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Greeks Bearing Debts
Brussels Seethes as Greece Spits

The Greeks are at it again.  This week Greece first made, then walked back, a threat to miss a €460 million payment owed to the IMF come Thursday. Meanwhile, PM Alexis Tsipras flew off to Moscow, courting an also cash-strapped Vladimir Putin, and making noises about how Greece did not support the EU’s sanctions against Russia.

Brussels insiders say that EU patience with the Greek circus is running out; there are reports that the EU will start to pressure Prime Minister Tsipras to dump the left wing of his party and build a new coalition that will embrace a more conventional approach to Greek’s debt issues. As The Financial Times reports, EU officials—and some representatives from creditor nations—are ready to give the current Greek cabinet the hook:

The idea would be for Mr Tsipras to forge a new coalition with Greece’s traditional centre-left party, the beleaguered Pasok, and To Potami (The River), a new centre-left party that fought its first general election in January.

“Tsipras has to decide whether he wants to be prime minister or the leader of Syriza,” said one European official.

A senior official in a eurozone finance ministry added: “This government cannot survive.”

EU impatience with the Greek clown show is understandable. Condescending, arrogant, clueless, incompetent, the Greek government has made itself a global laughingstock as it stumbles from mishap to mishap, spewing bile and seeking handouts. Meanwhile, Greece’s debt clock is ticking, and the longer the clown show continues the more likely it is that a crisis will erupt, and turn the farce into a tragedy.

Some argue that EU interference with Greece’s parliamentary politics constitutes an insufferable intrusion on Greek sovereignty, and given the realities of Greek public opinion, many Greeks will see it exactly that way. They are wrong, but their feelings need to be taken into account. While heavy hints from Brussels to Tsipras that he might get a better deal for Greece if he shifted his government’s parliamentary base away from the looney left are not the same thing as an attack on Greek democracy or promoting some kind of coup, reports like this are likely to be counterproductive.

Impatient foreigners need to understand that the clown show is only partly the result of amateur arrogance and hotheaded inexperience. It also flows from one of the iron laws of politics: if you can’t give the people enough bread, you have to give them extra-tasty circus tricks. Syriza can’t make Greek austerity go away and it cannot force the rest of Europe to indulge Greek fantasies about ‘alternative models’ of capitalism that would somehow make Greece affluent without labor law and pension reforms. Syriza may be riding high in the polls, but that reflects (so far) its ability to entertain the Greeks. Syriza cannot free Greece from the trap it is in, but it can reflect and represent Greek unhappiness and anger as it flounces across the European stage.

Greeks feel themselves powerless in an unfair and unsympathetic world. The kind of government that Brussels wants to see in Athens — silent, obedient functionaries — would enrage Greek opinion, at least at this stage of the crisis. After years of austerity, the Greeks needed to vent, and they have: spectacularly, if counterproductively.

One doesn’t know where or how this will end. European monetary union has turned into something Greeks have no trouble recognizing: a bed of Procrustes. Brussels is becoming a machine for forcing round pegs into square holes. This cannot go on forever; something will have to give. In the short term, the odds of a Grexit, a Greek exit (either formal or informal) from the eurozone are going up as Brussels and Athens grow weary of one another. In the longer term, the costs to the European project, one of the most hopeful and important undertakings in the history of the human race, continue to grow.

Nothing about this is good.

[post heavily edited]

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  • Andrew Allison

    What TAI doesn’t get: a government which which makes and then has to walk back, promises to those who elected it and serial nonsensical demands of its creditors cannot survive. There’s a huge difference between aggravation and incompetence.

    • Frank Natoli

      What “nonsensical demands” are the creditors of Greece making? Other than “pay interest and principal as agreed”?

      • Andrew Allison

        I fear that you misread my comment. It is the Greek government which is . . . .

        • Kevin

          I read it the same way as Frank – too many pronouns and prepositions…

          • Andrew Allison

            I certainly agree that there’s plenty of blame to go around, but that’s not the subject of the thread. On that subject, I don’t think that many people in the rest of the EU expect the existing debt to be repaid. At issue is the problem described in your final sentence.

  • Ellen

    The main point regarding the Greeks is that they don’t have a culture that will ever be compatible with the EU as run by the Germans, the Dutch and the French. Then again, the French are becoming more and more like the Greeks. So, we could enlarge that generalization to say that the French and the Greeks (and the Italians) will never have a culture that will be compatible with the demands being made by the Germans and the Dutch. So, fundamentally, the EU will fail, and it is only a question of time.

    Rebuilding after WWII required sacrifice and delayed gratification from a generation that had not been raised on the culture of self-indulgence and narcissism that today’s Europeans (and many Americans) have grown up with. So, the unifying spirit and self sacrifice that existed in the 1950’s will never come back.

    The EU should be broken up, and they should all go their own ways and make bilateral trade agreements, just like the good old days. As Donald Trump said last year, “soon we will be back to the Drachma.”

  • rheddles

    Offer Putin Greece for the Ukraine and a peninsula to be named later.

  • Brett Champion

    “Syriza may be riding high in the polls, but that reflects (so far) its ability to entertain the Greeks.”

    Actually I would say that Syriza’s poll numbers reflect the economic and financial illiteracy among the Greek people that is common across the world. They simply don’t realize that what they are demanding is an impossibility.

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