We interviewed the Greek leader of Syriza-Progressive Alliance, Alexis Tsipras, discussing topics ranging from the Greek crisis to the evolution of the radical left, from the ominous rise of the extreme right in Europe to the challenges of the post-pandemic times.
Over the years, Syriza has gone through several phases. Its rise gave the party a more radical form, and now Syriza has added “Progressive Alliance” to its name. What is Syriza today? Why has it started a dialogue with forces of the “center-left”?
The responsibility of the left is to fight to improve people’s lives; that means mobilizing and building a movement, but it also means governing and knowing how to govern. Being in government in Greece for four and a half years, taking the country out of the economic crisis and the creditors’ programs, protecting the most disadvantaged, dealing with the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and resolving one of the most important disputes in the Balkans have all made Syriza-Progressive Alliance stronger with experience. We have learned, from our successes and missteps, what it means to be a leftist government in Europe, and how important that is.
At this critical moment, the ability of every progressive political party to read, assess and act on the current state of affairs, both nationally and globally, is crucial. The main obstacle is the inability, or perhaps the reluctance, on the part of some parties to realize that the challenges on the front of the climate crisis and social inequalities are deep, generational and existential. That after the pandemic we cannot return to the neoliberal models of the past. The reflex of some parties is to end up doing “politics as usual,” trying to gain points over their political opponents, both right and left. But that doesn’t work anymore. Either you are on the right side of history or you disappear into insignificance.
But then, the idea of a radical left is over… is it just a dream?
Social justice, peace, equality, climate justice, workers’ rights and sustainable development are not just a dream: they should be the pillars of a modern, inclusive society. This is the 21st century. Humanity has made long strides in the wake of technological and scientific achievements. Societies are much more diverse, educated and informed. We cannot squander these achievements and the great potential of a green and digital transformation agenda because of corporate profits and corrupt political elites.
According to recent polls, New Democracy’s electoral appeal is waning, but Syriza is failing to strengthen its support. Why?
Syriza is a party that invests a lot in direct communication with the people, but the lockdown deprived us of this possibility. When we re-establish this connection, we’ll see a revival of trust in us and our political program. The conservative Greek government, on the other hand, has built a propaganda empire, dictating the agenda to the mainstream media and repeating those lies and distorted truths that have furthered its goals. Right now, Greece is on the brink of a very serious crisis that is being covered up by misinformation, false reports and government manipulation of the news on TV, websites, including social media.
The Greek government recently passed a controversial labor law that is facing strong opposition across the country. What impact will it have on the social equilibria?
This is one of the most disastrous aspects of the current Greek government. It is really frightening, because it shows that this government is trying to rescue the legacy of Thatcher and Reagan when the whole world is trying to get past it. Just look at Spain reducing weekly working hours, or President Biden asking employers to “pay more” for their employees’ wages: social cohesion and job protection are a fundamental requirement for our modern societies. We have committed to overturning this appalling labor law and replacing it with a new framework that would protect workers’ rights, raise the minimum wage and establish the 35-hour work week.
In the global financial crisis of 2008, Syriza and other left-wing parties in Europe gave hope to European citizens for a new anti-neoliberal path. The reality has turned out different. Now, the COVID crisis is exacerbating social tensions and inequality. How is the left addressing these challenges?
Neoliberalism is structurally incapable of solving its own crisis, and in the end, any action that does not challenge this framework is bound to create another, deeper crisis. This is exactly what has happened. COVID-19 hit us at a time when all the consequences of the neoliberal failures of the last decade have emerged. An existential problem like the climate crisis, an unprecedented accumulation of wealth in the hands of the 0.1% of the world’s population and societies living in fear, inequality and despair. The difference now is that we are running out of time.
Following the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact due to the pandemic, the EU is discussing a reform of the old budget rules. Is there leeway for change?
Certainly, the leeway is there. The EU should now be able to learn its lesson and admit that its handling of the financial crisis in the previous decade was a terrible mistake. That said, I am not too confident that this will happen with the same political forces leading the EU. We progressives need to fight for a reformed stability pact aimed at economic growth and convergence, a permanent recovery fund, a stronger European pillar of social rights, a global minimum corporate income tax and the liberalization of vaccine patents so that vaccination can be accelerated around the world.
World leaders have negotiated a global minimum corporate income tax, with a rate of at least 15%. Is this a real breakthrough?
This is very important, but it is not enough. The big question is whether countries will have the will to come up with a comprehensive tax plan in which everyone contributes their fair share. We can’t have billionaires not paying income tax or tax havens hiding an incredible amount of wealth. The elephant in the room is not the tax rates for the wealthy, but the willingness to enforce the law on them and hold them accountable for their actions.
There is a strong push toward a green transition, but the debate is still open about how it will affect the most vulnerable part of the population…
This is one of the most crucial debates of the coming decade. The current status quo recognizes the existential threat of the climate crisis, but chooses to act in a manner consistent with its own doctrine. Thus, the green transition does not translate into a collective effort to reduce emissions, eliminate fossil fuels and bolster greener renewable energy sources, but is merely a new way to accumulate wealth. On the contrary, the green transition is a collective vision similar to post-World War II reconstruction. Progressive leaders in Europe and worldwide should focus on how to make this essential transition fair and inclusive. On how to make renewable energy cheaper, safeguard, using public funds, the whole transition from an economy that is destroying natural resources to one that respects them, and hold large corporations accountable for not complying with environmental laws. The list of things we will need to do is extremely long. We have some European-level tools, and we need much more. But these policies must begin and end with citizen involvement, because—and allow me to paraphrase what the WHO said about the pandemic—in the fight against the climate crisis, no one is safe until everyone is part of the green transition.
The EU will renew the immigration agreement with Turkey and extend it to other countries, such as Libya, Jordan, etc., in order to stop migratory flows. Did you expect this outcome?
The EU cannot manage the challenge of migratory flows without a comprehensive strategy of cooperation with the countries of transit and origin. It must focus on countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which have carried a great burden of responsibility in the reception of migrants in recent years. However, the EU cannot be a strong international player if it fails to address the challenges in its own backyard effectively and in compliance with international law, which means addressing the root causes of migration in third countries, ensuring the existence of legal routes to the EU, and providing incentives for third countries both to counter trafficking networks and to accept the return of those whose asylum claims have been legally rejected. Above all, we must work on a pact on immigration and asylum that doesn’t burden the countries of first entry into the EU and ensures respect for international law. What is on the table now is unacceptable, as well as the practices that are often used to manage migration flows, especially at sea. We need a global policy on the matter that would respect international law.
Viktor Orbán is once again the focus of criticism from other leaders in the EU. Will this criticism play in his favor in the upcoming elections?
Confronting Orbán’s far-right policies should be a primary goal of the EU, and particularly of progressive forces. These policies—I’m thinking about LGBT rights, immigration, the rule of law—are violating our common values. But we need to move this effort forward by supporting a social Europe that would strengthen economic growth and employment and address inequality. There are very important efforts in this direction by the Biden administration that serve as a good example. This is the way to ensure that people who are disadvantaged and/or threatened by globalization will move away from leaders like Orbán, rather than rally around him.
Angela Merkel is exiting the scene. What legacy does she leave to the EU?
We have had a relationship that was often taxing, but based on honesty and mutual respect. We have fundamental ideological disagreements and we have clashed over austerity policies, particularly on the role of the IMF in the Greek economic program. These were policies that had very serious social and economic consequences in Greece and in the south of Europe in general. At the same time, Merkel made an important effort on migration policy by giving out a message that stood for European values in 2015-2016, and has supported the resolution of the name issue with North Macedonia, stressing its importance for peace in the Balkans. And the steps taken on the Recovery Fund are important for Europe, its economic growth and social cohesion.
Finally, we get to the Balkans. Here, the EU integration process has stalled, while other players—Russia, China, Turkey—are increasing their influence. Is the EU losing the Balkans?
If the accession process does not move forward, the consequences for the region, but also for the EU, will be severe. We will return to a period of regional instability and Europe will lose influence and credibility with the candidate countries. And then it will be quite difficult to talk about a global or regional role when the EU isn’t even able solve problems and keep promises in its immediate neighborhood.
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