Gareth Price-Thomas and Nick Turnbull

The Eurozone crisis has often been seen in the press as a crisis of diplomacy, a battle of words. But how much impact do politicians’ speeches really have? What kind of a role, more exactly, did rhetoric play in the Greek party SYRIZA’s crushing defeat on the European level in July 2015?

In our recently-published article we draw on the work of Michel Meyer and his concept of social distance to better clarify the importance of rhetoric in politics. In Meyer’s words, ‘rhetoric is the negotiation of distance between individuals in regard to a given question’. This means that competing actors use rhetoric to move closer to, further away from or maintain the distance between each other, and other prospective allies and foes, so as to position themselves strategically in the contest for power. But this rhetorical battle does not take place outside of a wider social context. It is determined not only by rhetoric but by other relational distances, including political and economic ones. In this way, Meyer’s idea of ‘distance’ provides us with a unifying concept: a means of carrying out rhetorical analysis within a broader political science framework, which has to think equally about the extra-rhetorical. To explain and demonstrate the use of this approach, we examine the dramatic Greek episode of the Eurozone crisis.

To begin with the rhetoric itself, SYRIZA made a strong attempt to recalibrate distances within the Eurozone. The strategy of the Greek left-wingers was, firstly, to increase their distance from the opposing ‘Troika’ and notably from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They did this in several ways: by refusing to wear ties to European meetings; by refusing to negotiate with the Troika on several key demands (see finance minister Varoufakis’s claim that ‘the lines that we have presented as red will not be crossed’); and, most controversially, by Tsipras’s symbolic homage to the memorial for Greek activists killed by Nazi forces during the Second World War. Simultaneously SYRIZA aimed to move itself closer to its potential allies, Europe’s social-democratic leaders. By driving a clear wedge between itself and the Troika, the Greek party hoped to emphasise the relative proximity of its position to the French and Italian governments – who might themselves one day have to submit to Troika-sanctioned austerity policies.

Merkel’s Christian-Democratic government turned out to be a powerful opponent of SYRIZA’s anti-austerity project, and defused the Greek government’s rhetorical strategies. It did so partly through rhetorical acts which reinforced its existing close relations with other Eurozone actors, preventing any significant rapprochement between Greece, France and Italy. On the one hand, the Christian Democrats maintained existing distances through an ethos of institutional legitimacy: the idea that ‘nothing different is being done to Greece’ (Merkel), that the Troika was just insisting on equal treatment for all countries of the Eurozone. On the other hand, Merkel’s government also projected a form of pathos towards SYRIZA’s potential allies to keep them in check, namely fear: fear that Tsipras’s demands could cause irreparable damage to the European Union, and that his intransigence could even cause a Greek exit from the Eurozone (finance minister Schäuble: ‘because we don’t exactly know what those responsible in Greece will do, we cannot rule [Grexit] out’).

But SYRIZA was defeated not just because of clever rhetorical manoeuvring on the part of the German government or its other opponents. There were extra-rhetorical forms of distance which favoured the Greek government’s capitulation as well. In terms of institutional politics, SYRIZA had to push against the full material weight of the already-existing accords, rules and mechanisms of the Eurozone and EU, to which Germany – as founder member and largest national population – is much more proximal. The power of the existing procedures was suggested in a statement by Schäuble before SYRIZA’s election that ‘[a]ny new government must stick to the contractual agreements of its predecessors’. So, after its initial election victory, SYRIZA stepped onto a spatial arena structured by the EU in which its demands were intrinsically far-fetched. Redrawing the lines on the playing field was always going to be more difficult than simply reproducing them.

The second extra-rhetorical form of distance is economic in nature, and concerns – to take up an already-spatial metaphor from world-systems theory – the core-periphery relations of the Eurozone. The Greek economy is small in comparison with those which make up the centre of European economic activity; Greece did not play a significant role in creating the rules for the new currency, unlike Germany; and today, still, Greeks stand at some distance from the point at which EU-wide decisions on economic governance are made. Furthermore, from a political economy perspective it can be argued that Germany’s own economic power today actually partly depends on the very weakness of Greece and of other ‘peripheral’ Eurozone states. As a successful export-driven economy, Germany benefits from the undervaluation of the German currency obtained from Eurozone membership and the economic problems which are currently hitting the European South. And as a country which relies on a trade surplus, it needs other states (in the Eurozone or beyond) to run deficits. In short, the relations of economic distance between Germany and Greece are dialectical, and structured by the Euro in such a way that it is very hard for Greece to move beyond its present difficulties.

Our study puts to work Meyer’s concept of social distance to ground rhetorical analysis in a broader, extra-rhetorical context of power relations. We demonstrate that rhetoric played a specific role, in tandem with other political and economic factors, in this Greek moment of the Eurozone crisis. More generally, by situating the approach decisively within the field of political studies, we show that rhetorical analysis always has something significant to tell us about politics.


Gareth Price-Thomas is an Associate Tutor at the University of Leicester. Nick Turnbull is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. You can read their full article ‘Thickening Rhetorical Analysis with a Theory of Distance: Negotiating the Greek Episode of the Eurozone Crisis’ in Political Studies now.

Image: Joanna CC BY-NC-ND