Greece: bitter pills & ill-wills


Of the grand, ambitious projects embarked-upon on the European continent over the last three decades two highly visible examples were recalled today in Brussels: football’s Champions League and the Single European Currency.

Whatever they have in common there is one crucial difference in joining either of these prestigious clubs, in the Euro one can gain promotion but there is no relegation. Countries simply don’t drop-out of the Euro if they fail to finish with enough points, only to return after a more successful season.

For Greece having gained full-membership of the Euro at the second attempt in 2001 there is no agreed mechanism, monetary or otherwise for its expulsion, it may finish bottom of the tables but there is nothing in the rule book about sending them back to the lower leagues.

Commission President Juncker couldn’t resist the temptation to compare them today saying he didn’t want to see Greece “play in the second division”.

How Greece and the Eurozone emerge from this current impasse will depend not only on the machinations of markets or the balancing of books but ultimately upon the same force that brought the Euro and the EU into being in the first place: the political will of its members.

Accessing more liquidity in Greece’s beleaguered banks is one thing, drawing-down favour in Brussels is another and in Brussels this weekend the Syriza-led government was finding that tough.

Saturday’s emergency Eurogroup meeting in Brussels ended in acrimony with a statement saying that Athens had rejected the deal on offer and ended in uncharacteristically ominous fashion, reading:

[The statement is adopted by ministers from the euro area Member States, except Greece].

It is not only the Commission and the bigger Eurozone countries like Germany who may be losing patience with Athens’ leftist government. The Syriza-led government has yet to win-over other Eurozone countries who’ve had to take similar pills.

To reverse this Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s dashing finance minister, pitched for Irish sympathies, in an article in the Irish Times:

“Irish readers need no reminder of the indignity that befalls a people forced to forfeit their sovereignty in the midst of an economic depression. They may, however, be justified to look at the never-ending Greek crisis and allow themselves a feeling of mild superiority, on the basis that the Irish suffered quietly, swallowed the bitter pill of austerity and are now getting out of the woods”

But it seems neither Enda Kenny or his finance Minister Michael Noonan were reading.

The Taoiseach repeated at a Brussels summit on Thursday that Ireland was not prepared to support debt-relief for the Greeks and offered some advice for Varoufakis and co; 

“We put up alternatives to those measures that were proposed in order to keep a pro-growth policy and to make our country competitive and to provide jobs for our people.”

This was echoed by the EU’s financial stability Commissioner, who today tweeted that Greece should “shoulder responsibility” as Ireland had. Spain’s Prime Minister and his Greek counterpart traded further insults at the recent Brussels summit, Tsipras had previously accused Spain and Portugal of lining-up against his government.

Many suspect that this has more to do with elections in Spain and Portugal later this year and for the Dáil next Spring, where in each country parties who style themselves on Greece’s Syriza will attempt to topple the incumbent conservatives and their prevailing economic orthodoxy.

The ballot box will have its say sooner rather than that however, with Tsipras’ referendum this coming Saturday.


Many in Brussels hope that if Alex Tsipras’ gamble fails then fresh elections in Greece (after 6 governments in as many years) could shuffle the deck to a more accommodating position, such as replacing the nationalist-minded ANEL with the more pro-European Potami in any Syriza-led government.

Few in the UK can blame Tsipras for calling a referendum on Brussels’ terms, after all it’s what David Cameron has done. But the British prime Minister could have told him that doesn’t always get you what you want, earlier this week Cameron practically admitted as much by rowing-back from his hope of selling EU Treaty change in the UK’s referendum.

If the ultimate ends of any Grexit or Brexit are the same, their perception is often so different. To many the Brexit is the product of British internal myopia, a personal inability to come to terms with the project at large.

For Greece the thinking goes that, through its own mistakes the country has failed to deliver-on its membership criteria, it didn’t read the rules properly and now it’s costing us, time for them to go.

This unkind (and inaccurate) narrative understandably doesn’t sit well with Greeks, who after years of austerity can’t stand the notion that others have rolled-up their sleeves while they have put-up their feet.

Conservative economists have repeated the Thatcherite maxim that the Greeks have simply run-out of other people’s money, and must pay. But any change to Greece’s position in the Eurozone would require them to exhaust something more valuable: the political will and support of their peers.