Παρασκευή, 29 Ιουνίου 2018

Greece is pillar of EU stability, says firebrand Alexis Tsipras


28/6/2018

By Jim Brunsden

Once the biggest threat to European unity, prime minister now preaches consensus

Alexis Tsipras almost pushed his country out of the eurozone, railing against German hegemony in Europe and its neoliberal consensus. Now, Greece’s prime minister is worried about populist political forces rocking the EU boat.

Speaking to the Financial Times after Athens secured a historic debt relief deal from other eurozone governments, Mr Tsipras said Greece was a “pillar of stability” in a turbulent region, and a solidly pro-European force in volatile times for EU policymaking.

“I think the most important achievement is that Greece was for more than five years a part of the problem in Europe, now it’s part of the solution,” he says.

It is a breathtakingly bold assertion from a prime minister whose policies in the six months after his election in January 2015 precipitated the EU’s biggest political crisis since its inception and almost brought about the partial break-up of the eurozone. With Greece preparing for life without bailout funds, Mr Tsipras needs to send a reassuring message to his EU partners.

Mr Tsipras’s comments are also a reflection of how the European political landscape has been drastically reshaped since the leftwing firebrand and his Syriza party were swept to power on an anti-austerity wave, promising to secure better terms for Greece after nearly five years of international bailouts.

The election of a Eurosceptic, anti-establishment government in Italy, coupled with persistent tensions between eastern and western members of the EU over democratic standards and migration policy, mean that Mr Tsipras now finds himself allied with leaders such as France’s centrist president Emmanuel Macron in efforts to push ahead with European integration.

Greece, whose reception facilities were overwhelmed in the 2015 refugee crisis, is also at the centre of discussions on reforming EU asylum and immigration policy.

It is a shift Mr Tsipras is keen to underline. “The threat to Europe is these populist, extreme-right forces that are rising now,” he says. “I think that this is the real threat we are facing now with the refugee crisis. This model or faction that says, if this problem is not in our backyard, I do not want to contribute to the way to find solutions.”

He and his government are firmly inside the “European framework”, says Mr Tsipras. “I am at, let’s say, on the left side of the framework. Someone else is in the centre, on the right, but we are in the same framework.”

Mr Tsipras was speaking after what have been a momentous few days for Greece. The debt relief deal approved by eurozone finance ministers last week paves the way for the country to exit its euro area bailout in August, bringing an end to eight years of rescue programmes.

Another move to turn the page on the past came earlier this month with a deal between the Greek government and Macedonia to end a near 30-year dispute over the western Balkan country’s name. The accord was hailed by EU leaders, even as other political forces in Greece labelled it as an attempt to curry favour with the US and fuel splits in the country’s main, nationalist, opposition party.

Mr Tsipras says his government’s record includes increasing Greece’s “geopolitical role”.

“We managed to enhance our relations with our strategic partners and to create new partners in the area,” he says.

But while Greece seeks to move on to brighter economic times, Mr Tsipras’s political opponents and others in the country argue that Syriza should not be allowed to forget other parts of its record.

Many economists point to how Greece was close to completing its second bailout programme at the end of 2012 and return to relying on markets to finance its debts, only for Syriza’s election in January 2013 to usher in a frantic period that ended in the country taking a third rescue package of €86bn.

EU officials estimate that those chaotic few months, and their aftermath, may over the long term cost Greece between €100bn and €200bn in economic output.

“Everybody knows that Greece has a lot to do,” says Mr Tsipras, citing the country’s debts, which total more than 170 per cent of gross domestic product.

Critics also point to broader concerns about the health of Greek institutions, amid fears that Syriza has failed to address, and may have worsened, problems such as the politicisation of the judiciary. A particular concern for Brussels has been the prosecution of Greece’s former national statistics chief, Andreas Georgiou, on charges that have been comprehensively dismissed by EU authorities. Euro area finance ministers last week said the continued trials were a source of concern.

Mr Tsipras says weaknesses in Greece’s public administration are a “significant illness” that had contributed to the crisis, and it is one that his government is working to remedy.

Even while these domestic concerns linger, the transformation of Mr Tsipras’s role on the European stage cannot be denied. After several years as supplicant, Mr Tsipras is now being wooed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is desperate to strike deals with southern European countries that would make it easier for German authorities to turn away asylum seekers.

The Greek prime minister’s pitch now is that his confrontation with other EU leaders in 2015 was overblown.

“I never said that I want to go outside the eurozone. I never said that,” says Mr Tsipras.

Instead, he says, other eurozone countries, “put Greece in the corner without a way out”, pressuring his then newly elected government to carry out reforms without giving it enough time to do so.

“This was the bad decision, the bad way they acted at that time,” he says. “So I had no choice.”

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