The Greek Orthodox Easter period is gone and there was much talk of ascension, of rising from the dead to sacred heights. This formidable achievement is not only reserved to citizens with religious beliefs. It is currently also on display in Greek politics and the manner in which Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is being showered with praise on the European stage.
The German media, which unloaded buckets of criticism on Greece during the bailout years, has now switched course completely and discovered a new political star in Athens, namely the current resident of Maximos Mansion. Not to be outdone in the cheerleading efforts by Berlin, European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs Pierre Moscovici has left no stone unturned and no opportunity wasted to herald the achievements of Tsipras’ government, the success story that Greece now is and who its vanguard is. Pope Francis in Rome has joined the choir and is supporting calls to award Tsipras the Nobel Peace Prize.
But the accolade for the ultimate elevation of Tsipras into the Pantheon of Grandeur must go to the so-called “Nouveau Philosophe” known widely as BHL. On the occasion of his recent visit to Athens to present his work “Looking for Europe” – a monologue about the future of the European idea, Bernard-Henri Levy was interviewed by Kathimerini (English Edition, March 30, 2019). Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron and his proposals for a profound reform of the EU project, BHL proceeded to express his “sadness” in how German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reacted to Macron’s initiatives. But alas, all hope is not lost.
As BHL observes, Europe also has other “major figures.” He proceeds to state the following: “You have Tsipras. I am very impressed by his recent metamorphosis. And very impressed by the statesman-like air that he has taken on… In the future government of Europe, in its dream government, I imagine a very special place for him… And in that reformed Europe, I see a major role for Alexis Tsipras.”
“Wow,” as a former finance minister in Tsipras’ January 2015 cabinet would famously say. Who needs to care about domestic politics and the Greek economy when you have such demigods in charge in Athens that have deeply impressed the “rock star of French philosophy”? With such cheerleading the crisis of the last decade becomes an abstraction, a process cynically encouraged by people who have no day-to-day experience of what it means for the many to make it through the month in Greece.
It may be too much to ask of Greek politics, given the harsh medicine many of its representatives had to swallow through the patronizing attitude of the troika over the course of the crisis, that politicians in Athens can be a beacon of light for the citizens they are elected to represent. But it must surely stand for something more inspiring than the numerous “kolotoumbes” that Tsipras is so adept at performing. However, the political somersaults executed in Athens are not only a performance indicator of contemporary Greek politics.
The reversal in assessments of Tsipras and his policies is even more pronounced on the international stage, in particular in foreign policy circles across the European continent. The Prespes agreement with North Macedonia is the most frequently cited example that policymakers and commentators abroad point to as a Greek success in recent years. Make no mistake, the agreement is a constructive compromise to solve a 27-year dispute with a neighboring country. But there is a difference between international recognition and how confrontationally Tsipras handled the resolution of the name issue domestically. As prime minister he did what was needed to gain points abroad while simultaneously undermining political and institutional consensus at home.
It speaks volumes to the state of play of European politics in Brussels, Berlin and Paris when the Moscovicis, Merkels and BHLs now sing loud and clear the praise of a Greek prime minister and herald the unprecedented success story of his SYRIZA-led government. Previous leaders in Athens such as George Papandreou and to a lesser degree Antonis Samaras must be asking themselves what the new “delivery boy” from SYRIZA has that they were denied by the self-serving hyperbole of foreign players during 2010-14.
Short of tangible success stories that can motivate a confused and frequently frustrated electorate across EU member-states, citizens in Greece are being told from abroad that despite rising income inequality, persistently high unemployment and the fragile state of domestic banks there is a new star on the European stage, and he is now playing live in Athens.
For many men and women in Greece who continue to be interested in politics but are also struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, nothing could be more far removed from their own reality than this process of framing a new Tsipras narrative by politicians and commentators in Berlin, Brussels and Paris. As citizens subject to constantly rising taxes and social security contributions (e.g. the self-employed in the Single Social Security Entity, known as EFKA), or companies trying to navigate the political economy of access to affordable credit and timely licensing procedures, or students at university contemplating voting with their feet, these new lines of political credit that Tsipras is receiving from outside Greece must often feel to them in Athens, Thessaloniki or Patra like having their faces spat upon.
You may ask yourself where these cheerleaders look when they visit Greece or what kind of reports they read from their advisers. How much tunnel vision must they have to think that all is well and under control in Athens because Tsipras is taking care of business? Greece is now considered one of the most profitable and speculative investment plays in the international bond markets. Traders thirsty for yield are returning to Athens. So what if anything could go wrong?
Whoever dares to think otherwise and tries to turn off the music before the party ends must either be ignorant or has not yet received enough good vibrations from the new rock star of Greek politics in Europe. Could it be that ahead of the European elections in May we will be introduced to a new app devoted to promoting Prime Minister Tsipras? Such a high-tech instrument already exists in China. When using the app, Chinese citizens can express their loyalty to President Xi Jinping. As is well known, Athens and Beijing share close bilateral relations and have an ample supply of praise for the respective political leaders. Or, closer to home, perhaps Brussels has already developed such an app, ready to be introduced shortly before citizens go to the polls across Greece.
Jens Bastian is an independent economic consultant and financial sector analyst. Between 2011 and 2013 he served as a member of the European Commission 's Task Force for Greece in Athens.