Crisis in the Euro Zone: Alexis Tsipras Is the Greek Who Makes Europe Tremble

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Eirini Vourloumis FOR TIME

Greek Politician Alexis Tsipras, on the rooftop of Syriza Party Headquarters.

Just weeks ago, Alexis Tsipras, 37, was an obscure opposition politician. Now, he's unnerving the powers that be in the European Union because he and his leftist party Syriza — a group whose membership ranges from hardline Communists to moderate socialists — have the potential of forming a government after the June 17 elections. A teenage member of the Communist Youth of Greece, Tsipras has executed a dramatic and canny political metamorphosis, transforming himself fromthe leader of a radical leftist coalition to a left-of-center standard bearer for anti-bailout and anti-austerity populism. And in so doing, he has confounded the ossified poltiical class of Greece, which acceded to the strictures imposed by the E.U. in order for Athens to receive the funds it needs to satisfy its creditors. Now, Tsipras may hold the future of the euro and the E.U. in his hands. All he needs to do is win enough seats to govern.

Tsipras spoke to TIME's Joanna Kakissis at the Syriza office on Koumoundourou Square in Athens. Following is the transcript of the interview:

TIME: Are you willing to make the necessary structural reforms in Greece to revive the economy?
It is obvious that Greece — and the Greek economy — has its own particularities that played a role in making this economic crisis deeper and longer. Indeed, we must make structural reforms which will the public sector more reliable, create an effective and fair taxation system, and fight the black economy which has been like a kind of gangrene on the Greek economy. As far as I know, the underground economy represents 30% of the GDP.

At the same time, we will try to restore faith in the law and convince people that the state is equitable and effective. We will destroy corruption and the interconnection of political and economic power from its roots. Without the contribution of the citizens, these reforms cannot take place. But in order to contribute, the citizens want to know that these reforms will not be implemented only to those who have low incomes but those who have high incomes and come from the upper class. There is a Greek saying: "The fish always stinks from its head," (which means, roughly, corruption starts at the top). So if we don't fight the problem at its roots, then we won't be able to establish positive morale that can encourage all Greeks to also fight against it.

But you need a long time to make such reforms...
Some things need time, but some other can change quickly. For instance, I can't understand why the last two and half years we are chasing our tail when it comes to taxation. We taxed poor people again and again, but no one talked about what we really needed, which is an assets register by which every Greek will be obliged to register their properties, their bank accounts in Greece or abroad, as well as their mobile assets, such as the shares of a company they possibly have. Only in this way, we will be able to tax everyone according to their real capability of paying taxes and we will create a system which will share the responsibilities in a fair way. Of course, for these policies to be effective, we should also create a high-penalty system for those who break the law. Whoever makes a false statement about his assets should be punished by having a bit part of these assets confiscated. There is no magical way out of the crisis. However, there are for sure solutions, tough but fair, in order to share in a just way the responsibilities, establish a positive morale and give a boost to the Greek economy.

There are some outside Greece who say Greece wants it both ways...
It's a paradox to think Greece can stay in the euro zone if the austerity policies continue to be implemented. The austerity policy, and especially this extreme policy based on the term "internal devaluation", is exactly what we should have avoided.
It's the wrong prescription, the wrong medicine for the patient, because Greece has a production base with a special characteristic: 90% of the small businesses' production, which are the foundation of the Greek economy, is not exported. It is sold on the domestic market. So, when you make a horizontal cut of the wages and the pensions, inevitably there is an impact on the consumption. Hence, 200,000 small Greek businesses have closed down! As a result, unemployment rates soared — nowadays, one out of two young people under 30 years old is unemployed — and the recession became deeper to the point that it's the fifth consecutive year of recession and GDP lost 20 points, which has never happened before in any European country in a time of peace!

Therefore, we realize that these policies were the wrong medicine for the crisis; they were shocking, ineffective policies, which led Greek people to face the possibility of a humanitarian crisis. When there is a patient, and you give him medicine, and it only makes him worse, it is not logical to insist on giving him a higher dose of the same medicine. You've got to change the medicine. If we continue taking this austerity medicine, and especially at a higher dose, that's when Greece is going to be forced out of the euro. And when Greece leaves, the whole euro zone will starts wobbling.
Because if one country gets out of the euro, the next day the markets will hunt for the next one to follow in this aggressive, devaluing speculation of the bonds, which is speculated by the big hedge funds. We think that this would not be good either for Greece or for Europe. So, the policy that we want to implement — without austerity, but inside euro zone — is the only realistic and — we could argue — the only rational policy which will benefit everyone.

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