Greece, Europe, and the sovereignty axis

Europe is being reshaped around an axis of nationalism and sovereignty and Greece is just the beginning.

A version of this article was published in Spanish in EL PAÍS on 30 January.

Why is Marine Le Pen, leader of the French right-wing, xenophobic, and Europhobic National Front, reaching out to Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the first radical left-wing party to make it into government in Europe, to congratulate him on his victory? The answer can be found not in Paris but in Athens, where Tsipras’ first move after winning the elections was to go after the vote of the Greek nationalist right to help him secure an absolute majority in parliament.

Tsipras, Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias, and the rest of the left seem convinced that Putin too is a leftist.

Tsipras could have sought the support of any of the other regenerative forces in Greek politics, such as the To Potami liberal centrists. Instead, he has opted to form a coalition with the Independent Greeks, a splinter group of New Democracy, the centre-right party that governed Greece under Antonis Samarás from 2012 until this year. Like Tsipras’s Syriza, the Independent Greeks frame their demands in terms of recovery of sovereignty from the European Union.

After meeting with the Russian ambassador to Greece – who brought him a congratulatory letter from Vladimir Putin – one of Tsipras’s first decisions in power was to position himself against the adoption of new EU sanctions against Russia. This is not surprising: Syriza, just like Spain’s Podemos and the other parties of the European left, has consistently voted in favour of Russia and against Ukraine since entering the European Parliament in May last year. Whether because of ideological prejudice, ignorance, or pure cynicism, Alexis Tsipras, Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias, and the rest of the left seem convinced that Putin too is a leftist – despite the fact that the Russian president is a nationalist who governs by means of one of the most corrupt oligarchies on the planet, presides over a country that suffers from brutal social inequalities, enjoys the support of the Orthodox Church, and persecutes journalists, members of the LGBT community, and feminists.

Europe is being reshaped around a sovereignty-populist axis – in other words, around a resurgence of nationalism.

Incomprehensible? Not really. Europe is undergoing a political reconfiguration, but not around the left-right axis, nor along the fault-line between North and South; not even, as we had at times expected, in concentric circles, with a tightly integrated Euro-core and, surrounding it, circles of states with varying degrees of affinity to the union (members of the EU but not of the eurozone, those aspiring to enter the EU, the eastern neighbours, and Russia and Turkey in the outer ring). Europe is being reshaped around a sovereignty-populist axis – in other words, around a resurgence of nationalism (albeit a nationalism of a new kind, certainly compatible with democracy, but still in essence nationalism).

What has happened in Greece is the manifestation of a phenomenon that is not strictly related to the euro or the Troika, and which is profoundly European. In the United Kingdom, elections will take place in May that will test the ceiling of Nigel Farage’s Europhobes. In Sweden, where just as in Britain neither the euro nor the Troika are to be found, the rise of this kind of movement and party is every bit as worrying as that taking place in the heart of the eurozone. Within the EU, in France, Germany, Italy, and now also in Spain, parties are on the rise that articulate the same narrative: the EU has gone too far, it has hijacked democracy – it’s time to give the people a voice and take back national sovereignty. Europe is the problem and the nation is the solution, they say. In that case, count me out. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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