Syriza's election victory and the debate over Greek debt relief raise issues with a much broader scope than just the future of Greece. Cutting Greece's debt burden would certainly help Greece escape its economic situation, but European officials fear that easing the debt would lead to similar demands from other indebted European countries. On the other hand, if neither European officials nor Syriza are willing to give up their demands, Greece could be forced out of the eurozone. Not only could this unprecedented step destabilize other members of the eurozone; it would inflame euroskeptics on both the left and the right who believe that the EU's technocratic officials do not take democratic votes into account. Whatever decision taken will have dramatic repercussions on the future of the European Union. So what happens next?
Although Greece posted its first quarter of growth in six years in late 2014, its economic situation remains dire. Its debt burden is 175 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), not only because the country took massive loans to avoid default, but also because Greece's creditors mandated harsh austerity measures that battered the Greek economy far more than anticipated. The International Monetary Fund predicted that spending cuts and tax increases would lead to a 5.5 percent fall in GDP by 2013, when in reality GDP fell 17 percent in that time period. By 2015, the decline in GDP reached 25 percent. As GDP falls, the debt relative to the size of the economy increases while the government brings in less tax revenue. The government must compensate for lost revenue with further cuts, so money that could have been used for economic stimulus goes to service the debt, and GDP declines further. This vicious cycle led to a 25 percent unemployment rate in Greece, close to 60 percent youth unemployment and the resounding victory of an anti-austerity party that promises to boost social spending and renegotiate Greece's debt.
Radical leftists typically do not win elections unless voters feel that there is something very wrong with the existing order. Greece is not the only European country whose citizens suffered due to the economic crisis and the austerity that followed, nor is the rise of a powerful radical left in response to this economic pain unique to Greece. Spain's economy looks better than Greece's on paper, but rates of unemployment are similar. A quarter of Spaniards and over half of Spanish young people cannot find work. Polls show that Podemos, a grassroots left-wing movement, may ride this wave of discontent to victory in parliamentary elections in late 2015. In his victory speech, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said "we started a new era and the victory of Syriza will be followed by the Spanish people electing Podemos and United Left, and next year in Ireland with Sinn Fein." These parties have expressed their solidarity with Syriza's anti-austerity politics, and if Greece successfully boosts social spending and negotiates a reduction of debt, other parties would be energized to follow a similar course, a prospect that worries European officials. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Syriza outright and refuse to negotiate with them, since the discontent that led to their rise and to the strength of other leftist parties would go unaddressed. On top of that, the perception that the European Union ignores the outcome of democratic elections would fuel opposition from both radical leftists and the euroskeptic far right. Rather than waiting until the radical left has been elected to deal with their demands, European officials should address the issues that drive voters toward these parties in the first place.
In the early 20th century, the Democratic Party in the United States successfully reacted to the rise of the Socialist Party, an insurgent leftist party. In the 1910s and 1920s, Socialists won numerous local offices and close to 1 million votes in two presidential elections; their pledges of radical redistributionism resonated because of widespread income inequality and poverty. In the 1930s, the Franklin Roosevelt administration enacted various measures against poverty, such as a system of social security, which had been a key part of the Socialist platform. After Social Security was instituted, the Socialists never again gained more than 1 percent of the vote. Once the establishment addressed the reasons that drove voters to support an insurgent party, the motivation to overturn the establishment and elect insurgents collapsed.
The European Union should adopt a similar strategy in the face of rising left-wing extremism. Prolonged mass unemployment and years of austerity that have been unsuccessful in returning the continent to growth have caused discontent with the political establishment and have provided fertile ground for radical movements to grow. Continuing to rigidly insist on the same economic policies despite growing democratic opposition to those policies will forge an opposition that is equally rigid. The resulting polarization will undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of the European Union as a whole. A compromise that takes steps to combat mass unemployment and the tremendous human toll of austerity will combat radicalism by addressing the conditions that lead to the popularity of radicalism in the first place. After all, people who have good jobs and enough to eat seldom vote to overturn the status quo. People who don't just might.
Fedynsky is a freelance journalist based in Washington.