President Obama in Athens: What we should expect
by Alberto Paez and Martin Foehler (November 14, 2016)
The answer is yes. Barack Obama visits Greece in a turning point for the country and the economy, one month before the crucial Eurogroup meeting where decisions on public debt are expected. The Greek government awaits to see concrete steps on short-term measures that would alleviate debt payments for the next years, stimulating the domestic economy and pushing for lower taxes. In this respect, the government has pledged to accelerate its plan to attract investments and push the country outside the strict context posed by the creditors, questing for additional lending from the markets. In all these issues, Obama's presence could be decisive and influencing.
Apart from what the Greek government expects to gain from Obama's visit, it is important to notice what US President can gain from his 2-day visit in Athens. Obama will definitely campaign on global issues, as many Presidents have done in the past after leaving the White House, preparing the field to to act as a global mediator. Sovereign debt and the future of Eurozone are two of these challenges that Obama has many times referred to and for him it is time to invest much of his charismatic appeal on European leaderships and the local constituencies to bring about significant developments.
In this context, three are the major issues of concern for the US President: to boost trade partnership between US and Europe, especially after the decline Trump might bring over. Here comes the TTIP and a possible slowdown in negotiations caused by the uncertain environment created after the tenuous CETA negotiations. Obama wants to guarantee that at least EU is determined to move on with TTIP -- and this is why he visits Berlin after Athens.
The second issue is sovereign debt and the risk of EU's dissolution by far-right upsurge. After Trump's win last week, almost all leading far-right parties in Europe, especially those challenging the status quo in the upcoming elections (i.e. France, Netherlands, Germany), have vigorously welcome the outcome of US elections, hoping to unleash similar gains on the other side of the Atlantic. Sovereign debt, far-right and austerity are three interrelated issues that might shake Europe's future. This is something global actors and business leaders would like to witness; on that front, Obama comes to mediate and advocate for a growth-oriented model for Europe, standing firm against short-sighted austerity. Similarly, he also comes as a successful leader that has achieved in the last eight years to implement pro-social policies, like the Obamacare, that have costed billions of dollars to the US budget, but have brought about a considerable dose of social justice.
The third issue is linked with his will to broaden his legacy and soft-power in the new American era where uncertainty is growing. Most EU leaders have expressed deep concerns over Trump's victory, and this is something that should not be missed. Unless something extraordinary occurs next month with the vote of the electors, Donald Trump will be President for the next five years, i.e meaning that US-EU should carry on in a shaky global order. Two are the most prominent scenarios: Either US under Trump administration will isolate itself causing a geopolitical restructure and increasing uncertainty or it will abide by the ordinary doctrine that has been followed by Washington since World World II, which is to keep spreading soft and hard power and projecting power politics in global scale. In both scenarios, the democratic foundations of Obama's leadership will be needed so that the Democrats can recover and come back stronger in 2021.
Coming back to Greece, the Syriza government has to take the most of Obama's visit and heat up its engines in the coming months. It is not a secret that there is a mutual respect between Obama and PM Tsipras, especially as the Greek leader tries to emphasize on conflicting topics: implement a tough fiscal consolidation program, maintain the minimum safety net for the most vulnerable ones, push for reform in both Greece and Eurozone.
Alberto Paez and Martin Foehler are Policy Analysts at Bridging Europe
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