An EU candidate launches campaign in Athens

An EU candidate launches campaign in Athens

It is not the first time that world politicians use old symbols to convince their audience of their democratic credentials. And when we talk about democracy, Athens is often an obvious choice. Having been granted the title of the “cradle of democracy,” it provides an excellent background location for any political figure who nurtures ambitious plans for his future.

Many may remember the image of a newly elected President Emmanuel Macron in September 2017 delivering his first major speech about his vision of a new Europe from the ancient hill of Pnyx against the magnificent image of the lit-up Acropolis. It was his first trip abroad as president, and that was the perfect spot for the new president to ask for more democracy in a top-heavy ponderous Europe.

Probably the same idea crossed the mind of another aspiring European leader who chose Athens to start his campaign to becoming president of the power-engine of the EU, the European Commission.

Although he is, apparently, only known to around one in four citizens of his country, the German Manfred Weber — Bavarian to be precise — is the leader of the most powerful group in the European Parliament, the conservative European People’s party group (EPP). And with one month to go for the elections to the European Parliament, he aspires to replace the retiring Jean-Claude Juncker as an EU commissioner.

Weber might not be the most familiar name among German citizens, but he has managed to acquire a reputation among Greeks as one of the strictest critics of Greece during its decade-long debts crisis and even a defender of Grexit.

Weber delivered his speech last Tuesday from the main hall of Zappeion Megaron, a majestic neo-classical building in the center of Athens, where Greece’s EU accession treaty was signed in 1979. In his speech, Weber echoed Macron’s speech by insisting that there was no better place to convey his ideas for a future Europe than Athens. He dropped an indirect criticism at the leftist governing party of Syriza as a party that “provides empty answers and sweet promises” and continued by giving his full support to the “reformer and anti-populist” leader of the New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. 

Because, the truth was, that it was not just his own political future he wanted to promote by coming to Athens; Weber wanted to also give his full endorsement to his friend and kindred spirit, the head of the main opposition party in Greece. It was good timing.

For some time now, Kyriakos Mitsotakis feels sure that he will win over the incumbent Alexis Tsipras as head of the government in the coming general elections. And many claim that he may have a real chance as he appears to be heading in all the opinion polls for about a year. Perhaps it is his promises for cutting taxes and “giving back to the middle classes” what was taken away from them by the “populist and lying Syriza.” Maybe some liked the idea that he will reform the public service and keep “the useful ones,” or introduce private university education. But whatever it is, it has found a sympathetic ear among a large portion of the Greek public.

However, it may also be that his party’s popularity has been boosted by several ill-thought policy gaffes by the Syriza government.

It is not a usual practice for a European politician bidding for the highest position in Brussels to campaign for a party leader of another European country. But Mr. Weber did it before a packed audience in Zappeion in Athens who enthusiastically applauded his thoughts for a new liberal Europe.

Mr. Mitsotakis paid a private visit to Istanbul yesterday to attend a mass at the St. George Church in Fener. He was received by the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. At the time that this article went to press, there was no presser on the content of their meeting.

But away from that, it would be interesting to know what the attitude of Mitsotakis’ government on Turkey and the EU would be. Because Weber stated clearly in Athens that “Turkey “cannot become a member of the European Union,” while the position of the New Democracy party has been that Turkey should be a part of the EU.

Greece, European Union, Ariana Ferentinou