Greece’s SYRIZA-led government and the future of the EU’s foreign policy

Kyriakos Moumoutzis |

The fact that SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) won last Sunday’s national elections in Greece was not a surprise. It had been leading opinion polls for months. The fact that the radical left SYRIZA formed a coalition government with the right wing ANEL (Independent Greeks) within hours of its electoral victory was not particularly surprising either. Greece has been governed by coalition governments that have included both left-of-centre and right-of-centre parties since 2011. The left-right dimension of party competition has become secondary to the issue of the terms of Greece’s membership of the Eurozone and both SYRIZA and ANEL are opposed to the current terms, which they feel have been imposed on Greece. Finally, it will not be surprising at all if the newly formed Greek government clashes with its European Union (EU) partners. SYRIZA’s positions render it nearly certain that it will. Remember all this money that Greece has borrowed? Well, SYRIZA says that most of it Greece will not pay back. Second, that part of it that Greece will pay back, it will not start paying back until later. Finally, payment of that part that Greece will not start paying back until later will also be conditional on the Greek economy’s growth rates. No wonder they won the election.


What has been more surprising is the conflict that has emerged between the newly formed Greek government and its EU partners over foreign policy issues and EU sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis in particular. A statement by EU Heads of State and Government, referred to ‘Russia’s responsibility’ for the ‘deteriorating…situation’ in Ukraine and instructed the Foreign Affairs Council to consider further sanctions (in the EU’s foreign policy Heads of State and Government establish general guidelines and Foreign Ministers take implementing measures). According to the Greek government, the office of Greek Prime Minister (PM) Alexis Tsipras had requested that the issuing of the statement be delayed. This request was apparently disregarded prompting the Greek government to indicate that it ‘does not consent’ to the statement that was issued and Greek PM Tsipras to complain to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini about the incident.


Mr. Tsipras had expressed his party’s opposition to EU sanctions on Russia prior to his election as PM. During a speech given last September when SYRIZA was still in opposition, he presented a fairly inconsistent critique of the Greek government’s foreign policy. He argued that then PM Antonis Samaras and his Deputy Evangelos Venizelos had ‘consented uncritically to the dead-end economic sanctions on Russia, unconcerned about their cost for the Greek economy’. Mr. Tsipras’ opposition to EU sanctions (and Greece’s consent) seemed to be  based on a consideration of the economic costs of this particular foreign policy instrument, not on considerations of its appropriateness or its consistency with the EU’s foreign policy norms. Interestingly enough, a little later during the same speech he did consider the appropriateness of another Greek foreign policy position. He criticised Greece’s decision to abstain from the vote on a United Nations General Assembly Resolution on sovereign debt restructuring and referred to it as proof of Mr. Samaras’ government ‘amoralism’.


One cannot help but be reminded of Andreas Papandreou, the founder of PASOK (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement), who served as PM during both the 1980s and the 1990s and whose foreign policy was notoriously ‘inconsistent and perplexing’. Papandreou’s ‘flamboyant gestures of foreign policy independence’ turned Greece into European Political Cooperation’s ‘footnote state‘ (European Political Cooperation was the name of the European Community’s framework for foreign policy cooperation at the time). Especially during the first half of the 1980s, Greece was systematically uncooperative and frequently sought to differentiate itself from the positions of its European partners on foreign policy issues. It seems that the newly formed SYRIZA-led government under Mr. Tsipras might be leading Greece back to the path first trodden by PASOK’s governments under Papandreou in the early 1980s. Given that EU foreign policy decisions typically require the agreement of all EU member-states, the prospect of a more effective EU foreign policy appears bleak.


Kyriakos Moumoutzis is a Lecturer in European and International Politics at King’s College London.