Yesterday Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke in front of the European Parliament in an attempt to gain support for his proposals from Europe’s democratically elected representatives. Despite some areas of common ground, the many of the leaders of the political groupings in the European Parliament decided to lecture Comrade Tsipras about the Greek Crisis as well as making political points rather than providing meaningful solutions.
It is imperative therefore to call out the hypocrisy of some of MEPs that spoke, particularly as those most critical decided that partisan politics was more important than expressing a united front to solve the systemic problems of the EU’s current institutions.
Comrade Tsipras began his speech by calling for a socially just and economically sustainable solution to the Greek Crisis, which he also correctly characterised as a pan-European crisis requiring a pan-European solution. By citing the referendum result from last Sunday, Tsipras argued that the Greek people’s voice couldn’t be ignored because it illustrated that the series of recessions caused by imposed austerity measures had now reached an unbearable level.
As well as referring to the crushing economic crisis facing Greece, the Prime Minister also reflected on the history of Europe as being one of “compromise, convergence and unity”, asking for the same principles to be implemented to assist Greece out of its financial problems. The SYRIZA Leader received applause from across the chamber when he pointed out that the impasse created between the creditors and the Greek government existed long before SYRIZA came to power and that, “[Greece] has been turned into an austerity laboratory, with the experiment not being a success”.
Before laying out his proposals, Mr Tsipras also gave a backhanded remark toward those powers in Europe advocating the same austerity and monetarism staking that the bailouts never “trickled down” to the ordinary people of Greece. In my view the reforms proposed by Tsipras (reducing unemployment, carrying out reforms of the economic and political systems and getting a package to restore growth) are a solid foundation upon which to build further consensus, although a legitimate criticism could be a lack of detail in his speech.
Tsipras was correct in the reforms he proposed because they spoke to his own party and voters that supported addressing income inequality and ending political cronyism whilst also being somewhat acceptable to the different ideologies of the people sat before him.
Of the eight political group leaders in the European Parliament, the European Peoples’ Party Leader Manfred Weber gave a speech which, if it had to be summarised, would be a patronising hatchet job of Tsipras in which he both denounced the referendum and lectured the Prime Minister on democracy. His argument began by citing the lack of proposals put forward by the Greek government, even though last week the creditors had been criticised for essentially crossing out all of the proposals of the Greek government in red pen.
Weber also decided to make political points through the grand tradition of ‘guilt by association’; he criticised Tsipras for receiving a letter from Fidel Castro and also for being applauded by the far-right and far-left groups in the European parliament. Firstly, Tsipras cannot control who sends him post, and secondly, support from people like Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen is for different ideological reasons centred around their wishes to see the collapse of the European project, something that Tsipras does not wish to see. Weber derided Tsipras’ use of ‘solidarity’ by commenting that five EU countries have a lower standard of living than Greece, as if this was justification to continue pushing more of the Greek people into destitution and hunger.
His final point was regarding European culture. Weber sanctimoniously criticised the referendum by claiming that Europe was about compromise before segwaying into talking about democracy as an abstract concept, making comments about other European nations wanting to stop bailing out Greece, essentially implying that compromise with the creditors trumps the democratic will of the Greek people.
In summary Weber stated that Tsipras didn’t like Europe and that it was the Troika that wants to see success, whereas the Greek government wanted to see failure. The huge irony of Weber’s tirade is that, even when ignoring the fact that he derided the merits of democracy despite being an elected representative, the pro-European government of Greece whose leader called on compromise and unity had been accused of fostering division and anti-European sentiment; unsurprisingly the chamber gave a mixed reaction of right-wing applause and choruses of boos.
The next speech was from the Socialist and Democrats’ Gianni Pittella, who decided to speak in terms of solidarity and unity with Greece stating that “Europe without Greece is unthinkable, Europe would no longer be itself”.
In rightly criticising Weber’s remarks, Pittella implored the European Parliament to refrain from division and to stand above party politics.
On more practical points, Pittella commented that the conditions exist for an agreement this week, specifically citing clamping down on tax evasion, improved labour rights and a restructuring of debt that had bee promised to the Greek government in 2012. Pittella also agreed with SYRIZA’s demands from a few weeks ago calling for a European debt conference as has happened in the past whilst also considering the possibility of the pooling of debt.
The comments from Pittella were much more constructive than those of the EPP leadership and was met with applause once he sat down after delivering the following call to action: “I say to you that I am a European. And as Europeans, we Socialists will never accept Grexit. Never!”
The European Conservatives and Reformist representative Ryszard Antoni Legutko followed with a short speech that could only be described as devoid of substance and any potential solutions to the Greek Crisis. To his credit he made an accurate point that the creditors are making Greece suffer for ideological reasons, and that the stability of the Eurozone is more important than the suffering of the Greek people. However, in the same speech Legutko criticised the referendum, made snarky comments about the different rounds of talks and how “the word ‘final’ in the phrase ‘final talks’ no longer means that”, as if pointing out the desperation of both sides to solve the problem is in any way helpful.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was next to speak on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group, who attempted to walk the line between angry outbursts and constructive criticism, whilst also leaving enough room for contradicting himself.
At first it appeared that Verhofstadt was going to be more level-headed than his centre-right colleague at the start of the session as he joked that Tsipras doesn’t need to fear the European Parliament.
However the tone immediately shifted to a more confrontational perspective by echoing criticisms of the Greek government regarding the apparent lack of proposals. Mr Verhofstadt stated that he feared that “[Europe] is sleeping towards a Grexit with the support of the far-right”, as if asking the people’s opinion on something that would cripple them financially was somehow the act of an extremist rather than the far-right’s support being for their own political reasons.
He correctly pointed out that it would be the Greek people that would suffer as a result of a Grexit, but failed to point out that further austerity measures would also see the Greek people worse off.
Paradoxically despite earlier applauding Prime Minister Tsipras’ comments about the impasse existing before SYRIZA was elected, the ALDE Leader felt compelled to criticise the political class of Greece for not doing enough whilst aiming the criticism at Mr Tsipras.
To Mr Verhofstadt’s credit he did propose five measures for the Greek government to implement; some were reasonable such as ending the privileges of the Orthodox Church and the military, however others were nothing but ideological, specifically shrinking the public sector thus increasing unemployment and transforming the public banks into a private sector market.
His concluding remarks reaffirmed Mr Tsipras’ position as the Greek Prime Minister with the strongest democratic mandate of all his predecessors and challenged him to become a “revolutionary reformer”, with his speech receiving a mixed response. In its totality it was more practically oriented that the EPP character assassination, but also lacked anything to inspire unity and solidarity among the European people.
The United Left’s speaker Gabriele Zimmer yielded much of her time so that other MEPs in her group could speak later on in the debate and opened her remarks but criticising Weber’s arrogant anti-communist comments as “not helpful”. Zimmer called on Greece not to listen to the creditors who were “pushing their ideological prejudices onto an unwilling people”.
The UL Leader agreed with Mr Pittella by calling for a debt cancellation conference, but also raised the point that German MEPs of every group have no right to criticise the situation in Greece as the history of Germany is marked by a series of debt restructuring. She concluded by echoing calls for a pan-European solution that will last whilst also respecting the decision that was made by the people of Greece.
Although Zimmer’s speech was less impassioned that Mr Pittella’s, her points were just as prescient, and the response of the chamber was made significantly louder by the Podemos and SYRIZA MEPs cheering the conclusion of Ms Zimmer’s speech.
The centre-left Green group followed Zimmer echoing many of the other left-wing points that had been made, particularly that the referendum result was not surprising as the austerity measures had see “swathes of society pushed into impoverishment”. The Greens’ Leader Rebecca Harms took a harder line than I thought she would by calling for Mr Tsipras to return with more reforms regarding the tax code and pensions rather than just popular policies around corruption.
Although she was attempting to articulate the idea of a pan-European solution, Harms phrased her comments poorly by asking Mr Tsipras to come up with a solution that could also be implemented among the other debt-ravaged Mediterranean countries, which I personally found like putting the economic stability of four countries onto Tsipras’ shoulders.
She concluded her remarks by claiming that “the cohesion that has been eroded over the last 5 years can be recaptured” but also called on Prime Minister Tsipras to stand in solidarity with the people of Eastern Europe and that “democracy and Putin are not compatible”.
The final leaders’ speeches were from the two far-right groups, the EFDD led by Nigel Farage and the ENF led by Marine Le Pen. Despite being a pro-capitalist former financial trader Farage’s began his speech by regaling the chamber of how Goldman Sachs and German arms companies wanted Greece to join the Euro, leading the centrists in the European Parliament to be critical of Tsipras because he had been saying the same thing, ignoring the fact that SYRIZA wants to end the hypocrisy of the creditors whereas the far-right want to see the collapse of the whole European project.
Farage also continued his anti-European grandstanding by saying that “there is a new Berlin Wall called the Euro”, which is needlessly hyperbolic and, unsurprisingly, provides no suggestions for the Greek Crisis other than for Greece to leave the Euro against the wishes of the Greek people.
Marine Le Pen also began her comments as if she was a hardened leftist vociferously opposing the rhetoric of the EPP about the Greek referendum as well as challenging the pro-austerity MEPs in the EPP and ALDE to propose the same policies to their own electorate as they advocate for Greece. She also correctly pointed out how currently the Euro and austerity were “joined at the hip” and that Greek was “unjustifiable” and should be renegotiated. However she, like Farage couldn’t help herself from trying to insult the EU, by referring to remarks made by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz who in poorly chosen words said that “a technocratic government would have to replace SYRIZA until stability is restored”.
Although I join with many other left-wingers in criticising the EU for putting economics over democracy, it was not Schulz admitting to a coup, as implied by Le Pen; he was stating that if Greece had voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum, and SYRIZA had resigned as they said they would, elections would have take place too late for the new government to negotiate with the creditors because a key debt repayment deadline would have passed. I’m defending Schulz’s motives to appease the international creditors, but Le Pen was clearly attempting misrepresent his statement to suit her anti-European agenda.
On a reflection on the speeches of the different political groupings there seemed to be a divide emerging between MEPs supporting the neo-liberal orthodoxy of the creditors demanding further austerity and those who want to see a debt-restructuring deal.
The division can only be overcome through a debt-conference cancelling and restructuring the debt across Europe to keep the Eurozone in tact whilst preventing further austerity measure from being implemented. We cannot let the Greek people be subjected to another round of punitive measures when they have democratically chosen an alternative on two separate occasions.
Solidarity with Comrade Tsipras. Unity with the Greek people.