The Greek crisis will be a turning point for Europe, but it is for political leaders and not the ECB to decide in which direction, argues Joseph Mariathasan
When politics becomes theatre, the messenger can overshadow the message. The antics of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis always seemed more about improving his personal profile – perhaps with an eye to a lucrative post-government career on the lecture circuit – than a serious attempt to negotiate with hard-headed politicians constrained by the anxieties of their own domestic electorates.
The referendum was pure theatre. My Greek friends tell me one needed a doctorate in economics to understand what the question meant, let alone decide how to vote in the best interests of the country.
What the resounding No vote actually means is unclear, as the majority of the Greek population appear to want to remain in the European Union and the euro-zone, despite foreign politicians’ proclaiming beforehand that it would represent a decision to leave both.
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has at least showed a willingness to enter into a new set of negotiations by getting rid of Varoufakis, who proudly proclaims in his blog that he “shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride”. Greece would have found it nigh on impossible to conduct further negotiations with Varoufakis still at the helm.
But we come to bury Varafoukis, or at least his career as a minister, and not to praise him. The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Varafoukis.
The disappointment of his brief career as finance minister was that many of his points were valid. As he argues in his blog, the existing Greek ‘bailouts’ were exercises whose “purpose was to intentionally transfer private losses onto the shoulders of the weakest Greeks, before being transferred to other European taxpayers” (sic), although he fails to add that this was driven by panic at the prospect of the collapse of a number of Northern European banks, which could have led to untold consequences for Europe as a whole. Because he adopted a confrontational style to the point of absurd theatrics, he has been dismissed – along with his colleagues in Syriza – as a populist politician out of his depth.
As we wait to see what the future holds, it is worth remembering that, although a strong case can be made that Greece would be better off outside the euro while remaining within the political umbrella of the EU, the euro-zone itself might be unable to take the risk of a Grexit.
The Hotel Euro-zone is only programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Or else the edifice would collapse. The biggest loser of that would be Germany, with exports collapsing as its currency appreciates against those of its European peers. And the collapse would hit not only Germany’s European markets – Chinese consumers might find that Ferraris have just as much status as Porches but are suddenly more affordable.
The problem for the EU and the euro-zone is that developing a rigid economic construct with a half-baked political construct will always be unstable. As Varoufakis points out, the International Monetary Fund itself recently released a report confirming Greek public debt was unsustainable. It is time European politicians recognised this fact.
Whatever happens, the country must remain in the EU. The political consequences of Greece’s exit would be unfathomable, but the consequences for the rest of Europe of the country’s turning elsewhere for succour would not be pleasant either.
A series of crises – which have provided opportunities for ever-closer union, even if not always welcomed by many of the participants – has driven the European project. The Greek crisis might prove to be a turning point, but it is for Europe’s political leaders and not the ECB to decide in which way.
Joseph Mariathasan is a contributing editor at IPE