Why Athens Is No Longer Europe’s Black Sheep
The past decade has been rough for Greece. After the global financial crisis of 2008–9, the country lost a quarter of its GDP and became the bête noire of Europe for nearly catalyzing the implosion of the eurozone. Roughly four years ago, however, Greece began a quiet recovery. Under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, the economy inched back to positive growth, populist movements lost their momentum, and Greece’s relations with its allies and many of its neighbors improved. But Tsipras’s successes, particularly in foreign policy, didn’t translate into popularity. So on July 8, Greeks woke up to news that opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his center-right New Democracy party had defeated Tsipras in a landslide.
Yet far from a setback for the country, Mitsotakis’ victory gives Greeks more reason to be optimistic about the future. Although Tsipras helped catalyze Greece’s recovery, Mitsotakis’s sweeping electoral mandate and impressive technocratic cabinet suggest that he is in a better position than his predecessor to build on the country’s positive momentum. Much remains to be done to reform the economy and bring back foreign investors, but Greece’s new leadership is poised to turn the page on a decade that most Greeks would prefer to forget.
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
Greece’s economic crisis reached its nadir in 2015. That year, the poverty rate among pensioners surged to 45 percent (and the government nearly ran out of money to pay them) while youth unemployment reached 50 percent. Tsipras, then freshly elected, threatened to reject the austerity measures that, since 2010, heavily indebted Greek governments had accepted in exchange for emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. But he ultimately relented, accepting his creditors’ conditions in the summer of 2015 and paving the way for Greece to get back on its feet.Greece’s new leadership is poised to turn the page on a decade that most Greeks would prefer to forget.
Today, the cuts to government wages and other public spending have finally started to pay off. Greece is beginning to tackle its enormous public debt—its primary surplus, the difference between government income and spending, now hovers around three percent, up from negative nine percent in 2013. The Greek economy is expected to grow by two percent this year, one of the highest rates in Europe. And unemployment, which reached 25 percent in 2015, has fallen to 18 percent.
Investors have taken note. Major construction projects are now underway in the Athenian Riviera, the city’s hitherto neglected waterfront. In downtown Athens, Chinese visitors are snatching up cheap real estate under a special visa program that provides residence permits to foreign investors. In northern Greece, energy and infrastructure projects, including the construction of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, a 4.5-billion-euro gas pipeline from Central Asia to western Europe, are creating jobs while enhancing Greece’s regional standing. Yields on ten-year government bonds are at record lows, indicating a return of market trust to the country, and the Athens Stock Exchange general index is up roughly 40 percent since the beginning of the year.
Tsipras deserves credit for planting the seeds of this economic recovery. The departing prime minister’s most important legacy, however, lies in foreign policy. Last year, Tsipras presided over the settlement of Greece’s 27-year naming dispute with its northern neighbor, which, as part of a deal with Athens, agreed to change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia. The Prespa agreement, as the deal is known, paved the way for North Macedonia’s ascension to NATO. In so doing, it helped stabilize the Balkans and led Tsipras and his North Macedonian counterpart to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It also positioned Greece as a trusted interlocutor for the United States in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.
But Tsipras’ diplomatic success came at a cost. “Macedonia” denotes both a modern region in northern Greece and the ancient homeland of Alexander the Great, a Greek national hero. Many Greek voters, including those on the conservative right and the extreme left, not only feel a sense of historical ownership over the name but fear future territorial encroachment by North Macedonia. These voters felt betrayed by the Prespa agreement, which they saw as a sign of weakness on the part of Tsipras. This sense of betrayal, combined with general frustration over the slow pace of economic recovery and the traumatic memory of Tsipras’ mishandling of creditor negotiations in the first six months of 2015, helped lose Syriza the election.
Mitsotakis, a U.S.-educated reformer, has already unveiled an ambitious program to digitize the government, attract foreign investment, and reform labor relations and education, among other priorities. In contrast to the previous government, his cabinet includes many technocrats with significant experience in the private sector and abroad. And unlike Syriza, which had to partner with a small right-wing party in order to form a government, New Democracy commands an absolute majority, giving it more freedom to pursue reforms. New Democracy also helped edge out the extreme right-wing group Golden Dawn, which failed to obtain parliamentary representation.
It is now up to Mitsotakis to capitalize on these positive trends. His top priorities are to loosen up the country’s rigid bureaucracy and boost its economy. Greece remains one of the worst countries in Europe to do business, and its forbidding levels of taxation keep both investment and talent away. The first litmus test for the new government will be whether it is able to take on special interests, including entrenched oligarchs and unions, in order to liberalize the labor market, increase foreign investment, and fight corruption. Mitsotakis will also need to improve public infrastructure and reform Greece’s justice and educational systems.
Internationally, Mitsotakis needs to build on the Prespa agreement to further boost Greece’s global standing. Northern Greek businessmen are itching for better market access in the Balkans, and Athens has an opportunity to consolidate its reputation as force for stability in southern Europe. U.S. diplomats, for instance, are increasingly turning to Greece as an alternative to Turkey to ensure peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. Senate is now considering a bill, the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, that would enhance U.S. support for the trilateral partnership of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel around defense and energy cooperation. Having graduated from its EU bailout program in 2018, Greece now has a chance to prove that it can solve, rather than just cause, problems on the international stage.
To do so, Mitsotakis will have to keep the nationalist elements of his party in check. In recent years, New Democracy has moved right in order to protect itself from far-right parties such as Golden Dawn and the pro-Russian Greek Solution. New Democracy has traditionally been skeptical of diversity, migration, and LGBT rights, and its fringe factions toy with nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. In the past, Mitsotakis has struggled to contain these fringe elements, but he is now showing signs of success. In a rebuke to the nationalist wing of his party, he has pledged to follow the Prespa agreement when in office, and he managed to keep extremist candidates off the New Democracy ballot in the May elections to the European Parliament.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
Europe should also do its part to help Greece’s recovery. Berlin and Brussels should follow Washington’s lead and recognize that Athens is no longer a problem child. Ironically, for all the talk about the crisis in transatlantic relations, the Trump administration has engaged Greece more effectively than have the Europeans.
In fact, Greece should be showcased as an EU success story. With Brussels potentially headed for a showdown with Rome over the Italian budget this fall, Greece could offer a positive counterpoint: an EU member state that is improving its position on the continent by cooperating with Brussels on the eurozone and migration crises and, while doing so, has triumphed over populist and extremist political forces. Now, Brussels should lean on Athens to play a positive role in the western Balkans, where EU leaders have warned of growing Chinese and Russian influence. Oil and gas exploration off the shores of Greece could also provide opportunities to improve Europe’s energy independence.
All of these issues should be front and center at the next meeting between EU and Greek leaders. A change in leadership—both in Greece and at the European level—provides an opportunity for a fresh start. Ursula von der Leyen, Jean-Claude Juncker’s incoming replacement as president of the European Commission, should attempt to build positive ties with Mitsotakis. One way to start would be to make Athens one of her first stops upon assuming office.
Mitsotakis’ election is not only a positive sign for Greeks. It is cause for optimism about the EU as a whole, suggesting that sensible center-right forces can beat back populists of both the right and the left. Yet as encouraging as the election was, Greece cannot rebuild itself on its own. The country’s partners in Europe and across the West have, for the past decade, viewed Greece as a basket case. It is time for them to recognize the country’s progress and begin to create a new relationship.