Sotiris Walldén studied economics in Sweden and France and has a Ph.D. from the University of Athens. From 1996 to 2014 he was an official at the European Commission, mostly dealing with enlargement. He has also served, inter alia, as secretary-general at the Ministry of National Economy, as counsellor to the foreign minister and as a visiting professor at the Panteion University, Athens. Today, he teaches a post-graduate course at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is the author of a large number of books and articles, mostly on the Balkans, EU enlargement and Greek foreign and domestic policy issues. Active in the anti-dictatorship resistance (1967-1974), he has since militated in parties and organisations of the Greek Left.

Sotiris Walldén spoke with Greek News Agenda* on the Greek debt issue, austerity policies, the SYRIZA government agenda, EU enlargement fatigue, and the current crisis of the European project:

You have recently noted that the Greek case is the most vivid expression of a course of Europe that is untenable and that the rise of a radical left party (Syriza), that remains pro-European, is probably the best of possible options for the country. Can you tell us more?

The Greek crisis was the result of bad economic management during the 2004-2010 period, but has its roots in long-standing structural problems of theeconomy and society. However, the crisis was precipitated and aggravated by external factors: the world financial crisis and deficiencies in the construction and management of the Eurozone.

Equally importantly, the medicine administered by the country’s lenders as of 2010 in the form of unprecedented harsh austerity had disastrous effects on the economy, the social tissue and on the democratic political system. The measures imposed were inspired by the neo-liberal philosophy and national egoisms prevailing in Europe. These have had negative effects, albeit less acute than in Greece, practically throughout the continent: high unemployment, pressure on incomes, increasing inequalities and insecurity as well as curtailment of the welfare state.

Unavoidably, the above mentioned policies generate reactions, and these have as a rule been hijacked by anti-European, xenophobic, extreme right forces. In the case of Greece, while we have witnessed the rise of a thuggish quasi-Nazi party, protests have mostly turned towards a pro-European radical left which is now in power. This, in my view, should be cause of relief, and not only for supporters of the left.

The present government is of course itself a product of the crisis: it came to power riding on a populist wave, it lacks experience, it carries remnants of mentalities from the time it was a small leftist group, and it has committed a number of mistakes, including the grave one of miscalculating the power of the German conservative establishment. It has an awkward populist right partner in government. And its ambitions are crushed under the programmes imposed by the lenders. On the other hand, SYRIZA is firmly pro-European and has a progressive social agenda, similar to the one of European social-democracy. Its people have not been corrupted by decades of power.

The alternative to the present government would be a coalition of the two parties that ruled the country, in alteration or together, during the last forty years; parties that bear the bulk of the responsibility for leading us to catastrophe. Their cadres are identified with corruption, clientelism and arrogance. The main opposition party, conservative New Democracy, is an incoherent mixture of neo-liberals and far-right populists. Their credibility for bringing the country back to a sustainable economic and political path is close to zero. And, of course, the New Democracy agenda is no choice for progressive citizens.

It is in this sense that I do believe that SYRIZA is the best of existing alternatives. Having said this, I also believe that the present government is far from satisfactory. To a large extent this is due to the imposed policies, but time for the government is running out and there is no room for complacency. Among other things, I think it should aim at disentangling from its unseemly junior partner and associate with forces of the centre-left.


Regarding the debt issue and IMF’s stance, you have referred to the risk of a ‘compromise’ with Berlin at the expense of Greece. Does current Greece’s strategy to regain access to international bond markets create room for optimism regarding end of memoranda?

A compromise at the expense of Greece was already reached. This was the essence of the deal by which the IMF agreed in principle to participate in the third programme, once Athens accepted to adopt what amounts to further austerity measures. The Fund’s attitude is an extreme case of hypocrisy and opportunistic horse trading with Germany. It started out by declaring the Berlin line of demanding from Greece exorbitant primary surpluses ad infinitum as unrealistic. Greece cannot sustain further austerity, it rightly pointed out. Then it settled for a deal that does just that, extends and increases austerity. Clearly, a deal with Mr.Schäuble, be it wholly at the latter’s terms, was assessed as more important than consistency, let alone care for the Greek people.

Regaining access to international bond markets will by definition facilitate the country’s exit from the quasi-colonial state under the memoranda. In this sense the government’s strategy to that end –and the first successful step that was recently made- is welcome. Nonetheless, a so-called “return to normality” under the present quasi-permanent straitjacket of austerity, is highly fragile and probably unsustainable in the medium term. As I see it, only a substantial lightening of the country’s debt burden would allow a recovery based on solid economic, social and political foundations.

It has been argued, as far as policy implementation is concerned, that, under the current circumstances, Syriza cannot put forward even a moderate social democratic agenda (regarding e.g, welfare state policies) and that unavoidably its governance will further enhance and legitimize austerity policies and neoliberalism. What is your view?

I am afraid I will have to agree that a social-democratic agenda, however moderate (as long as we do not mean a disguised neo-liberal one), can hardly be implemented under the draconian measures imposed on Greece by its lenders. Indeed, I suspect that Berlin also has a party-political aim in mind in its strategy towards our country. This is one of the reasons why the main battlefield for a policy change has to be at the European level.

Does this mean that SYRIZA has no margin to implement a progressive policy? Well, to a certain extent, yes. Of course, SYRIZA does not need to “legitimise” austerity and neoliberalism, as long as it makes clear the circumstances under which it has no choice but to comply and provided it avoids triumphalism when it succeeds in implementing the diktats. More importantly, there are quite a few areas and policies where a government of the Left could and should make a difference: some aspects of education and health system reform, cleaning the media landscape, fighting corruption, foreign policy (notably vis-à-vis the Cyprus issue and Macedonia), civil rights including Church-State relations, etc. Unfortunately, the government’s record in these areas is at best mixed. True, SYRIZA faces many constraints: the pressure from the economic policies it has to implement, its partner in government, its own inexperience. Nevertheless, it is progress in such areas that will largely decide whether or not the SYRIZA experiment, quite unique in Europe, will be a success –against all odds.

The abduction of Europa2

You have noted that undeniable negative effects of the EU enlargement “are rather the result of its instrumentalisation by the prevailing extreme neoliberal response to globalization”. What exactly has happened with the EU’s enlargement agenda during the last decade?

An inclusive European project was part of the vision of its founders. The EU “belongs” to all the democratic European countries and peoples that wish to be part of it, not to some selected few. Hence, I believe the 2004/2007 enlargement had to be done. So has the completion of this process with the Balkans. Excluding countries from the European process is a dangerous open-ended venture and we Greeks strongly oppose the “Europe of the fittest” concept which was behind the aborted 2015 Schäuble plan for Grexit.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the fact that a majority of Europeans have turned against enlargement, past and future. Part of this opposition reflects ethnic prejudice, isolationism and xenophobia, currents that merge with anti-migrant opinion throughout Europe. These should be resolutely combatted.

Nonetheless, just as Euroscepticism, “enlargement fatigue” has its roots also in real problems. People rightly realise that enlargement was used to deepen the neo-liberal model of governance. Lower wages and taxation of capital and the rich, less labour market regulation, weaker trade unions in the new member states were all used to put pressure on the European social model. Integration brought benefits to large firms, but contributed to lower incomes, more unemployment and insecurity, less social protection for many workers in the incumbent member states.

Defending social and regional cohesion in the context of enlargement was simply not part of the EU enlargement agenda. On the contrary, negative effects were often labelled advantages, in line with neo-liberal concepts on competitiveness. As a result, a growing number of Europeans have come to see enlargement as the Trojan horse of globalisation, a globalisation which they have experienced mostly in its negative dimension.

Then there is the issue of democracy. Its derailment in Hungary and Poland as well as institutional dysfunctions in Bulgaria and Romania are evidence that the quality of these countries’ democracy should have been scrutinised more closely before they were admitted into the EU. Also, authoritarian trends in some Western Balkan countries (not to mention Turkey) would definitely have to be arrested before these countries join.

On the other hand, anti-democratic currents, populism and xenophobia are not the privilege of “new” member states or candidates. These are Europe-wide and global trends, the deeper causes of which are related to global developments, but also to the specific way Europe and the West have been addressing modern challenges. It would be grossly unfair to attribute these problems exclusively to the enlargement countries.

Also, with respect to the Western Balkans and Turkey, the EU has a part of the responsibility for their democratic backsliding. All too often, the EU has recourse to double language, pretending the European course of candidates solely depends on their fulfilment of democratic criteria, while in reality other, less noble, reasons are behind “enlargement fatigue”.

Be it as it is, the EU’s enlargement agenda is in my view stuck. Its narrative is artificially kept alive for geopolitical reasons, a largely irrational anti-Russia crusade and concern over the refugee waves. However, further enlargement seems unlikely. This is unfortunate with respect to the remaining countries in the Balkans, but a revival of the policy can only be conceived within the framework of broader policy changes in the EU, changes that should undermine Euroscepticism.

Would you like to comment on the “potential future state of the EU” as presented in the European Commission’s five scenarios?  

In recent decades the policy of major member states has been to deprive the Commission of any leading role. This is a key symptom of the deepening crisis of the European project. The Juncker Commission has attempted to regain some of the territory lost by its predecessors, but was repeatedly reminded of its limited relevance. The ‘five scenario’ paper simply reflects this sad state of affairs; the Commission refrains from taking a position on the future of Europe and merely presents possible options to the member states.

In my view the method of focusing the debate on options along a unidimensional axis of “more or less Europe” is deeply flawed. Faced with the present widespread Euroscepticism, this method unavoidably excludes the option of “more Europe” from the realm of realism. Yet, “more Europe” is a prerequisite for overcoming the present crises and successfully addressing global challenges. The relevant question is, however, “more Europe to do what?” and “in what way?”. As long as people understand more Europe to mean more austerity, more insecurity, more inequalities, more bureaucracy, more German hegemonism, Europe will have no future. If, however, instead of putting the cart before the horse, we formulate a clear project and vision for a Europe based on development, solidarity and democracy, then the need for “more Europe” will appear natural and will regain legitimacy. Unfortunately, this is not the approach of the Commission paper, nor of most European leaders.

*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis