The prospect of Greece leaving the eurozone once dominated the country’s political agenda. Yet as Susannah Verney writes, in the 2019 Greek elections, relations with the EU were simply not an issue. She argues this quick change in the political climate demonstrates that unlike in the UK, Greek citizens were not motivated by a desire to reject the principle of participation in European integration. Rather, the cause of contention had been the policy response to the specific challenges posed by the country’s debt crisis.
Before the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis in 2009, relations with the European Union seemed to be a non-issue in Greece. Public opinion was overwhelmingly positive about EU membership, with support levels above the EU average. Two pro-integrationist parties, the centre-left PASOK and the centre-right New Democracy (ND), alternated in power. In the competition between them, the main EU-related theme concerned which was more successful in winning EU funding. The EU was not an election issue and did not appear to influence voter choice. The Greek case thus seemed to fit Cees Van Der Eijk and Mark Franklin’s theory about European integration as a ‘sleeping giant’ in national politics.
But with the crisis and Greece’s three EU/IMF bailouts of 2010-15, it seemed the ‘sleeping giant’ had woken up. The prospect of a disorderly eurozone departure (‘Grexit’) loomed over Greek society for more than five years. Greek-EU relations became both salient and contested. As Eurobarometer surveys show, faced with tough bailout measures, Greek public opinion became more hostile toward the EU. On a series of indicators, including holding a negative image of the EU, tending not to trust it and feeling their voice did not count, Greeks repeatedly topped the polls of discontent within the Union. For the country’s political forces, their stance on the bailouts became the key axis of political competition and an important element of party image. It was claimed the party system was reshaping around a new cleavage, between opponents of the bailouts and those who accepted them as a necessity to keep Greece in the eurozone – and maybe even in the EU.
The division ran not only between but also within parties. For both PASOK and New Democracy, the ratification of the second bailout precipitated significant internal splits, followed by electoral meltdown in the May 2012 elections. In the new fragmented party system, bailout attitudes determined the composition of governing coalitions. Thus in 2012, New Democracy, PASOK and the minor Democratic Left party united across the left-right divide to form a government to ‘do whatever it takes’ to keep Greece in the eurozone. Then in January 2015, for the radical left SYRIZA and the far-right Independent Greeks, a shared stance on the crucial issues of Greek-EU relations trumped other ideological differences. Common support for eurozone membership and opposition to bailouts united these parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum in a new government.
This government’s subsequent attempt to renegotiate Greece’s bailout terms, in the process putting the country’s eurozone membership at risk, kept Greek-EU relations at the top of the political agenda. The culmination, the July 2015 snap referendum on the latest bailout terms, polarised parties and the public in a binary clash focused around rival ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns. The ‘No’ vote of 61 per cent included a majority in every single electoral constituency. All of Europe held its breath until the Greek government followed its predecessors in signing another bailout, which this time closed the ‘Grexit’ chapter. The new agreement caused a split in SYRIZA, with the departure of a minority faction supporting eurozone withdrawal. But for the first time, a majority of parliamentary parties supported a Greek bailout. This indicated a new elite consensus that in Greece’s situation, bailouts could not be avoided.
Credit: Jeremy Vandel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Four years after that dramatic summer and less than a year after Greece’s bailout exit, the European giant seems to have gone back to sleep. The alleged European cleavage is nowhere in sight. In the May 2019 European Parliament elections, the EU had all but disappeared from the agenda of Greek party competition. New Democracy, as official opposition, declared the European elections were a referendum on the incumbent SYRIZA government. Hoping to precipitate an alternation in power at the national level, the party focused on domestic issues. SYRIZA responded in kind, with a campaign built around its post-bailout economic agenda. When the party talked about European integration, the issue was not Greece’s relationship with the EU, which was taken for granted. Instead, SYRIZA emphasised the balance of forces at the European level, calling for voters’ support in order to strengthen the alliance of progressive forces in the EU and prevent a rightward shift in European policy.
New Democracy’s overwhelming European election lead triggered a national election on 7 July. Again, European issues were of low salience. In both elections, the central policy clash between the two main contenders concerned a classic left-right conflict: tax cuts versus increased welfare support. When European integration did come up, the main quarrel between New Democracy and SYRIZA concerned which party could negotiate more effectively with the EU. The key negotiating goals were shared: persuading Greece’s partners to reduce the annual primary surplus required to pay the country’s creditors and obtaining EU support in relation to Turkey after recent events in the Aegean.
New Democracy argued it would win its partners’ support by establishing a responsible record of reforms. SYRIZA countered that it had already transformed Greece from Europe’s black sheep into a credible country with stronger European alliances. Both parties emphasised their powerful friends in Europe. New Democracy stressed its role in the European People’s Party and close links to Manfred Weber, the original EPP candidate for European Commission President. SYRIZA pointed to its close cooperation with the European Socialists. The elections suggested a return to ‘business as usual’: the EU as a theme for party scoring around effectiveness in achieving common policy goals rather than a source of deeper disagreement.
After all the sound and fury of the crisis era, how did the giant go back to sleep so fast? The key lies in the nature of the crisis era contestation. National bankruptcy meant Greece’s eurozone membership was objectively at stake. But domestic political conflict did not revolve around the existential question of whether Greece should stay or go. As Eurobarometer data show, despite the high levels of discontent mentioned above, there was never a popular majority in favour of leaving the eurozone or the EU. Nor was withdrawal supported by the majority of political parties. Instead, the domestic debate centred on the bailouts. For the EU, these were essential to keep Greece in the euro. Most of the Greek opposition, including New Democracy and SYRIZA, initially disagreed.
The fierce conflict in Greece thus revolved around disagreement with an EU policy. It concerned the content and process of the bailouts: inadequate debt relief, harsh austerity and undemocratic procedures which reduced sovereignty. Although it clearly had potential to do so, the debate did not mutate into questioning the country’s fundamental European orientation. The policy disagreement gradually abated, with successive parties shifting stance and signing bailouts when in government. The so-called ‘cleavage’ thus proved rather fluid, with the dividing-line repeatedly redrawn.
In the summer of 2015, it became all but meaningless, with only a few marginal forces remaining in the anti-bailout camp. Their weak showing in the September 2015 election suggested the electorate was also convinced that opposing bailouts was a lost cause. So in Greece, the giant returned to sleep because the object of contestation was not the principle of EU participation. After all, the Greek crisis concerned a possible eurozone departure triggered by national bankruptcy. It was never about a choice by the Greek people to reject European integration. In other words, ‘Grexit’ was not ‘Brexit’.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Susannah Verney – National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Susannah Verney is an Associate Professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and co-editor (with Anna Bosco) of the journal South European Society and Politics.