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How to break the internet in Europe: throw Tsipras to the lions

Alexis Tsipras at the European ParliamentAlexis Tsipras at the European Parliament
"Friends, Romans, Euro-gravy-trainers, lend me your euros. Sorry. Ears. Lend me your ears." Anadolu Agency Getty Images

Eat your heart out, Kim Kardashian. The way to break the internet in Europe is to televise the political carcass of Greece’s prime minister being ripped apart by a pack of hyenas dressed up as E.U. lawmakers.

Having wowed his fellow Eurozone leaders last night with his “sorry we forgot to bring the new proposals,” Tsipras dropped in on the European Parliament in Brussels Wednesday morning to make one last appeal to the good nature of Europe’s political elite for a “fair compromise” that would save his country from ruin. The Parliament’s live feed couldn’t cope with the traffic, breaking down within minutes of his starting.

He might have saved himself the effort. After an icily formal introduction from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the E.U.’s top two bureaucrats, it was time for the feeding frenzy: Manfred Weber, the German conservative who heads the biggest bloc in the chamber, started by taking some Lion King-sized bites out of the hapless Hellene, while further down the political food-chain, mainstream Portuguese socialists and Swedish Greens took daintier nibbles, tut-tutting about how a Greek exit will betray the interests of the workers.

Weber is a living, breathing monument to German bourgeois self-righteousness, the bald spot behind his lustrous fringe a visual metaphor for the reality of his party’s ‘solidarity’ behind the expressions of European brotherliness. He rose to his task warmly.

“You love provocation, Herr Tsipras, and we love compromise. You love failure and we love success. You divide Europe, and we love Europe,” he said to raucous booing from the left wing of the chamber.

“You talk about dignified politics, but you are not telling your own people the truth,” he said, and that much was fair enough. Before Sunday’s referendum, Tsipras had promised Greeks that the banks would reopen by Tuesday, that the vote was not about keeping or losing the euro, and that Greece’s negotiating hand would be strengthened–all three exposed as fictions after last night’s brutal chastisement by Angela Merkel & Co.

The Bavarian Simba made way for former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who delivered a clinical and damning analysis (posted here on Verhofstadt’s Facebook timeline and well worth a read) of how Tsipras might have spent the last five months better, namely by passing concrete measures to end the clientelism that has rotted Greece’s political system for years.

Fine sentiments indeed. A shame, then, that such a good lecture on clientelism should have to come from someone whose career on the Brussels gravy train has resulted in emoluments of over €12,000 a month from various interests such as a Dutch pension firm, a Belgian investment company and the European Institute of Public Affairs. As Kenny Rogers might have told Tsipras, if you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.

Such grandstanding almost overshadowed the painfully earnest pleas from Greek MEPs that Tsipras go home and “do whatever it takes to banish the word ‘Grexit’ from our vocabulary.” (There’s no arguing with the linguistics, irrespective of the politics.)

But for sheer awesomeness of watching Europe’s politics in the raw, nothing could match the sight of the lunatic fringes descending from all sides to tear Tsipras’ political carcass apart between them, all gleefully using the opportunity to air their own grudges against the European project.

Marine Le Pen, head of the French National Front, and the U.K. Independence Party’s Nigel Farage both urged Tsipras to reclaim his country’s sovereignty by taking it out of the euro (go on Alexis, do it, they’re only thinking of your best interests!), while Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League, resplendent in a “€uro, Basta!” t-shirt, sighed for a Europe based on “fishing and farming” rather than “disgusting multinationals”. Really.

The populists swung wild and fast, and it was hard to deny that some punches landed. There was a palpable (if momentary) spasm of conscience among the assembled northern Europeans and hot flushes among the southerners as Farage said: “The whole of the Mediterranean finds itself in the wrong currency but nobody in the political arena has the courage to say that.”

The spectacle reached its climax as Polish monarchist Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a man with no apparent skin in the game inasmuch as Poland doesn’t use the euro, called for a well-meaning heroic general to save Greece the way, errrr, the way Augustin Pinochet ‘saved’ Chile.

At that point, it was good to remember that the ‘debate’, if that’s the right word, had no material consequences for the Greek crisis: all the big decisions are all taken among the 19 Eurozone member governments with the help of the European Commission and European Central Bank.

But it was a highly educational peek into Europe’s future, where a compromised and self-satisfied mainstream majority defend the traditional consensus against rowdy populists of questionable political lineage. You might think Europe is living through ‘interesting’ times now. They’ll be a lot more ‘interesting’ if the mainstream and the marginals ever switch places.