclaimed that Brussels would bend to his will.

Unlike May, Tsipras quietly dumped his Narcissus minister who went off to join the global EU-bashing celebrity circuit. Yannis Palaiologos, the Katherimini political writer, called his book on the disastrous state of Greek politics and the economy published just before Tsipras won power The 13th Labour of Hercules. Tsipras got on with the business of trying to clean up the Augean stables of Greek public finance bequeathed by the old guard.

With the help of his sensible, matter-of-fact finance minister – Euclid Tsakalotos, educated at St Paul’s and Oxford, who began as a fiery leftist but metamorphosed into a can-do reformist – Tspiras has got the Greek economy growing again after the long years of immiseration since the crash of 2008-9 revealed the economic damage caused by the deep clientelist cronyism of the old political class.

The Greeks were wiser than their anti-EU populists. They did not want to revert to an ever-devaluing drachma and unlike the British did not want to give up European Union citizenship.

Now Tsipras has rendered a second signal service to Europe in addition to keeping his country inside the EU and its currency. He has signed a remarkable agreement with the social democratic prime minister in Skopje over what the Macedonian province of the former Yugoslavia should be called.

Populist rightists in power in Greece when communism ended in 1990 whipped up a hate storm against the name Macedonia being used by the Skopje government. Macedonia is Greece’s largest region with its capital in Thessaloniki. The population of Greek Macedonia is made up of many descended from Greeks expelled from ancient lands in Asia Minor – today’s Turkey – in the 1920s after Ataturk finally replaced the leftovers of the Ottoman empire to lay the foundations of the modern Turkish state.

For 25 years nationalist politicians of the left and right in Athens have refused to recognise ex-Yugoslavian Macedonia and vetoed all efforts by the small Slav-Albanian populated state to get closer to the EU and Nato.

Tsipras has cut this Gordian Knot with his social democratic comrade Zoran Zaev, the Macdeonian prime minister. If the agreement on the new name “Republic of North Macdeonia” sticks, and the feeling in both Athens and Skopje is that it will, it opens the way for Macedonia to join Albania in starting EU accession negotiation and thus beginning the process of finally ending the long Balkans conflict that Slobodan Milosevic launched in the 1990s.

It is a remarkable transformation – from the demagogue of the populist left three years ago to a measured, successful prime minister who has kept his country anchored in Europe and helped find a solution to what appeared an intractable European problem.

Whether Tsipras will be rewarded in the election due to be held in Greece within the next 15 months remains to be seen. He has saved Greece for Europe but Syriza’s unreconstructed leftist policies are not in tune with entrepreneurial, hardworking young Greeks, who don’t want to leave their country to create wealth in more business-friendly parts of the world. But at a time when loud-mouthed, ugly anti-European politics surge in Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Brexit Britain, Alexis Tsipras has shown another way is possible.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe. He is currently writing a book on the future of the Western Balkans

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