The Triumph of Greece’s Authoritarian Right Is the Future the European Union Wants

Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis is cut from the same cloth as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, attacking press freedom and brutalizing refugees. The EU’s leading actors have backed Mitsotakis to the hilt, and his political dominance was forged in Berlin and Brussels.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis talks to the media at a press briefing in Brussels, Belgium, on March 24, 2023. (Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The second general election in Greece last Sunday confirmed the disastrous outcome of the first. A scandal-plagued conservative who has flaunted his contempt for democratic rights, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, secured a second term in office with 40 percent of the vote. A substantial far-right bloc, divided between three parties, will also have a foothold in parliament, while the Greek left has suffered a crushing defeat.

Mitsotakis owes his current position to the leading players in the European Union, from members of the European Commission to national politicians like Angela Merkel and Jeroen Dijsselbloem. They mounted an unprecedented display of economic force in 2015 to pummel the citizens of Greece into submission and stamp out a popular insurgency against economic vandalism. Having cleared the way for Mitsotakis to take office in a context of profound demoralization, his European partners have condoned and enabled his ugly abuses of power.

For the international left, which looked to Greece with hope a decade ago, it’s a depressing outcome. The only rational response is to strengthen our opposition to the forces that brought it about, and work harder at developing strategies that can defeat them next time around.

Quack Doctors

Let’s remind ourselves of some well-established facts that have been airbrushed out of the conventional narrative. The austerity programs imposed on Greece by the self-styled “Troika” — EU, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund — were a catastrophe, transforming a recession into the worst depression suffered by any developed capitalist economy since the 1940s, with unemployment skyrocketing and social services falling apart.

Greece has now been following the Troika’s blueprint for well over a decade, down to the smallest details. GDP per capita is less than two-thirds of its 2009 level. The average annual wage for a Greek worker in 2009 was €21,600; today it is €16,200.

The leading players in the EU — above all, the German government of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaüble — relied upon an understanding of the Eurozone crisis that was childish, self-serving, and economically illiterate. There’s no point addressing their perspective as if it were the product of serious deliberation. When smart, well-informed critics told them about the unfolding disaster in Greece, these European notables responded to the power of argument with the argument of power, offering a slightly more refined version of the speech delivered by Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas:

Business bad? Fuck you, pay me.

Had a fire? Fuck you, pay me.

The place got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me.

They had the same entitlement to our respect as a quack doctor performing surgery with a lump hammer after consuming a bottle of tequila.

Although the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was making gains in the wake of the crash, the main force spearheading resistance to austerity was a progressive, democratic party that opposed racism and national chauvinism. Confronted with the challenge of Syriza, the guardians of orthodoxy in Berlin, Brussels, and other European capitals pretended to discern the shadow of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin over the Acropolis.

Adam Tooze captured the delirious mendacity of the German power elite and its court intellectuals in a profile of Schaüble’s favorite historian, Heinrich August Winkler:

Syriza had counted on the supposed values of the West — of respect for sovereignty, pluralism and democracy — to assure it a fair hearing. To understand the feelings of the Berlin political class about their victory, Syriza’s politicians would have done well to read Winkler’s piece in Die Zeit, where he announced that, seen in the context of the historical struggle for Western values, the new Greek government was a symptom of crisis, an expression of Putin’s manipulation as well as the resurgent Front National in France. Syriza, he wrote, was an irresponsible populist movement that reflected the malign influence across the continent of Russia’s anti-Western authoritarianism.

Adults in the Room

After Syriza’s election victory, EU officials boasted about the punitive nature of their demand for even deeper cuts than had been carried out by previous Greek governments. The politicians and pundits who derided Syriza as impractical dreamers or authoritarian demagogues categorically refused to engage with the evidence of what Troika-enforced austerity was doing to Greek society. In that sense, the Greek negotiators were the only adults in the room, trying to talk sense into a group of featherbrained fantasists.

In another sense, however, the Syriza leadership really was impractical and unrealistic in its approach — not because Aléxis Tsípras and his team attempted to reason with Merkel, Schaüble, and co, but because they made no preparations for the failure of those efforts at rational persuasion. After going to the brink in the summer of 2015, Tsípras turned a famous slogan on its head and decided that it was better to live on your knees than die on your feet. He spent the next four years in office carrying out the Troika’s diktats.

Some of his supporters rationalized the surrender of 2015 as a tactical move that would allow Syriza to live and fight another day. Instead, the party has experienced a slow, lingering decline for the past eight years, and may now have entered its terminal phase.

The organizational fate of Syriza is less important than the impact of its strategic choices on popular consciousness in Greece. The second phase of the Tsípras government drove home the message that there was no point looking for an alternative to austerity: the only result would be disruption followed by even more austerity than before. This year’s election result flows from the ensuing despair.

Europe’s Shield

However, the main responsibility for this outcome lies with the dominant political actors in the EU. Mitsotakis is their man in Athens: his rise would have been inconceivable without the massive exertion of coercive power from outside Greece.

The Mitsotakis administration belongs in the same company as the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary that have sought to hollow out the substance of liberal democracy while preserving its formal trappings. Under Mitsotakis, Greece received the lowest ranking for press freedom in the EU. The conservative leader has presided over wiretapping of political opponents and legal harassment of nongovernmental organizations.

Yet in contrast with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, Mitsotakis hasn’t faced so much as a token reprimand from the European Commission or the big EU member-states. They clearly approve of the violent, lawless methods that Mitsotakis has used against refugees attempting to enter Greece, with the EU’s own border control agency, Frontex, acting as an enabler of such criminality.

One episode in particular dramatized the ugly partnership between Mitsotakis and the EU. In September 2021, Greek border police arrested a translator who was actually working for Frontex after mistaking him for a refugee. The New York Times reported on his subsequent experience:

He said that he and many of the migrants he was detained with were beaten and stripped, and that the police seized their phones, money and documents. His attempts to tell the police who he was were met with laughter and beatings, he said. He said he was taken to a remote warehouse where he was kept with at least 100 others, including women and children. They were then put on dinghies and pushed across the Evros River into Turkish territory.

The Times’ Matina Stevis-Gridneff suggested that the case would prove to be a watershed:

For years, Greek officials have denied complaints from human rights groups that the country’s border agents have brutalized migrants and forcibly pushed them back into Turkey. They have dismissed the allegations as fake news or Turkish propaganda. Now a single case may force a reckoning.

In fact, there were no consequences for the Greek authorities, as their European partners let the matter slide. After all, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had praised the Greek border force as “our European shield.”

Let’s imagine for a moment that an employee of the EU tasked with overseeing the Troika’s austerity program had been arrested, tortured, and deported while Syriza was in power. There would have been gunboats lurking menacingly off the coast of Greece within a day or two, ready to inflict a salutary lesson on the turbulent Greeks. But Mitsotakis had no reason to fear any backlash, and Frontex has continued to assist his policy.

There has been a concerted effort in the past few years to erase the memory of the EU’s performance during the Great Recession. It would be one thing if there was some evidence of contrition on the part of the individuals and institutions responsible. But there is every reason to think they would do it all again — given the choice between dealing with Tsípras in June 2015 or Mitsotakis in June 2023, they wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. That should be food for thought when we discuss the potential for democratic reform of the EU.