European Discourses on managing the Greek crisis: denial, distancing and blamingon 23 April 2014
By Professor Dimitris Papadimitriou and Dr. Sotirios Zartaloudis
Since the outbreak of the Eurozone crisis much attention has focused on the deficiencies of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and its effects on member states’ politics. Here we present some key findings of an ongoing research project which tries to examine an often neglected aspect of the Eurozone’s recent troubles; that is, the evolution of European discourses on the ‘rescue’ of Greece. We focus our analysis predominantly on discourses by senior EU officials, rather than the wider public debate on the fate of Greece which also included the media and other more specialised epistemic communities. We draw evidence from an extensive dataset of media reports from one of the largest databases on EU affairs, Euroactiv, and other leading European newspapers.
Our analysis is grounded on the conceptual literature of Discursive Institutionalism (DI), focusing, in particular, on the distinction between coordinative (i.e. the discourse used by political actors to coordinate their actions and ideas in order to produce policies) and communicative (i.e. the discourse whereby political actors legitimise the selected policies to the public/electorate) discourse, as contributors of a master discourse which shapes the direction of policy adjustment. We also employ the concepts of critical juncture (i.e. path-breaking policy departure) and critical moment (windows of opportunity facilitating change) as a means of assessing the timing and magnitude of such policy change.
Our research suggested that Greece’s financial implosion produced significant discursive shifts amongst the Eurozone’s political elite in both coordinative and communicative terms. The timing and intensity of the Greek crisis did, in this sense, create a critical moment for the re-articulation of the discourse surrounding the governance of the Eurozone. In coordinative terms, the decision to involve the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the Greek bailout programme through the so-called ‘Troika’ (IMF/European Commission/European Central Bank), introduced an element of external interference in the governance of the Eurozone, which would have been totally unthinkable a decade earlier. With regards to communicative discourse, three key shifts are identified: (i) an increasing doubt over the Euro as a strong currency underpinned by sound economic fundamentals; (ii) the growing suspicion over the rigour and impartiality of policing the ‘rules of the game’ (both prior and after membership of the Eurozone); and, crucially, (iii) an explicit acknowledgement of the possibility of a Euro-exit, despite unequivocal Treaty clauses to the opposite.
We argue that these discursive shifts map onto different stages of the management of the Greek crisis as European policy makers struggled to get to grips with complex and rapidly changing constellations of inter-related problems. Hence, from an initial narrative of denial, European leaders eventually acknowledged that the EU lacked the necessary tools to deal with a very real problem which had landed firmly on its door. The creation of the European Financial Stability Facility in May 2010, however, was very much portrayed as a means of dealing with the rather ‘exceptional’ Greek case. In other words, the Greek peril was seen as a product of local specificities and an example of poor EU oversight over an ‘unruly pupil’, not as a symptom of a wider European economic malaise. During 2011 as the government of George Papandreou struggled to fulfil the conditions of the first bailout package at home, European discourses on Greece grew increasingly hostile, reflective of a respective decent towards the ‘politics of blame’. In the aftermath of Papandreou’s resignation in November 2011, and throughout the protracted instability that ensued, another discursive taboo was broken: the threat of a Greek exit from the Eurozone (‘Grexit’) was explicitly deployed as a means of disciplining Greece’s quarrelling political class. Although still not entirely dismissed, the ‘Grexit’ discourse only begun to subside in the aftermath of the June 2012 election as European leaders sought to support Greece’s fragile pro-bailout coalition government under Antonis Samaras.
Professor Dimitris Papadimitriou, is a Professor of Politics at the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. He is also the Director of the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence. He has published extensively on Greek politics, the EU’s political economy and aspects of its enlargement strategy in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Dr Sotirios Zartaloudis, is Lecturer in Politics at Politics, History and International Relations at Loughborough University. His research interests include Europeanization, public policy, welfare reforms, and the impact of the financial crisis on national social policy and politics.