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What victory for Kyriakos Mitsotakis means for Greece’s relationship with the EU

Kyriakos Mitsotakis takes office as Greek prime minister. Alexandros Vlachos/EPA

Victory for the centre-right New Democracy party in Greece’s July 7 elections brought to an end four years in power for the radical Syriza government of prime minister Alexis Tsipras, marked by turbulent relations with the EU. But what does the victory for New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis mean for Greece’s relationship with the EU, and does it signal the country’s return to the European mainstream?

Since it came to power in Greece in 2015, Syriza maintained a steady path of austerity, despite promising the opposite. It signed an additional bailout agreement with the EU and deepened cuts in welfare, pensions and the public sector. Nonetheless, it also insisted on shifting the blame for Greece’s predicament onto the EU.

In August 2018, Tsipras declared Greece’s exit from bailout supervision, but the country remains bound by an agreement to complete reforms and sustain a direction of fiscal discipline. Greek voters’ disappointment with Syriza continued, leading to a landslide victory for the centre-right New Democracy party in the European parliamentary elections in May.

Tsipras and Merkel: Syriza’s relations with the EU were turbulent. Julien Warnand/EPA

Tsipras called a snap election for July 7 as the ultimate political solution. The result brought the centre-right New Democracy back to power with an overall parliamentary majority. But the road ahead is rocky for Mitsotakis.

The new government has a short grace period both domestically and with the EU. Despite Greek calls to postpone discussing the economy’s progress at a Eurogroup meeting of ministers on July 8 because of the elections, Greece remained on the agenda. Europe is clearly continuing to monitor the Greek economy’s performance closely.

At the same time, New Democracy promised to introduce a number of tax cuts, increase foreign investment flows and make further reforms to the public sector. Tax cuts require savings to be found elsewhere, and that means Mitsotakis is likely to follow an austerity agenda too. But he must remember that the Greek electorate punished Tsipras for doing just this, and voters have now placed significant hopes on new leadership and a new direction. Mitsotakis will have to perform a balancing act between delivering on his promises and satisfying the EU – but he has little time to act, as both the EU and the Greek electorate want quick results.

Austerity repackaged

Since 2010, Greece’s reputation within the EU has been heavily scarred by the financial crisis and the bailout agreements. Seen as a pariah state and a peripheral country, its negotiating capacity diminished alongside its ability to project its national interests within Europe. Brussels may see new opportunities for a strong centre-right government to push a fresh austerity agenda.

Mitsotakis certainly has allies at the European level. The newly configured European institutions means he is surrounded by friendly political actors, ideologically aligned with his centre-right policy platform of stability.

While the EU need not worry about a U-turn in public policy in Greece, a prolonged agenda of stability – essentially a codename with which to reframe austerity – could bear significant political cost to New Democracy. As minister of administrative reform between 2013-15, Mitsotakis was linked to a number of important public sector reforms included in the previous Greek bailout packages, and he will carry that legacy with him during his term as prime minister.

Repositioning Greece within the EU

Beyond the economy, Greece has three more burning issues to consider in the context of its European relationship.

The first surrounds migration flows and refugees. The rise of far-right party Golden Dawn in the past pushed New Democracy further to the right on some issues, such as migration. Some less hardcore Golden Dawn supporters may have also been attracted to New Democracy by its promise for stronger immigration control and border security. Delivering on that promise will require further cooperation with the EU, including financial help to accommodate refugees on Greek soil. Given the current views on immigration in Europe, including those of New Democracy’s sister parties at EU level, which have become increasingly conservative when it comes to border policy, this presents another challenge ahead.

Refugees at a transit camp on the Greek/North Macedonia border in June 2019. Georgi Licovski/EPA

The second issue is over North Macedonia. Tsipras was credited by Brussels with the successful completion of the 2018 Prespa agreement, in which Greece recognised its neighbouring country’s name as North Macedonia. The deal was opposed by New Democracy and it cost Tsipras votes in the north of Greece. The normalisation of relations with North Macedonia, and the implementation of other aspects of the agreement, remain a challenge for a patriotically oriented party such as New Democracy, which may not attempt to stir matters further.

Third is the issue of Turkey and Cyprus. Tsipras left Greek-Turkish relations in a state of brinkmanship over the exploitation of gas and oil fields in the seabed south of Cyprus. While European companies were tasked with drilling in these fields, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, questioned Greek sovereignty and international sea borders. Yet, he was the first foreign leader to congratulate Mitsotakis on his victory, which could signal a new period of rapprochement.

Read more: Cyprus: dangerous row over gas exploration dates back to British colonial meddling

Political analysts should not be quick to dismiss left-wing populism altogether in Greece. As research my colleagues and I have done has demonstrated, populism is widespread across the spectrum of Greek political parties. Syriza’s vote percentage will allow it to use its well-tested left-wing populist strategy in opposition to the new government, which could prompt New Democracy to respond with right-wing populism.

This strategy is likely to involve wooing political elements who are less prone to domestic reform, and could put New Democracy at odds with its own European agenda. So while Europe hopes for change in Greek politics, politics in Greece may not have changed after all.

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