What Britain should learn from Syriza and Greek eurosceptics

Hint … it’s more than sartorial advice. Andy Rain/EPA

The last few years have been remarkable for Greece’s relationship with the EU. The bail-out agreements between the country and the EU-IMF, the interference of the latter two in domestic affairs and the imposition of austerity have caused a sharp rise in euroscepticism.

The feelings of Greek people about their relationship with the EU coincide with a trend of euroscepticsm throughout Europe, including in the UK, where the issue ranks highly in the build-up to the general election. The rise of Syriza – tied as it is to Greek euroscepticism – and its subsequent dealings with the EU, holds lessons for the next British government.

A changing relationship

When they joined the eurozone in 2001, 51% of Greeks viewed the EU in a positive light. Today this percentage has gone down to 23%, with more people (44%) having sour feelings towards Brussels. But for all their frustration, Greeks remain firmly in support of their place in the EU.

As a result, Syriza’s rise to power was largely due to a rise in euroscepticism – they promised a break from EU-imposed austerity, while guaranteeing the country’s place in the EU. But fulfilling this aim has proved to be increasingly difficult. To an extent this can be seen as a result of the different opinions of EU partners, as to what the solution to the crisis is. At the same time, the new Greek government’s strategy has not helped its aims.

The Syriza-led government has taken an aggressive stance toward the EU. The government has shown little appetite for compromise and has been far keener to underline the things they won’t do rather than offering a comprehensive, positive route out of the crisis. This has caused increased tension with the rest of the EU, where even the most sympathetic to Syriza seem to have lost faith in its will and ability to compromise, with public opinion in the rest of the EU seeming to prefer the idea of Greece outside the eurozone.

Parallels in the UK

The UK, on the other hand, represents a more balanced, but still eurosceptic picture than Greece: 30% view the EU negatively, 32% positively and the rest have neutral feelings. However, the actual support of membership is far less than Greece, with 35% advocating leaving the EU altogether and only 44% clearly favouring a European future.

The eurosceptic trend in the UK has shaped party politics, not too dissimilarly to what has happened in Greece. Besides the UK Independence Party, which advocates a break from the EU, the Conservatives also have clear eurosceptic elements. As the leader of the coalition government, the Conservative Party has adopted an aggressive stance towards the EU.

With echoes of Syriza’s vow to renegotiate austerity with the EU, the Conservatives’ mantra is one of support for EU membership on the condition that the country’s relationship to the EU is renegotiated and powers are brought back to Westminster. The Conservative suggestion of a “renegotiation”, however, often seems more like a crusade to Brussels to take back control of the UK. Perhaps in an even more demagogic way, the Conservatives suggest that such a strategy is feasible and could allow the UK to secure major concessions, such as restrictions on the free movement of people across the EU.

Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, rose to power on a wave of eurosceptic popularity. Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

Lessons from Greece

But if Greece is to teach the UK anything, it is that an aggressive strategy is not appreciated and does not win friends among EU politicians or their populaces. Bringing together 28 different member states and agendas, the EU is, naturally, mostly about compromise. A failure to appreciate this reality alienates partners and undermines any possibility of actually promoting your interests.

While a previously imperial power and the second largest European economy has indeed more clout in the EU than an essentially bankrupt small member state, the UK cannot – and, perhaps more importantly, should not – act in such an aggressive and uncompromising manner. To do so goes against the way of doing things in Brussels and the fundamental nature of the EU.

Instead, there is a need for an honest debate on what should be achieved in the UK and in the EU. For example, there is need for an informed discussion on the impact of EU membership on the UK. Bizarrely, the coalition government commissioned a four-year study into this, but have so far ignored its findings. The results of the so-called Review of the Balance of Competences have been buried by the Conservatives, apparently because their findings did not support the party’s eurosceptic narrative and voter-appeal.

Populism of this type might thrive in electoral campaigns. But the day after the general election, the UK will need to think seriously about what is desirable and what is possible in its relationship with the EU – looking at Greece’s messy dealings might provide some interesting food for thought.