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Syriza’s call for sovereignty: hopes and illusions

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 Syriza’s recent electoral victory embodied a clear popular demand for more economic and democratic sovereignty but Its focus on the national level contains several limitations and dangers. This commentary adopts a critical approach to this framework before contrasting it with the necessity to rehabilitate sovereignty mainly at the European level.

(Photo credit: *Bloco, Flickr)


Syriza’s call for sovereignty: hopes and illusions

Sophie Heine

After it proclaimed its willingness to renegotiate the Greek debt and to alleviate the social and economic predicament of the Greek population, Syriza’s victory has generated enthusiasm among the groups and individuals who have been opposing austerity for years. In this view, Syriza’s victory embodies a popular demand for the return to democratic and economic sovereignty. I will take a different stance here, highlighting the dangers and contradictions entailed by any attempt to rebuild popular sovereignty mainly at the national level.

A rallying cry for national sovereignty

It might be worth underlining that Syriza’s program could in theory gather support much beyond the borders of Greece and much beyond the most radical fringes of the left. Even if it is officially a “radical left” party, Syriza’s program is actually fairly moderate: no hint of a socialist revolution, no proposition to end capitalism and no mention of a future communist State. In the current context, however, the measures proposed by Syriza do seem to represent a clear break with the orthodox economic approach that has dominated Europe for the last decades and, more particularly, with the more recent focus on austerity. Therefore, those who believe that social justice as well as economic effectiveness require more redistribution, a fairer taxation, less cuts in public spending and more public investments could be tempted to perceive Syriza’s victory as a potential contribution to reverse the political balance of power in Europe. On the contrary, I would like to contend that Syriza is hardly the most adequate source of inspiration for the very much needed ideological refoundation of the left.

Even if its program contains some European dimensions – for instance: a growth oriented New Deal for Europe and a restructuring of the European Union into a less centralized, more democratic realm – , this party’s main focus is on recovering economic sovereignty at the national level. Certainly, this orientation is fully understandable in the context of a national election, particularly after years of austerity imposed by external actors such as the so-called troika. Besides, the more general contradiction between, on the one hand, a very deep Europeanization of public policies and, on the other, the persistently national character of democratic debates and public spheres explain the rise of eurosceptic ideas and political forces as well as their increasing stress on national sovereignty.

A perilous path

However, the very deep economic integration of trade and financial flows make it extremely hard, if not impossible, to put in place traditional left-wing policies at a purely national level. Getting out of the euro would not help much in that respect, since it would increase the risk of financial turmoil and speculations against a newly recovered national currency. Furthermore, such a policy would require a full break with EU treaties and ideology. Possible retaliations from EU institutions and financial sectors would most certainly be more damaging than beneficial to the population concerned.

Besides, national responses to what is perceived as a “neoliberal” form of capitalism can easily drift towards identity politics. The populist rhetoric centered on the Greek’s people or “demos” can serve the best as much as the worst political interests: It can justify not only social measures but also nationalistic and xenophobic ones. And indeed, the coalition between Syriza and the right wing party Independent Greeks reveals the extent to which reactions focused on national sovereignty can lead to the most uneasy alliances.

Sovereignty versus federal Europe

Such a coalition also reflects the mounting relevance of a new political split between the supporters of national sovereignty and the federalists. This new cleavage seems to both encompass and go beyond the traditional right-left opposition. This evolution, which is the result of much deeper structural trends, seems almost inevitable in the short and medium term. However, it is very unlikely that this new configuration will lead to the victory of the most progressive approaches to national sovereignty.

Predicting political evolutions can prove hazardous. Nevertheless, the almost certain failure to re-establish an effective democratic and economic sovereignty at the Greek level is likely to make cultural and conservative arguments even more appealing to an increasing number of citizens. Therefore, Syriza’s focus on national sovereignty could actually pave the way for the longer term victory of right-wing, nationalist and conservative defenders of sovereignty. This risk also exists in other European countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Rescuing sovereignty at the European level

Sovereignty does have to be rescued and enhanced, but at the European level. Reclaiming sovereignty in that sense supposes not only a clear break with right-wing nationalist reactions but also a reaffirmation of progressive forms of federalism. Indeed, effective sovereignty is indispensable to guarantee the application of civilian, social and political rights. And for the reasons briefly mentioned earlier, it is both more realistic and less harmful to fight for it at a supranational level. In a post-national perspective, this would suppose a disconnection between citizenship rights and national identity. And in a cosmopolitan approach, it requires a broader separation between collective identities and political legitimacy. In order to avoid the dangers involved by the communitarian overlap between identity and politics, legitimacy should be functional rather than moral or identity-based.

Rehabilitating sovereignty at the European level is an enterprise that progressives should see as their uttermost priority. This supposes to change the macro-economic framework in order to focus on demand as well as supply, to harmonize social standards and taxation on mobile factors and boost both private and public investment. Certainly, a lot of those measures would require treaty changes. But why always take that argument as an obstacle to refashion the economic and institutional architecture of the EU? Treaties and legislations should not be sacralized as such but seen as the products and contingent resolutions of conflicts of interest. In other words, they constitute crystallizations of particular relations of power rather than rigid framework determining the latter. Historically, most treaty modifications have occurred through changes in the balance of powers between the biggest European States. It is thus reasonable to believe that, today as well, a social, democratic and economically sound Europe will only come about through alternative majorities within the main member States.

Syriza could play a role in shifting this balance of power towards a European Union responsive to the needs and interests of European citizens. In itself, however, it is simply a negative and partly mistaken reaction rather than a first step towards progressive change in Europe.


Sophie Heine is Dr in Politics, Senior research fellow at Egmont, Royal Institute for international relations.

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