BERLIN – One can only feel sorry for Greece. For more than five years, the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) has made it the object of a failed experiment with austerity that has exacerbated the country’s economic crisis. And now Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government seems hell-bent on plunging Greece into the abyss.
It never had to be this way. By the time Tsipras’s leftist Syriza party came to power in January, a new, more growth-oriented compromise had become possible. Even hardcore German proponents of austerity – and certainly Chancellor Angela Merkel – had begun to reconsider their position, owing to their policy prescriptions’ undeniable adverse consequences for the euro and the stability of the European Union.
The Tsipras government, with some justification, could have presented itself as Europe’s best partner for implementing a far-reaching program of reform and modernization in Greece. Measures to compensate the poorest met with considerable sympathy in EU capitals, and favorable sentiment would have strengthened had Greece started to cut its bloated defense budget (as a leftist government might have been expected to do).
But Tsipras squandered Greece’s opportunity, because he and other Syriza leaders were unable to see beyond the horizon of their party’s origins in radical opposition activism. They did not understand – and did not want to understand – the difference between campaigning and governing. Realpolitik, in their view, was a sellout.