May 1 2014

European Discourses on Managing the Greek Crisis: Denial, Distancing and Blaming

By Dimitris Papadimitriou and Sotirios Zartaloudis 

Flickr - Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας - Αντώνης Σαμαράς - Συνάντηση με τον Πρόεδρο της Ευρωπαϊκής Επιτροπής, José Manuel Barroso (1)Since the outbreak of the Eurozone crisis much attention has focused on the deficiencies of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and its effects on member states’ politics. Here we present some key findings of an ongoing research project which tries to examine an often neglected aspect of the Eurozone’s recent troubles; that is, the evolution of European discourses on the ‘rescue’ of Greece. We focus our analysis predominantly on discourses by senior EU officials, rather than the wider public debate on the fate of Greece which also included the media and other more specialised epistemic communities. We draw evidence from an extensive dataset of media reports from one of the largest databases on EU affairs, Euroactiv, and other leading European newspapers.

Our analysis is grounded on the conceptual literature of Discursive Institutionalism (DI), focusing, in particular, on the distinction between coordinative (i.e. the discourse used by political actors to coordinate their actions and ideas in order to produce policies) and communicative (i.e. the discourse whereby political actors legitimise the selected policies to the public/electorate) discourse, as contributors of a master discourse which shapes the direction of policy adjustment. We also employ the concepts of critical juncture (i.e. path-breaking policy departure) and critical moment (windows of opportunity facilitating change) as a means of assessing the timing and magnitude of such policy change.   

Our research suggested that Greece’s financial implosion produced significant discursive shifts amongst the Eurozone’s political elite in both coordinative and communicative terms. The timing and intensity of the Greek crisis did, in this sense, create a critical moment for the re-articulation of the discourse surrounding the governance of the Eurozone. In coordinative terms, the decision to involve the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the Greek bailout programme through the so-called ‘Troika’ (IMF/European Commission/European Central Bank), introduced an element of external interference in the governance of the Eurozone, which would have been totally unthinkable a decade earlier. With regards to communicative discourse, three key shifts are identified: (i) an increasing doubt over the Euro as a strong currency underpinned by sound economic fundamentals; (ii) the growing suspicion over the rigour and impartiality of policing the ‘rules of the game’ (both prior and after membership of the Eurozone); and, crucially, (iii) an explicit acknowledgement of the possibility of a Euro-exit, despite unequivocal Treaty clauses to the contrary.

We argue that these discursive shifts map onto different stages of the management of the Greek crisis as European policy makers struggled to get to grips with complex and rapidly changing constellations of inter-related problems. Hence, from an initial narrative of denial, European leaders eventually acknowledged that the EU lacked the necessary tools to deal with a very real problem which had landed firmly on its door. The creation of the European Financial Stability Facility in May 2010, however, was very much portrayed as a means of dealing with the rather ‘exceptional’ Greek case. In other words, the Greek peril was seen as a product of local specificities and an example of poor EU oversight over an ‘unruly pupil’, not as a symptom of a wider European economic malaise. During 2011 as the government of George Papandreou struggled to fulfil the conditions of the first bailout package at home, European discourses on Greece grew increasingly hostile, reflective of a respective descent towards the ‘politics of blame’. In the aftermath of Papandreou’s resignation in November 2011, and throughout the protracted instability that ensued, another discursive taboo was broken: the threat of a Greek exit from the Eurozone (‘Grexit’) was explicitly deployed as a means of disciplining Greece’s quarrelling political class. Although still not entirely dismissed, the ‘Grexit’ discourse only begun to subside in the aftermath of the June 2012 election as European leaders sought to support Greece’s fragile pro-bailout coalition government under Antonis Samaras.


With the Eurozone crisis still very much an evolving process, the long-lasting (that is the qualitative difference between a critical moment and a critical juncture) effects of the Greek crisis on the master discourse of EMU are yet to be fully manifested. On the coordinative front, recent agreements on the strengthening of economic governance within the Eurozone (with further Treaty changes scheduled in the near future) appear to suggest that the crisis has indeed galvanised a magnitude of change akin to a critical juncture. A similar argument can also be made on the communicative front. The discursive polarisation during the Greek crisis may not necessarily be proof of the EU’s terminal decent towards disintegration, but it is certainly reflective of an increasingly militant discourse on competiveness and ‘self help’. The extent to which this discourse can be compatible with the finalité politique of the European Union remains the subject of much contestation which is likely to dominate European politics in years to come.

This piece originally appeared on the PSA blog.


Professor Dimitris Papadimitriou is a Professor of Politics at the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. He is also the Director of the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence. He has published extensively on Greek politics, the EU’s political economy and aspects of its enlargement strategy in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. His full academic profile is here.

Dr Sotirios Zartaloudis is Lecturer in Politics at Politics, History and International Relations at Loughborough University. His research interests include Europeanization, public policy, welfare reforms, and the impact of the financial crisis on national social policy and politics. His full academic profile is here.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.


Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

Framing Europe: An Exchange

The Indignados in the Spanish and Greek press: constructing narratives of civic resistance

Framing the Indignant Citizens Movement

The Politics of Blame

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Euro, Europe, Greece and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to European Discourses on Managing the Greek Crisis: Denial, Distancing and Blaming

  1. Pingback: EUROPP – The financial crisis has badly damaged the Greek and Portuguese welfare states

Comments are closed.