Many commentators argue that the Greek left government headed by Syriza is heading towards the moment of truth in its confrontation with the European Union.
Greece is due to make a £575 million debt repayment in the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday of next week. Will prime minister Alexis Tsipras concede the demand of Greece’s creditors that he not only keep up debt repayments but implement neoliberal “reforms”?
According to labour minister Panos Kourletis, the International Monetary Fund is “unyielding on its demands for labour reforms, including pensions cuts, mass layoffs and resisting raising the minimum wage”.
The indications are contradictory. On the one hand, the removal of finance minister Yanis Varoufakis as chief negotiator and his replacement by Euclid Tsakalotos has been taken as a sign that Tsipras is ready to cut a deal. Varoufakis is very unpopular with the eurozone finance ministers.
On the other hand, Tsipras said last week that “if the solution offered goes beyond our mandate, it will have to be endorsed by the people” in a referendum.
Some predict that, if Tsipras were nevertheless to compromise, Syriza would split with the powerful Left Platform breaking away to oppose further austerity. Personally I’m sceptical about this.
Historically when left governments change course and capitulate to capital, their left wing doesn’t rebel. This was true of Tony Benn when Labour prime minister Harold Wilson demoted him and imposed wage controls in the summer of 1975. Jean-Pierre Chevenement did resign when French president Francois Mitterrand embraced neoliberalism in 1983, but he soon rejoined the government.
There was another very telling signal last week. Tsipras was photographed in Nicosia, Cyprus, shaking hands with the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at a tripartite summit also involving the Greek Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades.
According to Middle East Eye, “in a declaration, they said the ‘scourge of international terrorism’ now threatens Europe, the Gulf, and the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Sahel region and sub-Saharan Africa… The three agreed to jointly combat terrorism and violent extremism for the sake of security in the eastern Mediterranean, a region virtually encircled by conflicts.
“‘We are encouraged by the recent gains of the Iraqi forces in Iraq with the support of the anti-Isis international coalition,” the statement said.
This is extraordinary. When a Europe-wide movement against the “war on terrorism” was launched after the 9/11 attacks, one of the main constituents was the Greek Social Forum. This body is often praised as one of the laboratories of left unity from which the contemporary Syriza emerged.
The Egyptian Revolution of 25 January 2011 inspired many to imitate the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. One of the most important examples was provided by the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens and of squares in other Greek cities and towns in the summer of 2011. Syriza was heavily involved in this.
So it’s shocking to see Tsipras shake the hand of the butcher el-Sisi, architect of the Egyptian counter-revolution, and pledge his government’s support for the latest phase of the “war on terrorism”.
The summit reflects the competition between states in the eastern Mediterranean over access to the energy reserves located mainly undersea. Those off Cyprus have seen Greece, southern Cyprus, and Israel square off against Turkey. The Independent Balkan News Agency quotes a south Cyprus government spokesperson saying, “A trilateral summit of Greece, Cyprus and Israel is being planned”.
This development confirms that Tsipras’s coalition with the right wing Independent Greeks wasn’t just about getting a parliamentary majority. Like them, he wants to assert the interests of Greek capitalism in the eastern Mediterranean.
But maybe we should see also the summit as part of Tsipras’s negotiations with the European Union. He’s signalling to them that he can be relied on to defend the existing imperialist order in the Mediterranean. But defeating austerity requires challenging this order, not reinforcing it.