In Greece, the sovereign debt crisis and its subsequent management by the country’s European partners have tarnished EU membership and watered down a previously overwhelming level of support for European integration. Often portrayed as a ‘special case’, Greece sees the EU as failing to deliver the goods, be they economic growth or, more recently, solidarity vis-à-vis unprecedented migration flows. The Greek political class understands the benefits of continued membership – even if this becomes multi-speed – but lacks the tools and the credibility to influence the EU’s future direction according to the national interest. Unable to provide a positive narrative or endgame for the European project, it is left with a public struggling to associate the EU with political stability and economic prosperity. There is no roadmap to economic recovery, unemployment remains disproportionately high and approximately half a million Greeks, primarily the youngest and brightest, have emigrated since 2008.

A major survey conducted by Chatham House and Kantar Public in 10 European countries offers interesting insights into Greek attitudes toward the EU. Predictably, 67% of Greeks consider austerity as the EU’s greatest failure, a percentage that singles Greece out from every other country in the survey and betrays the effects of the three bailout programmes on Greek society’s perception of the EU. ‘Economic crisis’ is the phrase most strongly associated with the EU (62%), followed by ‘loss of national power’ (44%, double the survey’s average). Reflecting the same undercurrent, 39% ‘strongly disagree’ with the statement that ‘people like you have benefited from being a member of the EU’. Yet, prior to the crisis, Greece was a net recipient of the EU budget, a fact that has been lost in public debate. More recently, hundreds of billions of euros of mostly EU funds have been committed to keep the economy afloat, admittedly with stringent conditions attached. Rather than explain this to the public, Greek political leaders have used the crisis to scapegoat the EU and divert attention from their own failures.

Stuck in the eurozone’s straightjacket of fiscal discipline, and unable to will the EU tools that could replenish the sovereignty lost at national levelGreeks feel overwhelmingly ‘uneasy’ (74% versus 38% survey average) and ‘pessimistic’ (60% versus a 40% average) about the EU. Populists of all persuasions tap into this deep-seated frustration, pitting patriots against foreigners and quislings and invoking national determination against the implementation of reforms imposed ‘from above’. They also tap into the strong and rising anti-German undercurrent in Greek politics. The survey shows that a significant number of Greeks see German interests as defining the solution parameters to the the Greek crisis with over 80% (compared to the sample average of 27%) thinking that Germany plays a negative role in the EU.

Greek leaders and European elites developing policy approaches to re-legitimize core aspects of integration and bring the Greek people ‘on board’ should consider a number of important results reported in the survey:

– An overwhelming number of Greeks (80%) think that ‘within the next 10 years other member states will decide to leave the EU’. The price tag of membership may prove increasingly highfor Greece and a number of other countries, given the EU’s continuing inability to balance national interests equitably or rein in members that openly defy European values and EU commitments. It is worth noting that with regard to ‘Britain’s vote to leave’, 73% of Greeks believe that it will weaken the EU, 3% more than the British (70%). At the same time, for a majority of Greeks (60%), maintaining a good relationship with the UK in the future should not come at the cost of compromising the EU’s core values.

– Regarding the EU’s future path, 53% disagree that ‘the EU should become a US of Europe with a central government’, an unexpected result considering that the Greek public was, prior to the crisis, among the most pro-integrationist in the EU. Greeks no longer link integration with the possibility of real convergence to the EU average but with sub-optimal concessions on national sovereignty which disrupt political stability and the social fabric. At the same time, even though Greeks today are living in more precarious situations compared to other country samples (31% had to ‘go without needed medication and 48% had to ‘borrow money to pay for life essentials’ compared to European averages of 19% and 22%), 44% are ‘moderately’ satisfied with their life, mirroring the extent to which they have ‘some control’ (43%) over it.

– Trust in the EU’s rules of the game and its ability to deliver benefits for citizens is in doubt, as reflected in the fact that Greeks are evenly divided on whether the EU is moderately democratic (41%) or not democratic (40%). Greeks see a Europe characterized by asymmetries over the sovereign debt crisis and more recently the refugee crisis. Regarding immigration, many have negative views, with 68% rejecting the idea that ‘immigration has been good for the country’ and 58% believing that ‘all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped’. Greeks appear ambivalent as to whether EU enlargement has gone far enough and whether new countries should be able to join the EU. Interestingly, although 67% oppose Turkey joining the EU, this is less than in Germany, Belgium, France (73%) and Austria (82%).

What are the implications of these findings for the Syriza-Anel government? The current administration and any future government elected in 2019 must promote difficult reforms at home before it can have a meaningful say in reform at EU level. An important reservoir of public support stands unutilized. 47% agree that ‘people should take responsibility for themselves rather than expect the state to provide for them’. This marks an important shift from state reliance to self-reliance. Provided that this can be tapped and a credible roadmap to growth can be paved, the Greek political class can adopt a number of strategies to re-energize support for the EU, and help address its contested legitimacy. In a country where many feel that sovereignty has been eroded by the EU and the IMF, Greek political leaders should view multi-speed Europe as an opportunity. Deepening integration and cooperation in key domains for the Union such as the eurozone and the Schengen area can only come with the creation of necessary tools to manage this, a fiscal capacity and/or eurozone budget or the reform of the Dublin system for managing refugees. These would provide significant policy space, and potentially generate mechanisms for financial and operational support. The same could apply for foreign and defence policy. Obviously, in areas where the national or even level performs better, political leaders will need to balance their approach with the recognition that 66% of Greeks think that ‘the EU should return some of its powers to individual member states’.

Greece along with the countries that have shouldered the burden in the refugee crisis, could promote solidarity as an organizing principle in future EU policy. Greeks (68%) followed by Italians (66%) and Germans (62%) top the list among European publics in believing that ‘every EU member state should have to accept the same proportion of refugees according to their population’.

Finally, in order to repair the EU’s reputation in Greece, Greek leaders must communicate a positive narrative around the EU’s ‘greatest achievements’. In Greece, the highest of these  are considered to be ‘freedom to live and work across the EU’ (56%), followed by 41% who value ‘removing borders between states (i.e. the Schengen area)’ – predictably, only 19% vouch for ‘the euro currency’. The sense of European belonging that emerges in this survey cannot be discarded. 43% are proud to be Greek and European, while 66% (the highest percentage in the group) consider nationalism ‘a danger to peace and stability in Europe’. It is this valued existence of a common space that can propel Greek political leaders to contribute to initiatives where a collective European response brings benefits. Besides terrorism and migration, mechanisms will be needed to share the tasks and costs associated with the management of unemployment, health and social security, and environmental protection at the EU level.

Author: Dr Eleni Panagiotarea 

Source: Chatham House