Alexis Tsipras is the key player in what is shaping up to be Europe‘s most fateful election in a very long time. The new 37-year-old star of Greek politics, ever ready with a punchy soundbite, might even hold Europe’s future in his hands.
Tsipras is nothing if not shrewd. His crew of radicals and leftists came second in the inconclusive Greek general election on 6 May. He could do even better in the rerun on 17 June.
His election campaign took him on Monday from the bailed-out, austerity-battered offices of Athens to Paris and on Tuesday he heads to Berlin, as he visits the two capitals where the euro‘s future or failure will be decided.
This is not crisis management or problem-solving. It’s electioneering.
Tsipras’s stay in France and Germany will do little to answer the multiple questions haunting the eurozone or influence the policymakers in Berlin and Paris preparing for a bit of a fight over dinner in Brussels on Wednesday evening.
But fielding questions in both capitals, creating a stir in the two biggest countries and looking good on Greek TV will do anything but harm his campaign. To the extent that Tsipras’s foreign jaunt benefits him domestically, it may yet impact on the outcome of the euro crisis, but not directly.
Snubbing fellow EU politicians has become a bit of a trend lately.
President François Hollande of France, already seeking to set the European agenda, was being refused entry into polite governing company in London, Berlin, Warsaw, and Rome only a few weeks ago. Now the peers and rivals are queueing up to bond with the new French leader.
Tsipras, the moral victor of the Greek election earlier this month, is also being given the cold shoulder by policymakers in France and Germany, restricted to meeting with like-minded mates on the outside left of politics who are having zero impact on the crisis management in Germany and minimal influence in post-election France.
In Berlin Tsipras is to hobnob with Gregor Gysi, leader of the east German far left descended from the old communists, the party of the Stasi. They merged with dissident social democrats grouped around Oskar Lafontaine, a once magnetic but now spent force in German politics, to form Die Linke – the Left. In last week’s regional election in North Rhine–Westphalia, they failed to make it into the parliament in Düsseldorf despite the promising territory – a highly indebted post-industrial region down on its luck.
In Paris Tsipras’s main ally was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the straight-talking French leftist who promised much more than he delivered in the presidential campaign and ended up trailing way behind the far right Front National.
The French and German leftists might be forgiven for envying Tsipras’s success and his obvious talent for resonating with his electorate. The Greek cleverly turned the tables on his German antagonists by quoting their own warnings back at them.
“European governments have to stop asking their taxpayers to throw their money into a bottomless pit,” said Tsipras, directly citing the German finance minister who has used the very same words to characterise the €240bn (£195bn) in European bailouts to Greece.
Tsipras’s European tour amounts to canny campaigning. But if he wants to be prime minister of Greece – he probably doesn’t, who would? – and start tackling the crisis, he spent his time in Paris and Berlin talking to the wrong people.