An interview with Christos Kanellopoulos, the EU Policy Advisor for SYRIZA
By Marisa López & Nicole Proano
Christos Kanellopoulos is the EU Policy Advisor for SYRIZA since May, 2015. Working alongside, Yiannis Bournous, the International Secretary of SYRIZA, Kanellopoulos, has been a firsthand witness of the relational developments between Greece and the European Union throughout the years in which this Hellenic state has faced its worst financial crisis in modern times.
Q: How has it been for SYRIZA, trying to face the failures of dealing with Brussels?
A: 2015 was a great lesson for us. Some illusions were shattered, and we came to understand that when you´re in Europe, concerning the European institutions, you cannot be alone – that was our main conclusion. We are the only left government in Europe, no others. Maybe social democratic parties but no one else shares our commitments or our ideologies. We have no allies and no friends. We are alone in all European institutions. The European Council – that was an institution we realized was impossible to defeat. We had to capitulate or at least find a middle ground to negotiate and find a compromise. Some people in our party call it a defeat and others call it a compromise. Either way, we failed what we wanted to do and then we went to the next elections. Remember that this government came out of the September elections and has this settled program that we are faithful to. It was proposed to citizens in 2015 and it was that ´we are going to impose and implement the memorandum. We are going to do it faithfully because we want to exit the third bailout and to face it. We are going to do it the most humanely way possible, to implement a parallel program, one that alleviates some of the harsher aspects of the austerity.’ In 2015, we had been under five years of austerity. We think we have been successful considering the context, the situation. This is actually the only bailout program that has reached a successful ending. The two previous programs actually failed because the previous government couldn´t reach the target.
Q: How does a small country like Greece fight the measures the EU wants the Greece to impose?
A: You can’t really. You can negotiate. But we cannot reverse austerity or cancel it and follow our own program which was voted for by the Greek people. This is actually a power relation, a balance of power thing. Germany has a stronghold over Greece. We realize that we need allies inside the EU, but also outside the EU. We followed a strategy of building ideological, political alliances, but also geopolitical alliances.
We built geopolitical access to the south, allying ourselves with Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Malta. The ‘EU-Med For the South’ lobby works for the interest of the south. That was very useful, also because of the migration crisis. We also pursued other alliances with, for example, the USA, even with Donald Trump. For Greece, if there is to have a counted weight against Germany, we also need an alliance with Trump and the US. This is a very important lesson for us and I think we followed that with success. This lobby is quite successful. We´ve noticed that it has had an increasing influence on the IMF to loosen their grip. The IMF loosened some of their demands concerning Greece.
Q: How is Greece’s position looking Europe now? Is it getting stronger?
A: We think politically stronger. We have some allies and we´ve also gained the confidence of the European Commission. The Commission, under Junker of course, has been much more helpful these recent years than before. It is sometimes an ally against German pressure. Of all our creditors – the ECB, the IMF, and the EU represented by the Commission – the Commission has always been the friendliest, the people with whom we can negotiate, who can understand us and we can perforate them with certain proposals. They are more willing, more political and less technocratic than the other institutions.
The ECB has certain neo-liberal ideologies. And the IMF sometimes has positive input but apart from the positive stance regarding debt, everything else is terribly neoliberal.
Q: Has it been difficult for SYRIZA to stick to their values in EU negotiations?
A: Yes. We are very aware of the disappointment. We have to be realistic, there are no better alternatives. The major alternative was exiting the Eurozone and adopting a new currency but we thought that would be totally destructive.
The EU is a strait jacket where neoliberalism is institutionalized. That is the main difference with other countries in the way that the EU is more conservative in economic matters. It has a more conservative central bank. For example, the American Federal Bank, AFB, has a mandate, not only to keep inflation low but also to keep unemployment low. The ECB does not have such a mandate.
Other parties think that the best way forward is to try to reform the EU and if we fail, exit. We think will hurt the welfare of our people. So our aim is to build, to change the balance of power inside the EU, being true to our Marxist credentials. Maybe we can turn Europe around into one that is closer and keeps respect of the values of solidarity, social justice, and equality between nations – not only equality inside societies but also between European nations.
Q: Is the idea of a Grexit still salient in Greek politics today?
A: No one wanted an exit from the EU. Some people wanted an exit from the Eurozone, even from within the party. Of course, many people have strong reservations about our participation in the EU and would also consider it a mistake to have entered the EU. But that doesn’t mean it would not be a mistake to exit the EU now. Our advice to other countries, regarding the Euro, is ‘stay as you are.’ If you are outside, stay outside. It’s suicidal to enter the Eurozone. If you are in the Eurozone then you cannot exit it alone, without allies. It was still considered a risk, yes – not an exit from the EU, no one believed that would happen – but an exit from the Eurozone, yes, it was a risk. Now, it is a thing of the past. I think that Greek society still holds that idea but stronger reservations concerning the Eurozone and its functioning are more increased than ever.
Q: Does that idea still remain in SYRIZA?
A: There is hard and soft Eurosceptics. Hard Euroscepticism means you are against anything that has to do with the EU. Soft Eurosceptics think that you have to stay but want to reform it. The party is softly Eurosceptic. We oppose this form of the EU. We want another form but still a European Union. But we are so focused on the trying to have a successful bailout exit that, in a way, we lost our international and EU viewpoint, since we are not in government and have responsibility of the country.
Q: Are there any fears about falling into economic struggles and into a fourth bailout?
A: First of all, I think that nobody really wants a fourth bailout. Of course we have some reservations. We know that the ECB wants a kind of continuation of strong surveillance. For now, we will pass into another phase called post-bailout supervision. This is the same situation as Cyprus and Portugal. There is still a kind of supervision but there are no reviews, no TROIKA coming into our ministries to impose reforms, nothing like that. They just watch your numbers and say “do that,” and “no, don’t do that.”
Q: What are SYRIZA’s priorities after the bailout?
A: To keep up the work that we are doing in redressing the welfare state in Greece and expand it. We have adopted certain modalities that change the structure of the welfare state. It’s not a huge expansion because there isn’t money to do a lot of things but, structurally, we want to move it in a more universal direction. This is the example of the Scandinavian states – they are considered universal.
SYRIZA government gave access to public health care to all people lacking social security, because before that, healthcare in Greece was not a social right – it depended on your employment status. We also changed the social insurance assistance, trying to redistribute to raise the social contributions for the highest paid professionals and self-employed people. Now, 10 -20% of the higher payed people pay more but about 80% of the lower-classes pay the same or much less.
Q: Does Greece still have its hands tied?
A: I think that we have gained a level of freedom but not complete sovereignty. But, the situation is going to improve in a very important way. Imagine that we have the TROIKA people who do not want to understand anything about the situations and say ‘I want the pensions of widows to be cut.’ Now, this is over. We have fiscal targets and a stability pact that we have to respect. But this is a huge improvement because we find our own way to fit the targets. Before, these decisions were imposed on us but now we choose how to achieve the given targets.