In a refreshingly sophisticated interpretation, Alexandre Afonso ascribed the victory of Syriza in Greece is a logical result of what he has called ‘cartel politics’ in the South of Europe, the forming of political alliances between left and right parties to fulfil a specific goal linked to debt payments and implementation of austerity policies. The South European states Afonso refers to are not the only ones to have followed a fairly uniform course in terms of economic policy. In Central and Eastern Europe, as Ivan Krastev has argued, success in joining the European Union and following the EU’s economic rules and prescriptions have brought, next to the great improvements in institutions, governance and investment, a constraint on choices in economic policy that led him and others to label post communist states ‘democracies without choices’. Membership of the EU was a goal shared by all political parties and major stakeholders in Central and Eastern European states, albeit in different ways and sometimes, as in the case of the Czech republic’s Vaclav Klaus, with a eurosceptic tint; There is no doubt that striving for eurozone membership in particular (Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and since this year also Lithuania are euro members) has limited the spectrum of choices in economic policy, leading, as Krastev pointed out, to the rise of populist parties. Without entering into the huge debates around the rules of the eurozone and especially the effects of the convergence criteria on different types of economies in the EU, from a political science point of view the question of effects of key policies on national democracies continues to be a vexing one. The dangers of one size economic policy fits all EU member states may have been made painfully obvious by the sovereign debt crisis, but the question about continuity and commitment at EU level versus democratic choice at national level can be asked about all policies.
What are the effects on EU member states’ democracies when mutually agreed policies – in the past – do not leave much room for change, for parties to campaign on and voters to choose from at present? This is clearly a question of EU democracy as a whole and so far no answers have emerged so far from the middle rather than extreme parts of the political spectrum to square the circle between democratic choice and supranational commitment.
An interesting variation on this theme has been the statement of the new Greek government’s foreign minister, Mr. Kotzias, that media reports that Greece did not agree with extension of Russian sanctions by the European Council were mistaken. Greek objections were only about the EU partners not having consulted the new Greek government before bringing a common position to the press. Mr. Varoufakis, the new finance minister and well known academic and blogger, provided clarification in his blog saying the objections were about not being consulted, so a question of respect. Yet earlier reports suggest the ambassador of Greece was well aware of the proposal, as all EU ambassadors are active participants in the formulation of such positions. Elections can and have led to change of positions of course, yet keeping to agreements made in ongoing consultations appears to be a matter of professional courtesy while a new government has the time to take a more active stance. The debacle with the Greek position on the extension of Russian sanctions appeared to be a case very important for the new Greek government, so one cannot blame commentators for wondering whether a change to a pro-Russia stance was on the cards.
Governments can and have dissented from common EU positions on foreign policy before, sometimes for many years, as the Greek position on the name of one of its neighbours shows. In this case, given that foreign policy decisions at this level in the EU are always based on unanimity (unless the devilishly complicated constructive abstention provisions are evoked) Greece as a member state and a democracy clearly has a choice, just like a number of Central and Eastern European states have followed their own foreign policy course, leading a famously irate former French President Chirac to comment that when they signed letters backing the US position in Iraq in 2003, CEE states missed ‘ a good opportunity to keep quiet’. The question in the case of the EU’s stance towards Russia at the moment is whether it is possible for the new Greek government to respond to certain expectations or pro-Russian feelings that some of Syriza’s electorate may cherish without squandering good will that Greece may need from its partners on other issues. In other words, it may be a question not of respect, but of democracy and diplomacy.