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]