By Lois Woestman, Guest Contributor
Dr. Lois Woestman, both a Greek and US citizen, currently works as EU-Liaison Officer at a German university. She previously worked as Lecturer and as EU-Liaison Officer for two universities in Greece, as well as as a research/policy advice consultant (including for UNWOMEN, Europe-based WIDE+ Network, and the global Association for Women in Development – AWID).
After a somewhat euphoric long weekend in Athens when I, along with many other Greeks, voted for and celebrated a Syriza win in the polls, my return to the German heartland has been a hard landing.
“I witness a growing call from a number of member states to stick to the legal framework that is in place now,” the German Finance Minister said on Tuesday, my first day back. “Changing the rule book would require a huge struggle to get the people on board in Germany, but also in other member states.”
What would it take to get people on board in Germany?
Talks with coworkers the week since my return suggest that Syriza faces multiple challenges, not the least “Greek fatigue,” skepticism and cynicism, austerity fixation and cultural blinders.
Tuesday morning the German university where I work had its annual new year’s reception for the administration. The Chancellor spoke of 2015 as being the year of the sheep in Chinese astrology. He underscored his desire and expectation that this would be a peaceful year, one without major upheavals or crises, as predicted by Chinese astrology. I could not help wondering: Does he not live in the Eurozone? Did he not follow the Greek election? I soon found out that my German colleagues shared this sentiment. Whereas in Athens over the weekend many of us sensed a whiff of revolutionary change in the air, my German colleagues were not interested in having their peace and quiet disrupted with “yet another Greek crisis.”
Over drinks after the talk, as we spoke about our weekends, I mentioned that I had been in Greece. When I asked if they had heard that we had had a vote, a colleague replied – with a strained look on his face: “How could we not? We are bombarded with it.” And then he clammed up. Another said: “Oh, the Greek problem” – as if that were already enough words wasted. All seemed to be suffering from a case of “Greek fatigue” - giving me glances that one usually saves for a precocious child that has pulled another stunt.
Colleagues more sympathetic to me as a person (whom they regard as flamboyantly Greek) and my political position – German leftists, some quite actively so – were more willing to talk, their glances showing pity as well as skepticism. The person I most expected solidarity from said she was sympathetic to the Greek people's plight. But then added that she found it a pity that the Greek position was always presented so emotionally. “Greeks present their economic woes so emotionally, instead of coming up with logical proposals for how to change things. And anyway, these people were part of the system – did not pay taxes...” And then she said: “In any case, I wish you luck. Greece has very little room for maneuver.”
This reaction highlights another important challenge for Syriza vis-à-vis potential solidarity from German leftists. Many Germans brand views expressed with passion by “others” as illogical, hence not deserving of a serious hearing – as the information I was giving them about the elections, as the information Greeks interviewed on the street were also providing. At the same time, Germans remain blind to their own emotional reactions to “the Greek crisis.” Disaffection, skepticism and cynicism, amongst others. It does not bode well that a German leftist accustomed to thinking about how people are stuck in a system, and to supporting them when they try to change it, would be unable to feel solidarity because she was disaffected by perceived excessive emotion.
When I asked her what this “rational” proposal could be, she said: “I don’t see how Greece thinks it can make more demands, when it does not even have its own house in order. They should get their tax system fixed and collect their taxes before they dare say anything else.” When I mentioned that the dismantling of the clientalist political system and rounding up of tax evaders was at the top of the Syriza agenda, she said this was the first she had heard of it.
It may well indeed be a lot to expect for most Germans to follow closely successive waves of Greek elections.
And, how can one blame them for thinking this round may be more of the same? Many of us voted for Syriza with the hope that it might break from the tradition that had left us little alternative but to vote for one clientalist party or the other.
Key, then, to the credibility of Syriza for Germans – and thus for its chances at successful debt renegotiation that has just started - hinge on it keeping its anti-corruption promises.
The changes in ministries and appointment of an anti-corruption minister appear to be promising steps. But appearance and practice often disconnect, as we Greeks well know.
“How can people who do not want to save expect to save their system? Without saving, no one can build up their economic system,” said another colleague, in a perfect example of the mentality that PM Angela Merkel has fostered and built on since the crisis began. To some degree, I could see where my colleague was coming from, as most German wages had not gone up for decades – though German civil servant minimal wage increases have been an exception to this rule.
This colleague's eyes glazed over when I argued that most Greeks had been saving the last five years – with their lost jobs and lack of unemployment benefits, with shrunken salaries and disappearing access to health care. That they were hoping finally to have a bit of pay back in terms of a slight upturn in retirement benefits and incomes that could kick start a bit of growth as well as save them from further destitution.
Syriza’s argument for a “new deal for Europe” may eventually help Germans understand that demand driven economic measures are also acceptable and necessary - and good for them, too.
A last major challenge SYRIZA faces is cultural in terms of negotiating style. In the train from the Frankfurt airport on Monday evening, I listened to a BBC interview with the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. His sophisticated English and arguments will certainly come in handy in negotiations. However, his somewhat “flamboyant” style, as it is being called, may make it hard for my German colleagues to hear the logic of what he is saying.
In the interview, Varoufakis commented that it was usual negotiating practice for both sides to posture a bit before sitting down to the table. This is accurate. However, here in Germany, such a comment can easily fuel German stererotypes of Greeks as “slippery” in the sense of not being straight forward, and of reneging on their commitments.
A statement such as “Making each repayment dependent only on Greece’s GDP growth rate and not subject to troika visits … would allow Greece a chance to escape debt bondage while Mrs. Merkel will also have the opportunity of pretending to the German electorate that Greece was not allowed to write down its debts” is accurate, also.
This comment is part of a broader discussion of the fact that Germany received just such an economic recovery program, and also debt forgiveness, after WWII, the likes of which Syriza would like to discuss in a European debt conference. However, here the statement is being presented out of context, for polemical effect. Just such “sound bites” make it harder to convince German voters to allow their politicians a mandate for change.
Syriza may wish to continue to tweak public statements, especially those that refer to Germans and German politicians, in light of the transition from election campaign to debt renegotiation and of the stereotypes that many Germans have of Greeks – more in line e.g. with the Open Letter To Germany: What You Were Never Told About Greece. I see this process already underway when comparing Varoufakis' BBC interview on Monday with the one that he masterfully held Thursday.
In short, if the perspectives of such public employees in the German heartland are anything to go by: Syriza should continue to speak in terms of a new deal for Europe that would also benefit Germans, if it wants many German voters to ease up on austerity only thinking. To enhance the chances of being heard, comments about Germans and their politicians would best be made in line with the Open Letter.
Most importantly, however, Syriza needs to concentrate on fulfilling its anti-corruption promises. This would go the furthest toward redressing some of the “Greek fatigue” and help overcome the cynicism and stereotypical thinking and feeling of many German voters. If Syriza fails to do so, 2015 might well turn out to be the year of the sheep German public servants wish for, as well as the year of sheep-to-the-slaughter for most Greeks that the pity-filled glances of my more sympathetic colleagues portended.