Could Greece prompt wholesale change in Europe?

A Greek Presidential Guard Image copyright AP

The spectacle outside the Greek Parliament is so outlandish it is hard not to laugh.

This isn't anything to do with the weekend's election - although there are parallels.

The Evzone, the men of the Presidential Guard, are performing a hyper-slow-mo ballet.

Exotically resplendent in dark kilts, red hats, white tights and pom-pom slippers, they flex their legs as though pushing them through syrup, goose-step with such exquisite slowness that it would topple any goose, balance their rifles on their fingertips before the two soldiers touch toes.

It is a cartoonish, alien version of something seen all over Europe.

Perhaps this is also true of the changing of the political guard that will soon happen inside the building.

It has been widely proclaimed - indeed I have said it myself - that the election of the radical left-wingers of Syriza will send "shock waves" through Europe.

It is true. But it will also create weird harmonics, localised feedbacks and unpredicted echoes.

It will of course give hope to other hard-left parties in Europe.

The crisis has seen the growth of the extreme right, but until now Marx's heirs haven't had a look in.

Spanish left buoyant

That has now changed. The leader of Spain's Podemos (it means "we can") was on the platform at the Syriza rally I went to in Athens just before the election.

He declared: "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin."

He was quoting Leonard Cohen as well as declaring war on the neo-liberals, but he would have been more prophetic if he had mentioned Madrid - the party has a real chance of winning the Spanish general election before the year is out.

Podemos is the biggest party in Spain in terms of membership and is coming first in opinion polls - the latest putting the party on 28% compared with the ruling party's 19%.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pablo Iglesias believes Podemos can win in Spain

In a rally just after his victory, the new Greek prime minister predicted Sinn Fein would win next year's Irish election.

That is not too far-fetched, either.

Such a radical leftist axis would be a powerful challenge to the European establishment.

As Cohen's song continues: "You loved me as a loser, but now you're worried that I just might win."

But it is not just about the potential victory of hard-line insurgents who are fed up with the orthodoxies of Berlin and Brussels.

Social Democrat opportunity

It provides a challenge and an opportunity for existing Social Democratic parties.

One of the few European leaders who jumped to congratulate Syriza with real enthusiasm was Francois Hollande.

He is locked in his own battle with the European Commission over the size of the French budget, and he will see the new Greek government as an ally in a struggle for a more Keynesian Europe.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Ed Miliband has been reluctant to be associated with Syriza

The Italian prime minister's position is a bit more complicated - but Syriza's victory will play into his party's "tug of war between flexibility and austerity".

Not my words but those of the Italian foreign minister.

The Greek election will probably push the Italian government off the fence, one way or another.

Ed Miliband clearly doesn't want to be associated with Syriza - his advisers must reckon the moniker Red Ed is toxic.

But there are already Gramsci-quoting commentators lusting for Mr Miliband to emulate Alexis Tsipras.

If he becomes prime minister the chorus will grow.

EU tensions

In one sense this looming continent-wide political battle, on fairly standard left-right lines, might introduce a much needed dose of democratic argument into the often technocratic European Union decision-making process.

But if left-right division translates into a conflict between economic winners and losers, it will underline the basic tensions within the EU.

For this election goes to the very heart of the matter - the Greek crisis has laid bare the central paradoxes and conundrums of the European project itself.

The crisis has exposed the gap between an original romantic aspiration for supra-national unity and the different economic needs and perceptions of nation states.

Sitting on the wooded hillside of the Acropolis, the ancient temples clad in scaffolding above me, I reflect that there is love and hate amid the ruins of the past and the ruin of the present, which to me highlight the tensions.

For northern Europeans, Greece is a destination of romance, not merely of the carnal kind, but an admiration for the place where Western civilisation was born.

Over the years we blonde barbarians have displayed a Byronic sentimentality about the cradle of democracy and its place in a new Europe.

Modern Greece had barely shaken off the military dictatorship of the colonels in 1974 when it rushed headlong into EU membership in 1981.

For many it is unthinkable that the birthplace of democracy should not be an integral part of the European dream.

The same applies to Greece's eager participation in the euro.

A single currency that might have been plain economic common sense for Germany and France didn't look so logical for Greece.

But the euro was also an expression of political ambition.

There were those who hoped that once Europe had its own money, a unique supra-national entity would rise fully formed like Venus from the sea.

How could Greece be excluded from such optimism?

But there was more bull than Europa about this.

Solidarity tested

Greece was the laggard of Europe, sometimes hardly bothering to aspire to the standards of other EU nations - a country where only the naive paid taxes, where many saw the state's largesse as their due, where a Kafkaesque bureaucracy could be beaten only by bribery, where this monstrous construct stifled hope, and political parties rewarded loyalists with cushy jobs in state enterprises.

When it all went wrong, Europe's paymasters - led by Germany - stepped in to bail them out. But the medicine was made to feel like a punishment, with Mrs Merkel in the role of nasty nanny delivering a dose of cod liver oil.

Memories of invasion and war were revived - images of mild Mrs Merkel were displayed alongside the swastika on the streets of Athens.

Now, those stereotypes will sharpen as Greece shakes its head and refuses to take another dose.

To many Greeks, austerity feels not like tough love, but the colonial arrogance of bosses and bankers.

We will now hear a lot more of hard-working, tax-paying Northerners stumping up to keep feckless Southerners in sun-soaked indolence.

So what will now be tested is the limit to European sympathy and solidarity.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The far-right Golden Dawn did well in the Greek election

The strains between North and South, already on clear display, will stretch to the seams.

Ignoring the mandate of a democratically elected government hardly burnishes the credentials of the European Union, widely accused of being out of touch and elitist.

It will add to the likelihood of a fracture.

It wasn't just Francois Hollande who congratulated Syriza. So did National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

The government Greece has voted for is a bunch of ex-Marxists, current communists and hard-line socialists. But remember the party that came third - Golden Dawn - is as close as Europe has to an old-style, unapologetic Nazi party.

It might have done even better if its leaders were not in jail on charges of forming a criminal organisation after the murder of a high-profile opponent.

The rise of the hard left has not undermined the rise of the hard right.

Rather people are casting around for new answers to the old questions.

People in Greece didn't vote for a specific economic policy - they invested their hope in something different to the old order.

If their investment doesn't pay off, it doesn't mean they will slump back into an old rut.

Despondency, complaints about a broken system that doesn't deliver, a remote Europe, the breaking down of existing power structures - the search for new solutions.

If that's all Greek to you, to me it sounds like the language I've heard from Rochester to Rome, in Madrid and Margate - and it could yet translate into a changing of the guard all over Europe.

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