At times the conflict between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone looks like a duel to the death. Last night, a seven-hour meeting of Europe’s finance ministers about Greece’s immediate funding needs ended in tetchy silence. There was no common statement; there wasn’t even (to borrow Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’s phrase after his meeting last week with Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble) an agreement to disagree. On Twitter, Greece-watchers tried to come up with ways to marry Greece’s request for a bridge loan with the Eurozone’s insistence on an extension to the bailout memorandum, which the new governing party Syriza has promised to repudiate. Pier? Pontoon? Causeway? Schrödinger’s memorandum, simultaneously dead and alive?
Semantics will play an important part in any eventual solution, which will involve compromises and face-saving wording for both sides. But semantics can’t be all of it—something the Eurozone ministers may not yet have understood. The Syriza government is not just pushing for a better deal—they’re refusing to keep on playing the same self-destructive game, piling debt on unpayable debt tied to impossible conditions. The aim is to reclaim democracy and political possibility—and with them, human lives—from the failed and fatal dogmas of austerity. In this they are backed by 70 percent of the Greek people, twice the proportion that voted for them. Eighty percent also want to stay in the eurozone. The desire—perhaps quixotic, perhaps grandiose, but born of suffering and necessity—is not to abandon Europe but to change it.
Like well-trained organizers, Syriza’s leaders are being the change they want to see. Their sartorial rebellion signals urgency, the rejection of business as usual, a commitment to fundamentals over precedent and procedure. The disjunction between their language and that of the old politicians is startling and refreshing. In Berlin on Thursday, Finance Minister Schaeuble spoke of rules and tax inspectors; Varoufakis, tieless as usual, addressed Europe’s post-war project, offering “a frenzy of reasonableness” and deep reform at home, while describing the damage done to Europe, as well as to Greece. Germany, he said, more than any other nation, must understand how “a severely depressed economy, combined with a ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness,” can hatch the serpent’s egg: the third-largest party in the Greek Parliament is now a Nazi party. Speaking as an equal partner, he requested not money and indulgence but political space and time.
In Greece, too, political reality seems to have been stood on its head. In a Parliament presided over by a young female speaker, Syriza’s new ministers put forward ambitious programs as if no storm was raging in the capitals of the north, threatening bankruptcy. Immediate help for families worst hit by the depression, an end to the culture of corruption and clientelism, investigation of tax evaders, a new public broadcaster funded from tax receipts, collective bargaining restored with help from the International Labour Organization, a new ministry for migration and citizenship for second-generation immigrants, civil partnerships for gay couples, a reformed, independent justice system… the lists went on, as if to say, whatever Europe does or doesn’t do, we are now resolved to determine our own fate.