Less than four years ago, Greece’s left-wing Syriza party and its leader Alexis Tsipras won the elections and formed a government that promised to take the country off the path towards bankruptcy.
Today, the situation is very different in Greece. Lawmakers will soon be voting on the country’s first budget after years of ‘memorandum’ programmes.
In Europe, ahead of the European Parliamentary election, Syriza is promoting the idea for the formation of a coalition between Social Democrats, Greens and the Left. The idea is for this coalition to support a progressive Commission’s Spitzenkandidat as well as will propose a social political agenda for the EU.
European Interest caught up with Greece’s Syriza MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis. A member of the Bureau of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left and Vice-President of the European Parliament, he is one of the partisans of the idea of the cooperation of the European progressive forces.
What worries him ahead of the European elections, is not only the rise of the far-right parties in some of the EU member states, but the simultaneous right turn of some of the EPP members and the possible threat of a coalition between conservatives and the far-right at a European level.
Papadimoulis says that the refugee waves surprised everyone in EU and that what is lacking today is a European response to this problem.
As for the political situation in his country, he believes that the Syriza party arriving in the government encountered huge problems and that managed to face successfully some of them.
“In Greece historically, the Centre and the Left attract the majority of the Greek people,” says Papadimoulis, adding that he is confident his party will win again the next general election.
European Interest: The electoral success of the far-right parties in some EU member states is today a popular subject for debate. Does the rise of the far right worry you?
Dimitris Papadimoulis: The rise of the far right is particularly worrying because it is combined with an erosion of right-wing ideas and a conservative turn of the traditional Christian Democracy. It is not only the upward momentum of Matteo Salvini and Marie Le Pen but also the gradual ‘Orbánisation’ of the EPP. Because inside the EPP, Viktor Orbán is no longer isolated and picturesque, he has also Sebastian Kurz with him. And Orbán is, unfortunately, along with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the Greek conservative party, among the most enthusiastic supporters, from the very beginning, of Manfred Weber‘s candidacy. So, what worries me, and what should force the progressive forces to speed up their initiatives, is the combination of the upward dynamics of the far right and the right turn of the EPP.
I have the impression that there is underground mobility already in the background, so that what has already been done in Austria, the governmental cooperation between the far-right and the conservatives, is being thought and kneaded at European level.
Manfred Weber is nominated by EPP as his official candidate. Do you consider the election to be certain, given the power the EPP will have again in the European Parliament?
Manfred Weber has nothing to do with Jean-Claude Juncker. Weber is a much more right wing politician, not only compared to Juncker but also Angela Merkel. He was a Grexit supporter, has long expressed his position for the expulsion of Greece from the Schengen treaty, has led in statements against the countries of the European South, and is therefore a symbol of a right turn of the EPP. I think the EPP with the Weber nominee will record lower rates than it did in 2014 and I do not see that will be easy to form a majority capable of giving it a vote of confidence in the European Parliament.
But since in politics we must anticipate and prevent, I think it is necessary to speed up the initiatives already in place so that the three progressive political families – the Left, the Socialists and the Greens – despite their differences, formulate a joint plan for progressive changes in the course of European integration, against the extreme right and the recipe of the eternal austerity that the neo-liberal doctrine embodies. The time that remains until the European elections is not much, but I think that these three political families must seek the strongest possible conciliation with each other as after the European elections we will have everything changed: new President of the European Council, new president of the European Commission, new president in the European Parliament, a new High Representative for European foreign policy, and shortly afterwards a new governor of the ECB.
The more effective the convergence of European progressive forces is, the easier it will be to avoid the threat of the evil scenario of right-wing coexistence with the far-right, because that would lead EU to dissolution.
What do you think will be the campaign issues that will dominate the European elections?
Over the past ten years, Europe has been delayed, postponed or failed to provide solutions to the issues raised in the 2008 crisis. The slow pace and the stagnation in completing banking unification, the deepening of EMU, strengthening democratic accountability, the lack of cohesion policy. Europe failed to give a European solution to the refugee crisis and it is obvious that EU is afraid to apply what European conditions predict against the revolt of Orbán or Katczynski who want a Europe ‘à la carte’ and they don’t implement decisions they have already signed.
The challenge is to discuss what needs to be changed in Europe, to make the European integration project more appealing to the citizens. But I am very afraid that this will not happen, and we will have the European elections based on the national agenda and with many ‘fake news’ and with a trade of fear in which the far-right forces and the ultra-conservative wing of the EPP will play a leading role.
If this happens, the correlations after the elections will be worse. The only way to avoid this is to show realistic but at the same time concrete and bold ideas from the perspective of progressive forces. And to do this, all three progressive political families must come to terms.
But one of the three families, the socialists, seem to be in decline. How do you explain this?
Social democracy faces one of the greatest risks of sharply shrinking and must regain its roots and become more radical. It has made a fatal loss, its long co-existence with the right and its submission to neo-liberal ideas.
The Left has to formulate a clearer and more coherent plan for European integration, for a more democratic and social Europe. The Left has to work more boldly with the part of social democracy that tries to redefine and escape the embrace of the right. We have such examples in Portugal with the Costa government and in Spain, with Sanchez government, the positive example of Corbyn in the UK, although he is walking along the way of the Brexit and Syriza in Greece.
What I think is that this dialogue will lead to the creation of a new pro-European progressive left. Around this idea, we have created in the EP the Progressive FOCUS Alliance, which is an area of dialogue and joint action by MEPs from these three political families. I am one of the co-founders of this initiative and on 27 November we are organising a debate on this subject of dialogue in Brussels. We call on the three presidents of the political groups, Udo Bullmann, Gabi Zimmer and Ska Keller. I will have the honour to make the opening speech.
Do you think the issue of corruption will concern the election campaign? There are already dead journalists investigating corruption issues in EU countries, such as the huge Danish bank scandal.
And we have other things before. We have a huge tax evasion that is revealed by Panama Papers, the paradise papers and the last scandal the Cum-Ex, which costs tens of billions of euros in the public funds, due to the fact that for years the European elite has refused to do the corresponding steps of tax harmonization and reinforcement of controls. Also, a major corruption issue is the substantial avoidance of tax payments by the giants of the internet because the EU says a lot, but it does not really do anything about taxing the e-economy.
Next to this is the institutionalised opacity that allows for corruption phenomena. It is a pity that a few dozen journalists are discovering things that cannot discover expensive European mechanisms that are supposed to exist to protect the public interest.
I therefore think that this debate must be made during the pre-electoral period by the progressive forces, because if it does not, this issue could be used in a different way from those who present the EU as a centre of corruption and wish the return to fortified states to nationalist recipes, the isolationism.
But in relation to the subject of corruption, there is also a great debate about the so-called ‘Golden Visas’ and the sale of citizenship. What’s your take on this?
On this point, I think it is not only the responsibility of the European authorities but also of the national authorities to find ways to strengthen controls so that useful things such as investment in countries in need do not become backpacks to facilitate money laundering or the acquisition of criminal passports.
I am not a supporter of the idea that these programmes should be removed, but my view is that there is a need for better and more effective cooperation between national and European authorities through more frequent exchange of information and intensive checks.
Migration will remain a serious problem for the EU. There are large open gateways such as Spain, Italy and Greece. Speaking about Greece, the situation in the eastern Aegean islands is tragic and everyone is complaining, from local communities to refugees and immigrants. Why do you think we have reached this point?
We have come to this point because Europe has failed to manage the problem of refugee flows. Even [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, who is a conservative politician few days ago at a speech at the European Parliament, said that it is inconceivable that a united Europe of 500 million citizens cannot manage a problem of one and a half million refugees, under its international obligations and the Geneva Convention when in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon there are 6.5 million refugees living on less than one dollar a day. I think that’s where the problem starts.
Otherwise, let’s be honest, everyone was surprised, including Greece, and they should not be surprised by this explosion of refugee flows because it was the logical consequence of the wars and the humanitarian disaster that was going on at that time.
In Greece, mainly in the mainland, there are things that roll well, but it is not so in the islands. There are situations for which no one can be proud of. Efforts are also being made by the Greek authorities and local government to address these problems. But what I find unacceptable is that the ones who are most responsible for this problem and who mean that they have not received a single refugee, have not sent a single euro or a blanket criticise real problems and real weaknesses in Greece.
But, all the studies not only of the EU but also of the UN unfortunately show that the refugee phenomenon will continue, and we need a stronger European response. The EU must finally give European responses to the refugee issue. And I say this because the last three years have just happened to be the opposite. The European Commission has tabled a positive package on refugee asylum reform, Dublin, etc. The European Parliament has also approved positive amendments to the Commission’s proposal, backing this proposal with improvements. And nothing goes on because it has been blocked in the Council by countries that react and cancel this prospect. This was initiated by the countries of Visegrad, but after that Austria and then Italy, and then the German interior minister joint, and now we have the Austrian presidency where Chancellor Kurtz exempts Austria from the signing of the UN Migration Pact.
Syriza formed a government during a difficult period in Greece. After almost four years of government, what do you think your party has accomplished?
Syriza – despite the mistakes, the weaknesses, the difficult and forced compromises which it was forced to do especially in the summer of 2015 – has managed to remove the country from the memorandums and now we’ll vote in a few days the first post-memorandum state budget that will not have the additional cut in pensions and will only have positive countermeasures that will give relief to millions of Greeks. The government reduced unemployment from 27% to 19%, moved faster on major changes such as cadastre, landmarks, forest maps, some first digitisation of the economy and the administration.
We have come out of the memorandum, we have not come out of the crisis. It will take years to be able to recover the standard of living we had before bankruptcy. I believe that what Syriza has achieved over this period is important, and for that very reason, Tsipras soon completes four years at the helm of the country’s prime ministry.
In 2019 in Greece, local and parliamentary elections will be held. Polls today show a clear lead over the conservative New Democracy party. Do you think this image can be reversed and how?
This four-year report, full of weaknesses and mistakes, shows that Syriza has come to stay, is now strategically established as the strongest pole in the wider left and progressive faction, and we must not forget that in Greece historically the Centre and the Left attract the majority of the Greek people.
Syriza is very likely to win the next election as long as we improve our effectiveness in achieving the goals we have set. There are issues where we could have done better, such as the effectiveness of combating tax evasion, the modernisation of public administration as well as some mature institutional reforms that are mandatory to tackle the pathogens that led to bankruptcy. The key issue is to raise the productivity of the Greek economy, make it friendlier to investment in all forms in Greece.
This bet can be dealt with by Syriza better than the parties responsible for the bankruptcy of the country and currently controlled for big cases of corruption and dissipation of public money.