Syriza’s victory in Greece’s general election yesterday could end up having some impact on the UK’s general election, and our politics after the votes are counted.
Not because there is a latent Syriza equivalent, lurking in the electoral undergrowth, and poised to surge forward as part of some new ‘European spring.’ The UK is not Greece. UK voters have not suffered a 25% drop in their country’s GDP and nor do they have 25% unemployment. And no external power has imposed the austerity programme; it is the choice of the elected government – whatever voters make of its consequences.
The UK electorate is having a slimmed down version of the Greek argument about austerity. Voters are showing exhaustion with the programme, expressed through dissatisfaction with the condition of public services, the sluggishness in wage growth, and the perception of widening inequality. But they support the general view that the country’s finances must be dragged back into shape somehow, and hardly anyone seriously thinks there are any public debts that can just be conveniently written off.
That’s why the UK has no Syriza. Parties of the centre and right back austerity measures, and are comfortable in their judgement that they can pitch for votes with promise of even more austerity to come. Parties of the centre and moderate left cannot risk appearing ‘soft’ on austerity, for fear of being perceived as unfit to assume control of the economy. The only radical denunciations of austerity in its entirety come from a diminished core of the hard left and elements within regional parties. There is no electoral constituency in the UK on which to build a Syriza insurgency.
But Syriza’s win has every prospect of upsetting agendas in Brussels, and it is the potential for real turmoil within the EU that could intrude into Britain’s election. And the way the new Greek drama unfolds could bring problems for David Cameron if he is Prime Minister after May, and still committed to his in-out referendum.
Syriza and the next 10 weeks. Here, a lot depends on the opening skirmishes between the new Greek government and Brussels, and the other leaders of Eurozone partners, in particular Germany. Any early sign of impasse could turn things critical, even risking some banking instability – bringing ominous echoes of previous crises. Although the UK government is shielded from the worst of the possible impact, by virtue of not being within the Euro, that does not offer complete protection from contagion.
But economic, banking or governance turmoil within the EU will bring it, and the UK’s membership, back onto the agenda. Mr Cameron would prefer it lies dormant for a while. The more the issue dominates, the more grist it gives to UKIP, and to his Eurosceptic critics within his own party. It’s not a firefight the Prime Minister wants. He has to hope that any full blown Euro crisis or EU governance row can be held off until after May.
Syriza and the next government. Even if the fires can be dampened down in the short term, there must surely come a flash point in due course. Syriza has its mandate. A clash between its programme and the Brussels plan, and Bundesbank officials, is likely to come at some point. The more the EU authorities hang tough against Syriza’s renegotiation and debt cancellation demands, the more they risk antagonising voters in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, where anti-austerity sentiment is growing strongly ahead of general elections due later in 2015.
It’s possible therefore that by 2016, the EU will be struggling to hold itself together. The narrative will be one of deadlock, confrontation, and an impasse between its bureaucracy and the democratically expressed wishes of at least some of its citizens.
That cannot be the backlog against which Mr Cameron – if re-elected in May – would wish to hold his in-out referendum. But he has no other choice. An EU in crisis is not a club for which he could argue convincingly for continued membership. Bound as he is to his referendum, he could find himself obliged to hold it in circumstances which make a ‘Yes’ vote – for which he could still campaign – as hard to deliver as any imaginable.
For many UK-based financial services firms, this would be the ‘perfect storm’ , entailing the serious risk of a UK exit.
For Mr Cameron, he could be left facing an unstoppable momentum towards ‘no’, despite his own preference, and his premiership would be imperilled as a result.
Domestic political considerations brought about the commitment to an EU referendum, and determined its timing. Mr Cameron doubtless believed he could win the day, on the back of his ‘renegotiation’. He cannot possibly have foreseen this Trojan horse that has now been wheeled into the midst of his strategy.
To minimise the risks, he would have to urge Germany and others to cede some ground to the new Greek government in order to avoid an EU crisis at the worst possible time. But are other Euro-zone leaders inclined to listen? They may be embroiled in an argument with far greater stakes at risk.
Photo credit: Joanna