Like a tragedy from Euripides, the long struggle between Greece and Europe’s creditor powers is reaching a cataclysmic end that nobody planned, nobody seems able to escape, and that threatens to shatter the greater European order in the process.
Greek premier Alexis Tsipras never expected to win Sunday’s referendum on EMU bail-out terms, let alone to preside over a blazing national revolt against foreign control.
He called the snap vote with the expectation – and intention – of losing it. The plan was to put up a good fight, accept honourable defeat, and hand over the keys of the Maximos Mansion, leaving it to others to implement the June 25 “ultimatum” and suffer the opprobrium.
This ultimatum came as a shock to the Greek cabinet. They thought they were on the cusp of a deal, bad though it was. Mr Tsipras had already made the decision to acquiesce to austerity demands, recognizing that Syriza had failed to bring about a debtors’ cartel of southern EMU states and had seriously misjudged the mood across the eurozone.
Instead they were confronted with a text from the creditors that upped the ante, demanding a rise in VAT on tourist hotels from 7pc (de facto) to 23pc at a single stroke.
Creditors insisted on further pension cuts of 1pc of GDP by next year and a phase out of welfare assistance (EKAS) for poorer pensioners, even though pensions have already been cut by 44pc.
They insisted on fiscal tightening equal to 2pc of GDP in an economy reeling from six years of depression and devastating hysteresis. They offered no debt relief. The Europeans intervened behind the scenes to suppress a report by the International Monetary Fund validating Greece’s claim that its debt is “unsustainable”. The IMF concluded that the country not only needs a 30pc haircut to restore viability, but also €52bn of fresh money to claw its way out of crisis.
They rejected Greek plans to work with the OECD on market reforms, and with the International Labour Organisation on collective bargaining laws. They stuck rigidly to their script, refusing to recognise in any way that their own Dickensian prescriptions have been discredited by economists from across the world.
“They just didn’t want us to sign. They had already decided to push us out,” said the now-departed finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
So Syriza called the referendum. To their consternation, they won, igniting the great Greek revolt of 2015, the moment when the people finally issued a primal scream, daubed their war paint, and formed the hoplite phalanx.
Mr Tsipras is now trapped by his success. “The referendum has its own dynamic. People will revolt if he comes back from Brussels with a shoddy compromise,” said Costas Lapavitsas, a Syriza MP.
“Tsipras doesn’t want to take the path of Grexit, but I think he realizes that this is now what lies straight ahead of him,” he said.
What should have been a celebration on Sunday night turned into a wake. Mr Tsipras was depressed, dissecting all the errors that Syriza has made since taking power in January, talking into the early hours.
The prime minister was reportedly told that the time had come to choose, either he should seize on the momentum of the 61pc landslide vote, and take the fight to the Eurogroup, or yield to the creditor demands – and give up the volatile Mr Varoufakis in the process as a token of good faith.
Everybody knew what a fight would mean. The inner cabinet had discussed the details a week earlier at a tense meeting after the European Central Bank refused to increase liquidity (ELA) to the Greek banking system, forcing Syriza to impose capital controls.
It was a triple plan. They would “requisition” the Bank of Greece and sack the governor under emergency national laws. The estimated €17bn of reserves still stashed away in various branches of the central bank would be seized.
They would issue parallel liquidity and California-style IOUs denominated in euros to keep the banking system afloat, backed by an appeal to the European Court of Justice to throw the other side off balance, all the while asserting Greece’s full legal rights as a member of the eurozone. If the creditors forced Grexit, they – not Greece – would be acting illegally, with implications for tort contracts in London, New York and even Frankfurt.
They would impose a haircut on €27bn of Greek bonds held by the ECB, and deemed “odious debt” by some since the original purchases were undertaken by the ECB to save French and German banks, forestalling a market debt restructuring that would otherwise have happened.
“They were trying to strangle us into submission, and this is how we would retaliate,” said one cabinet minister. Mr Tsipras rejected the plan. It was too dangerous. But a week later, that is exactly what he may have to do, unless he prefers to accept a forced return to the drachma.
Syriza has been in utter disarray for 36 hours. On Tuesday, the Greek side turned up for a make-or-break summit in Brussels with no plans at all, even though Germany and its allies warned them at the outset that this is their last chance to avert ejection.
The new finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, vaguely offered to come up with something by Wednesday, almost certainly a rejigged version of plans that the creditors have already rejected.
Events are now spinning out of control. The banks remain shut. The ECB has maintained its liquidity freeze, and through its inaction is asphyxiating the banking system.
Factories are shutting down across the country as stocks of raw materials run out and containers full of vitally-needed imports clog up Greek ports. Companies cannot pay their suppliers because external transfers are blocked. Private scrip currencies are starting to appear as firms retreat to semi-barter outside the banking system.
Yet if Greece is in turmoil, so is Europe. The entire leadership of the eurozone warned before the referendum that a “No” vote would lead to ejection from the euro, never supposing that they might have to face exactly this.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s chief, had the wit to make light of his retreat. “We have to put our little egos, in my case a very large ego, away, and deal with situation we face,” he said.
France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls said Grexit and the rupture of monetary union must be prevented as the highest strategic imperative. “We cannot let Greece leave the eurozone. Nobody can say today what the political consequences would be, what would be the reaction of the Greek people,” he said.
French leaders are working in concert with the White House. Washington is bringing its immense diplomatic power to bear, calling openly on the EU to put “Greece on a path toward debt sustainability” and sort out the festering problem once and for all.
The Franco-American push is backed by Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who said the eurozone has to go back to the drawing board and rethink its whole austerity doctrine after the democratic revolt in Greece. He too now backs debt relief.
Yet 15 of the 18 governments now sitting in judgment on Greece either back Germany’s uncompromising stand, or are leaning towards Grexit in one form or another. The Germans are already thinking beyond Grexit, discussing plans for humanitarian aide and balance of payments support for the drachma.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, spoke for many in insisting that the eurozone must uphold discipline, whatever the financial consequences. “I am at the table here today to ensure that the integrity, the cohesion, the underlying principles of the single currency are protected. It is up to the Greek government to come up with far-reaching proposals. If they don’t do that, then I think it will be over quickly,” he said.
The two sides are talking past each other, clinging to long-entrenched narratives, no longer willing to question their own assumptions. The result could be costly. RBS puts the direct financial losses for the eurozone from a Greek default at €227bn, compared with €140bn if they bite the bullet on an IMF-style debt restructuring.
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But that is a detail compared with the damage to the European political project and the Nato alliance if Greece is thrown to wolves against the strenuous objections of France, Italy and the US.
It is hard to imagine what would remain of Franco-German condominium. Washington might start to turn its back on Nato in disgust, leaving Germany and the Baltic states to fend for themselves against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a condign punishment for such loss of strategic vision in Greece.
Mr Lapavitsas said Europe’s own survival as civilisational force in the world is what is really at stake. “Europe has not show much wisdom over the last century. It launched two world wars and had to be saved by the Americans,” he said
“Now with the creation of monetary union it has acted with such foolishness, and created such a disaster, that it is putting the very union in doubt, and this time there will be no saviour. It is the last throw of the dice for Europe,” he said.