Strapped for cash and under pressure to deliver on reforms, Greece’s new radical government has ruffled feathers in Brussels by not respecting the diplomatic niceties of the negotiating table.
From 40-year-old Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras downwards, Greek officials have gone into EU meetings in fighting mood, their hard talk taking many by surprise and leaving some aghast.
Tsipras startled fellow European leaders on Saturday when he spoke of a “trap by aggressive conservative forces” led by an “axis” of Spain and Portugal to undermine the month-old Greek government by cutting off EU funds.
Tsipras’ outburst was termed “unusual foul play” by Berlin, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble this week told the broadcaster ARD: “Greece has made its position worse with a rhetoric that is difficult for someone on the outside to understand.”
Maverick Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and bullish Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias have also been involved in clashes as they insisted on Greece’s right to be treated as an equal partner despite its debts to the other members of the eurozone.
“Some people thought that Greece should continue to be slapped around, as it had been for the past five years. We will no longer be slapped around,” Kotzias told Greek radio Alpha last week.
A former communist, Kotzias in January forced EU foreign ministers to adopt a more conciliatory statement on Russian sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine.
“We have the right to strengthen our relations with whichever state we think would benefit our country. We will not raise our hand for permission, like a pupil in class,” the minister said.
At a series of eurozone finance ministers meetings last month to hammer out a four-month loan extension for Athens, the Greeks again exasperated their peers by leaking draft documents and shedding light on secret negotiations.
“It’s terrible — the Greeks seem to live on another planet,” a frustrated European official said after the first of three Eurogroup meetings ended in acrimony.
The writing had been on the wall from when new finance minister Varoufakis, formerly a neo-Marxist blogger, had his first meeting in Athens with austere Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem on January 30.
At the end of a frosty press conference — during which Varoufakis said Greece would no longer cooperate with EU-IMF auditors — Dijsselbloem stormed off to the joy of Greek social media, which had a field day with the spat.
“Baldie, bring your crew to the square in Brussels in one hour,” the bespectacled Dutchman tells shaven-headed Varoufakis in a popular mock photo of the scene that did the rounds.
“Four-eyes, I’ll break you in two like a twig,” Varoufakis responds.
At home the negotiating style of Greece’s new leaders has met with overwhelming approval in a country seething with anger at five years of austerity.
According to a poll in leftist daily Avgi in mid-February, 80 percent applauded the government’s handling of the eurozone talks.
However, some Greek analysts say such high-handed tactics will only damage Athens’ position in the long run.
“They do not speak the Europeans’ language, only their own,” said Manolis Alexakis, a political sociologist at the University of Crete.
“We are completely isolated, and the targets seem to change every week,” said political commentator Paschos Mandravelis, who writes for Greek liberal daily Kathimerini.
He attributed the government’s aggressive style to inexperience, not to design.
“There is no central guidance, each minister behaves according to their own style,” he told AFP.
Tsipras, notes Mandravelis, is the first Greek prime minister in 40 years not to have lived or studied abroad.
“He is just starting to learn how international politics is conducted,” he said.
An EU source was less forgiving. “Tsipras is like a first year medical student who wants to do open-heart surgery right from the start, but he knows nothing about it,” he said. [AFP]