Political fault line widens between Greece and Iberia’s anti-Athens axis

Pushing unpopular austerity policies since 2011 leaves little sympathy in Spain and Portugal

Spainish prime minister Mariano Rajoy: “We’re not responsible for the frustration of the Greek radical left, which promised what it could not deliver, as has been made clear.” Photograph: Andrea Comas/Reuters

Spainish prime minister Mariano Rajoy: “We’re not responsible for the frustration of the Greek radical left, which promised what it could not deliver, as has been made clear.” Photograph: Andrea Comas/Reuters

 

They used to be fellow members of the group of highly indebted European nations known disparagingly as the “Pigs”. But a political fault line has opened up between the new, leftist government of Greece and a so-called anti-Athens axis made up of the austerity-minded administrations of Spain and Portugal.

All three countries were among the hardest hit by the euro zone debt crisis: Portugal followed Greece (and Ireland) by requesting a sovereign bailout in 2011, while Spain required a rescue for its banks in 2012. However, while the trio have kept a mainly united front in recent years as they sought to resolve their woes through spending cuts and tax rises, the arrival of Alexis Tsipras in government in Greece has upset that dynamic.

On Saturday, he told his Syriza party that Spain and Portugal formed “an axis of powers” which had attempted to scupper Greece’s recent debt negotiations with the rest of the EU.

“Their plan was, and is, to bring down our government and to bring it to an unconditional defeat before our work begins to bear fruit,” he said, suggesting that Spain, in particular, feared the rise of its own anti-austerity left.

The response from Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was unusually frank. “We’re not responsible for the frustration of the Greek radical left, which promised what it could not deliver, as has been made clear,” he told supporters in Seville.

Bailout deal

De Guindos also appeared to break ranks with his European colleagues by announcing that talks were in progress for a third Greek bailout package.

While the Portuguese prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, was less outspoken than his Spanish counterpart, his government labelled the Greek accusations as “totally absurd”.

Spain and Portugal both have conservative administrations which have pursued unpopular austerity policies since taking power in 2011. Both economies have now started growing: Spain’s by 1.4 per cent last year, Portugal’s by 0.9 per cent.

With regional and general elections approaching in Spain, its government is using this recovery to counter the fiercely anti-austerity message of Podemos, a new party that is leading many polls. Podemos has a close relationship with Syriza and its leader, 36-year-old Pablo Iglesias, visited Athens to campaign for Tsipras in January.

“The only reason Passos Coelho is less vocal [than Rajoy] in criticising Syriza is that in Portugal there is no Podemos,” says António Costa Pinto, of Lisbon University’s Institute of Social Science. He describes the Portuguese prime minister as being, like Rajoy, “a very good student of the adjustment programme”. The centre-left Socialists, the architects of Portugal’s current austerity drive, are the main threat to the country’s governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) in its general elections this autumn.

Ideological battle lines

With a German government spokesman describing Tsipras’s axis of powers accusations as “foul play”, the trans-Mediterranean fracas of recent days has reinforced the notion that for now, at least, Madrid and Lisbon belong firmly in Angela Merkel’s camp.

With elections approaching and Podemos thriving, it is only natural that the Spanish and Portuguese governments should be nervous about the ongoing talks between Athens and the EU.

“If Syriza managed to force a new German gradualism with regard to Southern European debt, the centre-right governments of Spain and Portugal would look bad,” noted Spanish columnist Enric Juliana in la Vanguardia newspaper.

“Today the spat with Athens is a sign of the times. Wars between the poor are always sad affairs.”

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