Some of us are old enough to have seen the theatrical movie teaser trailer for Rambo: First Blood Part II. It consisted of a sequence of close-up shots of various muscles, belonging to Sylvester Stallone, followed by a knife blade being put in its holder, then a pair of ammunition belts put on crosswise on his bare chest, then the final touch: the red bandanna headband, tied around his forehead.
This is pretty much how I imagine Alexis Tsipras getting ready for his live televised address to celebrate the ‘end of the memorandum era’ last week after the ‘historic’ Eurogroup agreement that saw the finance ministers of Eurozone member-states approve a series of medium-term debt relief measures that pave the way for Greece’s return to the markets.
Instead of the red sweatband, the Greek PM sported a red necktie, putting an end to his long-time resistance to conform with the sartorial standards of state leadership.
It was a largely and unreservedly symbolic move for the once radical leftist politician, and it was hardly a surprise; the Greek PM had promised to wear a tie only when the country was extended debt relief, something that was – more or less – achieved last week.
What was also not surprising was the fact that the tie managed to attract more attention than the Eurogroup deal itself; if you were watching the public discourse, as it was conducted by the Greek media last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the country’s main issue is whether the PM wears a tie or not.
Whoever Tsipras’ communication advisor is, they are doing a great job. The PM’s sartorial choices and disrespect for protocol have been a constant point of focus for the media and the government critics, who often fall into the trap of shifting criticism from policies to appearance.
This has been the case since the first day that Tsipras rose to power. The first Tsipras cabinet’s Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis was the target of much criticism for his casual attire during the brief period that he was trying to negotiate the sustainability of Greece’s debt. The country’s lenders did not seem to mind Varoufakis’ jackets and untucked shirts and when it came to Tsipras, they got in on the joke, Jean-Claude Juncker being eager to fool around with the Greek PM, lending him his own tie.
Tsipras milked that obsession as much as he could, seeing that it offered the best distraction from his policies. In the meantime, he was trapped in the symbolism.
Having made such a fuss over his resistance to put on a symbol of conformism, he could not possibly just change his mind. If he were to put on a tie, this would be an act of immense symbolism. Last week’s Eurogroup was the perfect opportunity and the perfect excuse. It was also a liberation for Tsipras. From now on, he can do whatever he wants with his collar. For the time being, he chose to take the tie off, saying that “the battle was won, but not the war,” adding that he’ll wear ties “with every victory”.
He is not the only PM to symbolically link neckties to the Greek crisis. The country’s fiscal odyssey began on 23 April 2010, as then PM George Papandreou made a televised address from Kastellorizo announcing that his government had asked for the intervention of the IMF and the EU, and the implementation of a bailout program for the Greek economy.
At the time, many commentators had noticed that he was wearing a purple tie, the colour mostly associated with mourning.
On Friday, eight years later the Greek PM chose a bright red one, to announce the end of the bailout programs.
So this is it? End of story?
Not so fast. As most moviegoers know, you don’t leave the theatre when the credits roll, otherwise you will miss the after-credit scene, which is often filled with information.
In this scenario, the after-credit scene is a movie of its own, a lengthy period of supervision that links debt relief with Greece’s fiscal performance, reform program, and the commitment to meeting a 3.5 per cent of GDP primary budget surplus target until 2022, followed by a 2.2 per cent annual target up until … 2060!
Yes this is a long movie. It is a great commitment, binding Greece for generations – the privatisations of public assets alone, will continue long after most of the protagonists will be long gone.
But the Opposition does not really criticise the deal. It may present some objections in parts, or promise that it can get better deals once elected, but it remains committed to this policy. Tsipras knows this, he knows that the only true criticism to his policies, can come from the left. So he enjoys the fact that the debate is focusing on dress code.