Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras traveled to Strasbourg Wednesday to face the European version of his Greek referendum.
The critical reactions to his speech from party leaders in the European Parliament plenary session said as much about the way forward in the Greek crisis as did the speech itself, which was largely a re-hash of Tsipras’ recent positioning — along with some capitalist-bashing red meat.
Tsipras’ body language during the Parliamentary debate made clear he has not had to face this sort of sustained and diverse attack before. But the transcript of his remarks and the pictures don’t always tell the real story of the message being delivered Wednesday morning.
Here’s a guide to what Tsipras said — and what he meant.
What Tsipras said: “The mistakes of the past condemned the Greek economy to a period of neverending impasse of austerity.”
What he meant: Give us a break here, people.
Translation: Tsipras inherited five years of failure, and has had only five months to correct it. But he is also ideologically committed to ending austerity regardless of whether that is politically realistic. This line of argument is his play to bring in new loans and debt relief alongside the conditionality of further reforms. It is the argument that is mostly likely to succeed, as it already had lukewarm backing from France and Italy.
What he said: “Europe and the European Union will either be democratic or it will have immense difficulties surviving.”
What he meant: If you kick us out you will expose your whole project as a sham.
Translation: This is the sound of Tsipras teaming up with the far-right and other Euroskeptics to squeeze the political middle in Europe. The center, which includes 26 of 28 national leaders, is on the defensive against its more vocal EU critics on the political fringes. Tsipras hopes to leverage those fears to get a better deal from this weekend’s summit. He bets that creditors would rather pay more to Greece now, than pay even more later if the euro or EU collapses.
What he said: “Our proposal has been submitted. It was put to the Eurogroup yesterday.”
What he meant: We’ll get right back to you on the specific numbers.
Translation: This is a red rag to the creditor bulls. As far as they are concerned no proposal is submitted until it is submitted in detail and in writing. That was the farce of Tuesday night’s summit. This is a fruitless line of argument for Tsipras, even if he has a valid point that the debate is now one about fundamental principles, not technical details and individual numbers on pensions and taxes.
What he said: “The monies that were given to Greece never trickled down to the Greek people. This was money that was given to save Greek and European banks.”
What he meant: Power to the people! It’s growth or bust!
Translation: Tsipras is mostly correct, and even won the support of Nigel Farage, the face of Euroskepticism in the Parliament, on this point. The creditors are not wrong to save banks — as is painfully evident from the current problems when banks are shut — but to stimulate the Greek economy, it is clear that more was and is needed.
What he said: “I am not one of those politicians who claim that those responsible for the woes of Greece are the wicked foreigners.”
What he meant: I’ll take support from Euroskeptics who do blame foreigners, but I won’t let you pin that on me.
Translation: Tsipras knew he needed to walk out of Parliament today with a broader base of support. He knew he needed the backing of poorer countries. And in both cases he is on thin ice. The proof? French far-right leader Marine Le Pen specifically reached for a “coalition of no,” and if he wants broad support he can’t have her as his chief ally.
What he said: “Previous governments … have allowed tax evasion to run riot… None of the reforms have improved the functioning and efficiency of mechanisms of state.”
What he meant: Cuts won’t solve our problems. We need more money and time.
Translation: Tsipras is correct about the fundamental problem in Greece. Tax evasion is rife, tax collection is antiquated, some tax collectors are corrupt, the biggest industry (shipping) is tax exempt, the biggest service sector (tourism) is tax discounted.
But there are digital solutions, and simple tax hikes — for example on well-off tourists — that could make a real difference to the problem.
Tsipras hasn’t demonstrated why those decisions have not been taken. One theory is that the Independent Greek party is strongest on the Greek islands that benefit from VAT tax discounts; he needs them in the government, but is not being upfront with creditors about that political reality. Tsipras has taken a risk of blame-shifting instead of admitting the politics.
What he said: “Our proposals are reforms that previous governments did not want to put in place … Today we come with a strong mandate from the Greek people and we are determined not to have a clash with the EU, but to tackle head on with the establishment of our country.”
What he meant: The mess was here when I moved in. Give me some credit already.
Translation: As centrist MEP Guy Verhofstadt pointed out, when Syriza continues to stack the senior civil service with political appointees, Tsipras is rapidly coming to represent the problem he was elected to attack. That being the case, these arguments will not convince creditors.
At this point, all they are seeing is a new face on an old problem.
Reproduced from POLITCO.EU