“The European Union must be democratised”

24/Jun/2015

With the victory of Syriza in Greece, the dogma of austerity has once again been called into question. For the political scientist Yannis Papadopoulos, the success of Eurosceptic movements is a warning sign. By Benjamin Keller

(From "Horizons" no. 105, June 2015)

The European Union is going through a politically sensitive time. Its policies are being brought into question from within its own walls. This January in Greece, the extreme left party Syriza won legislative elections on the back of a campaign against the austerity measures demanded by the European Commission, the Central European Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Austerity – in the form it has been applied – was not a good remedy, says Yannis Papadopoulos, professor of Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne. He nevertheless uses the words ‘irresponsible’ and ‘Greek political parties’ in the same sentence. He argues that given the rise in euro-scepticism, the European Union must lean further towards integration and democratising decision-making processes. In an interview with Horizons, he talks to us about the Greek crisis and discusses its consequences.

With hindsight, how do you see the victory of Syriza at the Greek legislative elections?

The vote against the incumbent government, and for that matter any party identifying with their policies, was fuelled by austerity measures. But voters, often fresh out of hope and feeling frustrated, were also wooed by Syriza’s many promises.

So, is this vote purely a reaction against the European Union’s policy?

Not only that. It’s also a rap on the knuckles for the Greek parties that are widely seen as being corrupt. For example, a non-negligible number of votes has shifted from the right-wing party New Democracy to Syriza.

Syriza has also promised to renegotiate Greek debt, provide free medical care and even hike salaries and pensions. Is this realistic?

Certainly not. They have neither a coherent negotiation strategy with their European partners, nor any serious plan to finance such measures. Greek parties have a tradition of making promises in opposition, which they then forget about when they get into power, precisely because the promises are often excessive. Whilst they were in opposition some years ago, New Democracy made a firm stand against the measures imposed on Greece after it joined the euro. But no sooner than they came into power, they changed the party line. Greek political parties are quite irresponsible.

How do we explain this?

In terms of a somewhat populist political culture. Greek politicians have a strong tendency to scratch the backs of their clients and to blame problems on others. One part of the population will therefore be let down by the inability of Syriza to keep its excessive promises. But there will also be a margin of voters that are not easily convinced and who must have known that Syriza was not going to keep its promises.

Has the European Union employed the right strategy?

Greece has a serious public debt problem. It’s not the fault of the European Union; it stems largely from poor management by previous governments. This is what needed to be tackled. That said, austerity policies are not the right solution either. They have hit already disadvantaged people in a system that has no real social protection floor. They have also hampered growth.

What were the alternatives?

A certain number of measures were needed, such as the reform and modernisation of the administration. It would have been better to have backed growth-friendly policies. But that’s difficult given the Greek economy’s structural weaknesses, including its lack of international competitiveness and of genuinely productive activities. There was also a need for more structural reforms, particularly in addressing certain sectors of the economy that still suffer from protectionism under the influence of powerful corporations, including those at the core of Syriza.

Do you mean liberalisation?

Liberalising certain sectors, yes, but developing the social protection floor also. This has been undertaken by neither the European Union nor the Greek authorities. And it is very unlikely that any change will come from Syriza. In fact, when it comes to the topic of reform, it seems it’s ready to return to the pre-austerity status quo.

Why have such avenues not been explored?

For a long time there was consensus that austerity policies were the right solution for regulating overspending. Today politicians note that austerity is having significant negative effects. As for the Greek government, no incumbent has been able to bring about reform, nor have they wanted to, out of fear of losing votes in a highly client-oriented system.

Do you think that Syriza can get the European Union to change its approach?

I don’t think so. The dogma of austerity has been brought into question, but that was not because of Syriza. It’s an isolated party, and it has no real allies.

Brussels is often seen as being intransigent in its negotiations with Member States.

Intransigence is rightly seen when the divergent opinions come from unallied parties that are standing up to a widely homogenous bloc that, in turn, is opposed to them and that wants to re-establish order. This is a little like the problem faced by Switzerland.

Following the referendum of 9 February 2014 on immigration?

The European Union is sticking to the principal that free movement is non-negotiable. This is how they are tackling the separatist tendencies amongst Member States. The United Kingdom, for example, has expressed its reservation with regards to free movement.

Euro-sceptical parties came out of the 2014 European elections well. Can we talk of the European Union collapsing?

This success is a clear warning sign for integrationists. Nevertheless, whilst these parties have strengthened, they are still in the minority. The two large blocs of the centre-right (the European Popular Party) and the centre-left (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) continue to form the basis of the system.

What should Brussels do?

There should be more integration, first, but integration needs to be democratised. The elephant in the eurozone is still the co-existence of decentralised economic govern-ance and a common currency. Some steps have been taken to address the democratic deficit, but it seems there is little sign of this filtering into public opinion. The European Parliament, which is directly elected by the citizens of Member States, has been given much more power in the legislative process. Another example is the current European Citizens’ Initiative. But it doesn’t have the binding effect of Switzerland’s direct democracy, so civil society organisations have their work cut out if they are to breathe life into what is otherwise a ‘paper tiger’.

Is the European Union too technocratic?

‘Eurocrats’ often get the blame, but the bureaucracy in Brussels is actually relatively underdeveloped. If anything, this is more about peoples’ perceptions. Citizens think that decisions are made in Brussels by technocrats who are far removed from the issues. But really a large sway of these decisions come on the back of national preferences being voiced by EU members.

Why is there so much misunderstanding with regard to the functioning of the EU?

For a long time, it was possible for things to carry on without there being any real debate on integration. This is no longer a viable strategy. There is also the problem of clarity, because the way the EU works is complicated. This complexity originates in the diversity of the continent. What’s more is that the European media are largely orientated towards their respective national landscapes, and therefore focus on national issues. We’re still missing a real European public space.


Benjamin Keller is a freelance journalist based in Geneva and Tunis. He holds a degree in International Relations.

Switzerland, Greece and Europe

Yannis Papadopoulos is a citizen of Switzerland and Greece. The 55-year-old is a professor in Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne, a post he has held since 1990. His research focuses on politics in Switzerland and Europe. Since 2012, he has co-edited the European Journal of Political Research, a leading international journal on political science. He is also a member of the Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation.