Tue | Dec 6, 2016

Greece plays David

Published:Tuesday | January 27, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Greeks seemed unlikely revolutionaries on Sunday. The world media turned out in force to cover the election of Europe's first radical, anti-austerity government, and the police maintained a heavy presence in the centre of Athens.

But most Athenians seemed more interested in taking advantage of the sunny weather to visit the city's flea markets and sit in the cafÈ terraces than in joining the party. The crowd that welcomed the new prime minister, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, outside Athens University, joyously sang The Internationale and waved red banners. But despite the huge monitor and media podium set up in nearby Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament building, the crowd was thin and few car horns blared.

Weary rather than raucous, Greeks nonetheless delivered a resounding message: Enough is enough. Their economy having imploded, half of their young without jobs, people sleeping in the streets, they have declared they will take no more of the austerity the 'troika' - the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) - have demanded in return for fiscal support for the beleaguered Greek government.

collision course

Now everyone is talking about a collision course with Europe. Greece's new government will demand a new deal, with debt restructuring, some write-off, and an end to austerity. Berlin, whose government currently dominates the European Union, will join the European capital Brussels in telling Greeks 'no, stick to the current agreement'. Since the Eurozone crisis first erupted four years ago, the EU's institutions have managed to put buffers in place that would supposedly build a firewall between Greece and the rest of Europe. Having improved the liquidity of the continent's financial system and created emergency-financing mechanisms for governments in difficulty, the European leadership is confident they can prevent a Greek collapse from turning into a continental contagion, as was the case a few years ago.

So ask the average German what he or she thinks of Greece leaving the Eurozone and they might well say good riddance. Ask the average Greek the same question, and they're liable to reply there's no Europe without Greece. That chasm reveals the deeper problem facing Europe. The truth is, it's likely neither answer is correct. Whatever many Greeks make of their ancient civilisation, Greece is quite peripheral to Europe. The general consensus in Europe's political and financial elite seems now to be that they can, if necessary, detach Greece like a lifeboat and send it out to sea.

But, to me, that level of complacency is as sure a sign as any that problems lie ahead. Whatever insulation against financial contagion Europe's leaders have created, they can't easily prevent political contagion. And the election of a charismatic, dynamic young leader with a fresh vision for his country and Europe, however unrealistic that vision may or may not be, is providing inspiration to young people across the continent.

spain's podemos party

The leader of Spain's Podemos Party, like Syriza, a newly formed radical party that has surged in the polls, joined Alexis Tsipras on the podium at a rally last week. Spain has its own election later this year, and the Greek result will likely put more wind in the Podemos sails, thereby creating a second headache for Europe later.

In the meantime, Syriza may embolden the left wings of some of Europe's major parties, like Britain's Labour or France's ruling Socialists. And in an unintended effect, it may further drive the rise of far-Right parties in northern Europe, particularly Germany, which oppose the EU as a handout mechanism for lazy folk from the south (starting with the Greeks). Europeans who think they can brush off a Greek crisis are probably whistling past a graveyard.

Whatever financial firewalls are in place, Europe's rather uninspiring Goliath of a leadership will find it hard to repress the enthusiasm little Syriza unleashed on Sunday night. Athenians may have spent Sunday quietly. Europe didn't.

n John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.