Jean-Claude Juncker’s argument that the European Commission will work with Austrian government ministers who belong to a far-right party, “just as I am working with the extreme-right coalition partner of Mr Tsipras,” might be taken as a message to the Greek prime minister, who prides himself on his progressiveness and forgets who he depends on to stay in power. If that was the Commission president’s sole intention, then no harm done.
Juncker’s argument, however, suggests something more dangerous – something for which, once again, Alexis Tsipras can claim credit: the normalization, the broader acceptance of extremist parties. The prime minister may even claim to be the inspiration for Juncker’s other line of reasoning, that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government “has a clear pro-European stance and this, for me, is what is really important.”
On the one hand, the ease with which Tsipras yoked his Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) to Panos Kammenos’s Independent Greeks, with the main point that unified them being their desire to govern and overturn previous policies, was living proof that the means justify the end. And so, if for Juncker the aim is for a government to declare a pro-European stance, then it may not matter who they are nor, consequently, what ideas they will implement in government. On the other hand, the way that Greece’s SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government has conducted itself, with the spectacular about-turn after the 2015 referendum, might have encouraged Juncker to believe that the EU’s millstones can grind down anything. Tsipras’s somersault, in other words, may have seduced Brussels into believing that even the Hungarian and Polish governments might return to the straight and narrow, sooner or later.
Juncker’s mistake is that the Greek situation is not a suitable precedent for him to risk a complacent acceptance of extremists in power in other countries. Tsipras and Kammenos are opportunists first and ideologues second. Their priority is to remain in power, and any ideological outbursts are employed only in service of this cause. The damage that they cause is limited mostly to Greece, with very little effect on the rest of Europe. However, in countries where politicians’ words are connected more closely with their deeds, the consequences of dangerous ideas and policies will test Europe’s principles and its very cohesion. Brussels should not think that because it tightened the leash on a wayward government in Athens that this proves it can risk complacency when dealing with the dangers posed by serious extremists coming to power elsewhere.