7 Jan 2015

Alexis Tsipras: we want debt relief and the Elgin Marbles

Alexis Tsipras arrives late: he’s spent the morning sorting out wrangles over Syriza’s candidate list for this month’s election. As the polls currently predict he’s likely to win, this is no longer a side issue. If Syriza becomes the first far left government in modern Europe, those MPs will be asked to pull the trigger on a showdown with Europe that could change the economics of the whole eurozone.

Tsipras has pledged to end the austerity programme imposed by the troika – and at the same time negotiate the write-off of 50 per cent of Greek debt. So the obvious question is: what does he do if they say no?

“I’ve answered that thousands of times since 2012,” he says. “Syriza is the alarm clock that will wake the EU leaders out of their slumber. What we demand is a European conference, to tackle this European problem together, and there cannot be a solution without writing off a large part of the debt, a moratorium on repayments and a growth clause.”

That amounts to saying no repayments until there’s growth enough to revive the Greek economy, which from the look of the streets surrounding the Syriza party HQ, is obviously depressed.

Though the polls put Tsipras in the lead – on 33 per cent in an opinion poll tonight – the newspapers still treat him as a political outsider: “Tsipras dons the veil,” says one headline –  referring to his liberal immigration policy.

But the biggest fear of the centrist parties who oppose him is that, if Tsipras confronts Europe, Greece will be forced out of the eurozone – especially if he cancels the austerity programme but still needs access to IMF, EU and private market loans.

He answers: “In reality we are not asking to borrow any new money. We have no intention of asking for new lending to repay old loans. Of course we’re going to negotiate with all of our partners so that we can confront together the common European problem of unsustainable Greek debt.

“And this is not the first time something like a debt write-off this has been implemented. It happened in 1953 in Germany. And I am wondering on what ethical grounds does Germany refuse a solution to the European problem, which it benefited from many years ago, when coming out of world war two, and when Germany itself had many open wounds?

“I am saying to the people of Europe, especially the people of northern Europe: we don’t want any more of your money. The money you have been giving all these years wasn’t spent to keep the Greek people on their feet. Instead it was used to recapitalise bankrupt banks, so that the banks and the financial system not only in Greece but the whole of Europe would not collapse. You gave Greece toxic money. Now it’s time to find a solution for the common good.”

This week the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the German government is no longer committed to keeping Greece in the euro – and is prepared to tolerate the so-called “Grexit” that scared everybody witless in 2012.

Tsipras laughs: “This is a discussion that died in 2012. It’s like reheated food. A dance of the zombies. The question is, are we going to religiously stick to the rules even if they are wrong and damage us, or the path that says ‘do whatever it takes to save our common home’, the EU, and more importantly our society, our people.”

Some in the financial markets believe Tsipras will buy time by getting the Greek banks to lend to the state – putting the onus on the ECB to try and stop it. I ask if he intends to use the banks to finance the state:

“If you mean treasury bills, then this is something all previous governments have done. And if deemed necessary it’s something a Syriza government might do as well.”

His opponents in the governing New Democracy party say he will use Greek savers’ bank deposits to fund the government. There’s been a furious row about this, and he denies it:

“If you’re talking about funding our deficit through the deposits of the Greek people you can forget about that. There is not a single chance of that happening in Greece. Syriza is coming to guarantee the deposits, not to threaten them. I want to make this clear, and warn those who insist on fearmongering – they will face the consequences of the law if they carry on.”


In the financial markets there is a growing acknowledgement that Syriza stands a chance of winning. The Greek stock exchange fell 2 per cent today. Financial experts acknowledge much of the 319bn euro Greeek debt is unpayable, and will have to be renegotiated whoever wins. But the EU plan was to get more pro-market reform in return – not a pro-welfare, pro-labour government of the left.

In German political circles people say privately: OK, we got massive debt relief in 1953, but in return we reformed our entire system and political culture.

I put it to Tsipras that there is no chance that he is the man to deliver this. He says, if the Germans were honest they would admit they backed the parties who got Greece into this mess:

“We are not responsible for the culture of corruption created by the governing parties. We want a state that stands by its citizens. We need to stop this carnival of tax evasion and avoidance. We’re not hiding anybody.”

If he wins, the next part of 2015 will be about Tsipras vs Merkel: as it happens, Frau Merkel is in London, visiting the British Museum, which contains the Elgin Marbles. I ask: which would he rather have – debt relief or the marbles back?

“Can I have both?” he laughs, adding: “We are going to demand debt reduction, and the money Germany owes us from world war two, including reparations, but we also want the marbles, which don’t belong to us but to everybody, and which need to come back to their home.”

If the current polls are right – and his 3 per cent lead holds through to election day – there is a strong chance Tsipras will write his own chapter on to the stones of Athens. However moderate and parliamentary Syriza has become, it remains – formally – a Marxist party with a central committee, a newspaper, and swarming through the cramped stairways of its small office, people who talk and look like activists, not ministers.

No democratic country in Europe has been governed by a party like that since world war two. Some of the Syriza members I spoke to are, privately, still not sure they even want to govern.  But one thing is certain: when you look him in the eye, Alexis Tsipras most definitely does.

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14 reader comments

  1. jacqueline paizis says:

    Paul Mason has consistently impressed me since he was covering the effects of the first wave of austerity measures from Athens. Paul manages to present coherent, detailed information that other news presenters and channels do not get. I have no doubts as to where Paul’s sympathies lie but he can get away with this because he is also passionate about the truth as he sees it and the evidence is all around him. How can anyone doubt what he shows and says?

  2. X. Xxx says:

    The only thing Tsipras has proved that he is good at is to stage protests and close down the Universities and schools by “occupying” the lecture rooms and classrooms with students misled by him, although he knows that he is a nobody, an empty head, in fact an idiot and because of that very very dangerous if he becomes Prime Minister of the country. For the Country it would be catastrophic. The only people who are delighted by this catastrophic prospect of Tsipras governing the country are the Turks. Greece with a weak economy heavily in debt will become also ISOLATED and this is what delights the Turks. Turkey will flood Greece with millions of Muslims to destabilise the country. Tsipras being an idiot welcomes the influx of millions of Muslims and the Turks are delighted because this is what is their plan for taking over Greece. Tsipras has no idea and does not care about the real clear danger from the aggressive expansionist Turkish policy against Greece. He is NOT a leader. He has not understood nor he knows how to solve Greece’s problems which stem from its weak economy. He has no plan for economic development. All he promises is the usual: Jobs for his supporters paid by the taxpayers which will increase the country’s debt. Repetition of Andreas Papandreou party politics and tactics which kept him in power while the level of debt went sky high. Katharma is the right Greek word to describe Tsipras.

  3. Frank Wilson says:

    Good interview Paul, thank you for that insight into one of Europe’s exciting new parties that might – just might – galvanise the eurozone into action that will end the vicious circle of recession that has caused so much misery for millions of unemployed.

    Even if Tsipras and Syriza fail to get an overall majority, they will change Greece and the way Brussels (and Germany) thinks forever.

    If Tsipras does win the election however, against a tired Conservative party and a deflated social democratic Pasok, it will be the first time in Greece and Europe that a moderate Communist coalition will have taken over the reins of power in a free poll.

    I look forward with great interest to watch developments unfold in Greece over the coming weeks on Channel 4.

  4. Mike davis says:

    Tsipris has some great phrases, particularly like the carnival of tax evaders and avoiders and the way he countered Grexit fearmongering with talk of reheated food and zombies. Paul you got him to talk about the big questions in challenging the debt. How about doing so e more on the German relief package after ww2 and their debt amnesty in 1953?

  5. lena brown says:

    So much common sense spoken by this man. Just like nigel farage he comes from a plain speaking aspect unlike all the hollow retoric of europes delf serving political classes. The people have seen them for what they are which are lap dogs to the unelected and unaccountable mammoth of the European Union. Great that Greece, cradle of democracy will be the first to go and grab it back from the germans. The italians and spanish and portugese and cyprus will surely follow to regain their currency, economy and their national pride. With elections in UK in may and farage so popular roll on EU exits 2015

  6. Nikos (ΕΜΠ1975) says:

    I see that the Brits continue to call them “Elgin Marbles” and understandably so. Because if they called them with their real name “Parthenon Marbles” it would be obvious that they do not belong where they are now. They were not “bought” as Elgin claimed more than the Nazis “obtained” art from whoever they wished during the 2nd WW. It is a disgrace that the Brits continue to keep them there and refuse to send them home where they belong. Again it is understandable given that Britain has no such historical heritage and they can only take other peoples’ monuments and exploit them. Give the Parthenon Marbles back, period.

    1. Frank Wilson says:

      Γεια σας κ. Νικο

      I’ve just returned from Athens and was bitterly disappointed to find that the National Archaeological Museum on Patission Street, the largest showcase of ancient Greek marbles in the country, is for the most part closed yet again to the public.

      And to add insult to injury, more than 95% of Greek marbles are actually displayed (when the museums are open to the public) – the rest of the marbles are hidden away in dark, damp cellars.

      Yes, there is a case for reuniting the Parthenon Marbles.

      But surely it makes sense for Greece to put on show and exhibit properly the marbles it already possesses?

      At least in the British Museum there is free entry, the Museum is open 364 days a year, and there are regular free tours where learned people explain the significance of the marbles and place them into contact with other items of world art.

      I’m afraid that while the cause is a good one, many of the people seeking the return of the marbles to Athens are sadly just cheap nationalists who have probably have no idea about the significance of the marbles to renaissance art.

      And let’s not forget that the Parthenon itself in Athens suffered more damage over the past 40 or so years because of pollution than in its entire 2,500 year old history. So much for the modern Athenians caring about their (and the world’s) heritage.

  7. quietoaktree says:
  8. VN Gelis says:

    According to previous poster all the sins of modern Greek capitalism are reduced to Papandreou and Turkey. The British engineered and American financed and fought Greek Civil war as well as the American backed 1967 colonels coup presumably were all left wing events. The comprador Greek ruling class aren’t frightened of Syriza but what will happen next. People will demand jobs and a life and current capitalism being in irreversible decline cannot provide. For years now instead of turning Greece into Germany they are turning it into Bangladesh and a Syriza victory will arrest this process as Greeks haven’t as yet become turkeys voting for Xmas and keeping afloat ND and PASOK forever and ever. The economic genocide unleashed by the banksters against the Greek people would one day become unstuck. It has. Samaras Papandreou Karamanlis Mitsotakis the political families that bankrupted Greece will no longer dominate.

    1. Frank Wilson says:

      (1) It wasn’t the Greek banks that caused the Greek crisis, for unlike UK and US banks, the Greek banks got into trouble because they loaned money to the GREEK STATE.

      (2) Most serious analysts recognise that the US did not back the Colonels regime in 1967 and neither did it plan the coup; the Americans were backing the King and the Generals and were taken by surprise by this small group of nationalist officers. And Europeans, especially in Britain and Scandinavia, were very much against the Colonels. It was the Greek lower middle class and the Greek shipowners that kept the Colonels in power until Ioannides provoked pro-Greek Turkish leader Ecevit into intervening in Cyprus in 1974.

      (3) You say the UK and the USA engineered and bankrolled the Greek civil war when in fact, Stalin agreed at Yalta that Greece would remain within the Western sphere go influence. It was Stalin who betrayed the Stalinist Greek KKE Communists not the British and Americans.

      In addition, the Greek Communists refused PM George Papandreou’s offer of Cabinet places in a government of national unity, seeking power before national elections had even been held. The Greek Communists then began hostilities to take over the country rather than abide by the results of an election, believing that their resistance to the Nazis gave them an automatic right to power. They were wrong, of course.

      In addition, the Greek KKE Communists had agreed with Tito to hand over Greece’s northern province of Macedonia to Yugoslavia in exchange for aid — this was a clear betrayal of Greek national interests and was the ultimate slap in the face to Hellenism.

    2. maria augusta marques says:

      Thanks for writing this 2 comments on the history of modern greece as most of current people is not aware of it. In my country i assume nobody (media, schools, and so on) knows about it. They just follow the troika and condemn greece.

  9. VN Gelis says:

    The Greeks state was indebted by the purchasing of arms contracts by agreements set up to match Turkeys spending in a 7/10 ratio by NATO, which is run by America. Turkey is 80 odd million strong Greece is around 10million in population. Turkey has its own currency Greece the Euro. Greece can no longer compete in tourism with Turkey.

    It is hard to comment on the other events when black is turned into white.
    The KKE was attacked by Churchill in December 1944 (recent article in Observer shows that clearly). It then agreed to disarm in February 1945. It does disarm. The leader of its partisan army refuses is expelled then found by local and foreign forces and killed.

    Anglo-American imperialism organise, finance and promote a civil war working hand in hand with the local collaborators of the 3rd Reich. Any serious commentators knows that these same families run Greece today and have done since Greece became ‘independent’.
    During WW2, HItler’s occupation handed Greeces’ Northern province of Macedonia over to Bulgaria

  10. David says:

    Greece only knows how to play the victim and blame others for their trouble. This has got to be the most self-entitled country in existence.

  11. imogen32 says:

    Your article title is incorrect. The ancient marbles displayed at the British Museum are not named and/or referred to as “Elgin Marbles” in Greece, but as the “Parthenon Marbles.” Very important to distinguish if and when you ever interview the Greek Prime Minister again. Apart from that, your article passes inspection :)

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