Syriza’s Yiannis Bournous* in interview
What assessment do you make of Friday’s agreement with the Eurogroup?
The document adopted at the Eurogroup gives Greece an extra four months to present a developed plan of structural reforms. The document gives us breathing space, both in terms of time and economic conditions. Even if some of the considerations in the document can be dubbed ambiguous, politically and technically, the important thing is that we have cancelled the deal made by the previous government to impose new austerity measures – including further a reduction of pensions, more tax increases on the working classes and the
middle class, cutting job protections and measures on housing evictions.
This is the first time a heavily indebted country has secured some slack, both financial and timewise, allowing us to breathe, thanks to what [Greek finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis called the “creative ambiguity” of its formulation. On the other hand, [German finance minister] Mr. Schäuble failed in his plan to stifle Greece on February 28 – which was the deadline for the [last tranche of ‘bail-out’] loans under the memorandum – and lead the country to a dead end without liquidity and then impose the conditions he wanted on the new government. Fortunately the plan failed and we have a new discussion phase which will take four months.
Does this mean that the election promises have not been forgotten?
This Monday [note, delayed until today, Tuesday] we will present a plan of structural reforms to our partners. But we do not understand the term “structural reforms” as the previous governments have. To us they mean that there will be no redundancies, cuts and austerity. Our structural reforms are to combat clientelism, corruption and tax evasion. I must tell you that today we announced the conclusion of a judicial investigation made at the request of the anti-corruption minister. It led to the freezing of 404 million euros found in bank accounts of large investors and depositors who have failed to prove the lawful origin of the money.
This is the first practical sign of our determination to combat tax fraud, which besides being a reform that has no cost, makes large gains for the state [budget]. Of course, in addition to these structural reforms we also propose low or no cost measures to combat the humanitarian crisis. The first steps are being finalized and will be presented in the coming days. They deal for example with the restructuring of the private debt of heavily indebted households, small businesses and sole proprietors. This is a good indicator the part of our programme that can be immediately applied is being carried out now.
Everyone knows that a negotiating process there are two sides of the table that have their positions.We do not underestimate the fact that at the beginning of the negotiations we were alone against 18 eurozone governments. The document approved on Friday does not reflect such isolation. What these negotiations proved is that in fact there is room for negotiation policies are put on the table. Before, there was no political discussion, only technical issues were discussed because everyone agreed with the line of austerity for Europe.
Today the scenario is different: a few days ago there was a declaration of fifty (not two or three, but fifty) French Socialist deputies calling for Greece to have room to breathe and that we should think about a growth plan for Europe and the end austerity. Also within the party of [Italian PM Matteo] Renzi – and remember that the Italian public debt is 2.3 billion euros – we have heard similar voices. I believe they will also take advantage of the new situation, since a debt of this size is a bomb waiting to explode and Renzi does not want to be
destroyed politically. I hope that these events serve to motivate the forces that oppose austerity to fight and to argue concretely an alternative plan.
What about the position of the governments of Portugal and Spain, which have suffered from austerity and were the fiercest opponents of [Friday’s] agreement?
Politics has returned to the EU [negotiating] table. Not because of a temporary victory – as was the case ten years ago with the rejection of the European Constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands – but because finally a government has emerged that is saying different things.
It is natural to have strong political and ideological differences, with the governments of the Portuguese and Spanish right. But we respect everyone’s opinions. It is more than clear that the super-austerity strategy has been an historic failure for Europe. I believe that all the steps taken now by the political intervention of the Greeks, every step we take towards growth and the improvement of living conditions of the people in European countries, will lead to a reassessment of policy priorities of some countries .
Do not forget that [Spanish PM Mariano] Rajoy and [Portuguese PM] Passos Coelho face their voters in November and September, respectively. Mr. Rajoy must have trouble sleeping with the “tick-tock” of the countdown, thanks to what he calls the “threat” of Podemos. We do not believe Podemos is a threat, it is really the next big step for hope for a new, sustained social plan for Europe.
It is true, although we know that they serve class interests and different economic interests to ours. For example, the Greek press says Mr. Rajoy was so concerned about the possibility of an agreement he told the Germans if they gave in to the demands of Alexis Tsipras he would not achieve more than 7% in the Spanish elections. They insist on the continuation of these policies not because they believe that they have brought positive results, but they do not want – especially before their elections – that this alternative we represent
is seen as a concrete project that is advancing in Europe.
Polls in Greece show 4 out of 5 citizens support the government in the negotiations. Across Europe there were demonstrations and solidarity. What impact did they have and how should we [on the left] proceed?
I must confess that even for us, organized left militants, it was a great surprise to see so many people organize themselves in social networks and take to the streets, not against but in favour of the policies of a government! One of the polls published this week showed 47% would vote for Syriza today. We have received numerous messages of solidarity from many initiatives and organizations – both existing ones born during the crisis and those emerging after the Syriza victory. It was wonderful to see the photos and videos of demonstrations not only in Europe but even in the United States or Latin America. It was amazing and confirmed what we were saying before the elections: a victory of Syriza would have political and even social impact across Europe.
Now more and more European citizens realize that after all one can negotiate with Europe for a better future for their country. I believe that these initiatives will strengthen as the Greek government continues its dynamic and decisive role in the negotiations.
There is a political space that has opened and that can shift the political game of each country. With their differences, there is a window of hope that, with effective action by the left forces in each country, over time there can be specific policy successes, electorally and beyond. I am very optimistic about it.
Finally, why did Syriza propose a former minister of New Democracy as president?
There were several factors that had to consider before making the decision about who to appoint. We must not forget that Syriza did not obtain an absolute majority, that it has a coalition partner and above all we living in an historic moment, not only for Greece but for the whole of Europe. That means we need to create the broadest unity in promoting an alternative against austerity. These were the main reasons for choosing Prokopis Pavlopoulos for the presidency.
In addition to being part of New Democracy, Pavlopoulos is also known for its academic merit in the area of law and has distanced himself on many occasions with extremist measures and views, such as the property tax introduced by the Samaras government. It is also important to note that currently on the political right there is a split between the more moderate political center-right, who were skeptical of the super-austerity policies of the Samaras government, and the most extremist sector of New Democracy, led by Samaras himself. Thus the choice of Pavlopoulos served to show that we are willing to cooperate with all the forces that recognize the need for a drastic change of policy.
* responsible for international matters
Translation by Revolting Europe