Chaos or Kudos? Tsipras’s Tactics Leave Greeks a Costly Legacy

Alexis Tsipras
Greek Prime Minister at the end of an emergency meeting of European leaders in Brussels, on Tuesday, June 23. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has shown himself to be anything but a predictable negotiator.

From suggesting tourists help catch tax-dodgers to e-mailing the wrong draft hours before Monday’s emergency summit, Tsipras and his government used tactics that have proved alien to the more orderly world of the euro region: adversarial, ideological and, on occasion, chaotic. At home, the strategy excited a hurt nation that saw the brinkmanship as bravery. In Brussels and Berlin, it infuriated potential allies.

Whether it worked is a different question: For all his political nerve, Greeks will endure more austerity if the bailout money arrives or not. The measure of his success is instead whether this week’s progress toward an agreement could have been made months ago, before the economy sank back into recession, depositors yanked 30 billion euros ($34 billion) from banks and jobs started to vanish.

“Quite a lot has been lost, and quite little gained,” said Kevin Featherstone, a professor of contemporary Greek studies at the London School of Economics. If it “was a delaying tactic, that would only make sense if the deal got better,” he said.

More aid may be now within reach, but euro-area creditors consider the latest Greek budget measures a basis for further work rather than a done deal.

Wasted Capital

The government argues it managed to protect pensions for those on low incomes at the expense of increasing contributions for workers and employers and getting rid of early retirement. It said it convinced creditors to accept less ambitious fiscal targets for the next couple of years.

Creditors, though, said they agreed to the revisions only because the economy had deteriorated so much that previous projections were no longer realistic.

No Doubt Greece Will Need Debt Relief: Rhodes

“Tsipras wasted his political capital in endless months of stalled talks where bluster and threats took center stage to the detriment of detailed planning,” said Eirini Karamouzi, a lecturer in contemporary history at Sheffield University.

One European Union official called this week’s draft the first serious set of proposals since talks began after Tsipras’s Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, took power in January.

It was the result of a weekend of preparation for a final push to unlock about 7 billion euros from Greece’s existing bailout package. Tsipras briefed his cabinet on Sunday, after talking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, and headed off to Brussels.

Wrong Document

There, the European Commission waited for its own copy of the proposal. It didn’t come; then two came. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said that was so much confusion over the alternative versions that there was no time for preparation.

“Unprofessionalism has had a very negative effect, and it will certainly reflect on the nature of the deal they are going to sign,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale University.

EU Gives Greece Until Tomorrow

Tsipras, 40, learned his political skills in the tumultuous world of Athens student politics.

As the country’s youngest prime minister for 150 years, it wasn’t just his open-neck shirt that contrasted with the fastened ties across the table. His ideas are of the old European left -- taxing the wealthiest people and private companies to maintain pensions and fund the state employment machine. Most European leaders haven’t had to confront that before at government level.

Lecturing Leaders

His finance minister, Athens University Professor Yanis Varoufakis, often numbed his counterparts with lectures on economics. At a particularly acrimonious meeting in Riga in April, he was called a time waster as frustration boiled over. Even last week, he was telling them that “we need a lot more of the real reforms and a lot less of the parametric type.”

For now, opinion polls show Tsipras and Varoufakis still command support at home in their quest to restore Greek dignity after five years of dictated austerity, what they call the noose around their country’s neck.

More political maneuvering will be needed as the economic reality awaiting Greeks hits home and the more radical Syriza lawmakers read the fine print. And only now talks might start on debt relief, something Tsipras promised to deliver.

“While in opposition, Tsipras claimed that inexperience was ‘a moral advantage,’ one quite effective in appealing to voters that were deeply disappointed by the political establishment of the last 40 years,” said Karamouzi. That inexperience was “not as successful in convincing his European partners to grant him more time.”

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