What is a European statesman?


Commentators have recently suggested that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may achieve a political legacy “unmatched” by any of his recent predecessors, or that he has achieved the status of “statesman,” or that, along with Zoran Zaev, his counterpart in North Macedonia, he might be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. These suggestions have been made on the basis of two distinct achievements, Greece’s record of fiscal discipline over the past three and a half years and the agreement on a new name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

These views ignore the nature of the Greek government. They also exhibit a deeply cynical view of politics.

A statesman is a leader who exercises moral leadership with a view to the long term. He, or she, resists the temptations of high office for the sake of principle. When examined more closely, the two policies of the Greek prime minister exhibit no evidence of statesmanship at all. If they benefit Greece, or Europe, in the long run, it will not be by design.

Fiscal discipline was forced on Tsipras by the European Union. He resisted it for as long as he could. For years he used poisonous anti-European rhetoric, telling the Greek people that fiscal discipline was not needed at all, but was only a result of malevolent machinations by foreign “elites.”

Tsipras and his then allies spoke of his pro-European opponents as traitors and crooks, and “not true Greeks.” By endorsing every conspiracy theory available, they undermined all efforts to bring about fiscal adjustment and keep Greece in the eurozone. He still speaks of his three predecessors with menace. The Greek government is threatening some of its most high-profile political opponents with prison sentences. Judges and prosecutors involved in the relevant criminal investigation have recently resigned their posts, complaining of government pressure to bring charges against pro-European politicians.

While in power, Tsipras resisted fiscal adjustment for six months. He called a referendum on austerity in July 2015, advocating a “No” vote, and he won it. The night of the referendum, European leaders told him that Greece was on its way out of the eurozone. Only then did he change course. He did the right thing only when disgrace was staring him in the face.

Since then his government has been inside the straitjacket of the EU-backed program of financial assistance. Fiscal adjustment has been an imposition he failed to escape. These were not the actions of a statesman.

The Macedonia example is equally inappropriate. Tsipras did not address the issue until recently. He made no mention of it, for example, at his inaugural speech to Parliament as prime minister in 2015, when a new government is expected to outline policy for its term. His coalition with the far-right Independent Greeks party, which opposed any use of the name Macedonia by another state, did not discuss this or any other matter of policy. The coalition was entirely cynical: There was no coalition agreement, nor any agreement on future policy, just a sharing of the spoils of power.

Until recently Tsipras was happy to support his nationalist allies. He stumbled upon the Macedonia issue when the moderate Zoran Zaev became prime minister of FYROM in May 2017. Zaev wanted to see his country join NATO and the European Union. He was highly motivated to seek a solution and accepted the name North Macedonia – although the deal says that the nationality of the citizens of that state will remain “Macedonian.” So Tsipras jumped at an opportunity that presented itself by accident.

There were two short-term benefits to striking a deal with Zaev. First, this issue could persuade a moderate progressive Greek electorate that Tsipras was not just a demagogue after all. The second benefit could be that the pro-European conservative party, New Democracy, would be divided because its reformist leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, would be in favor of a deal while his critics within the party would be against.

The gamble backfired. Mitsotakis rejected the deal, keeping his party united. Instead, it was Independent Greeks that quit the government in January and left Tsipras with a minority government for the remaining few months of his term (a general election is due by October).

Tsipras has not been acting out of any discernible long-term plan or principle. Quite the contrary. He supported the nationalist right when it suited him. He then abandoned it when his electoral prospects demanded that he turn to the political center ground. So far, he has exercised power for self-preservation without any plan at all. It would be entirely wrong to call such conduct that of a statesman. Europe certainly needs farsighted and courageous leaders, but it would be a sad state of affairs if we allowed opportunists to succeed in a crude impersonation.

Pavlos Eleftheriadis is a professor of public law at the University of Oxford.