Greece – Failure of Leadership with Global Consequences

Photo: EPA
Photo: EPA

“Le drame grec n’est pas et ne sera pas seulement national : il a et il aura des effets sur l’ensemble de l’Europe, dont la Grèce fait partie intégrante par son histoire et sa géographie” – Jacques Delors, Pascal Lamy et Antonio Vitorino in Le Monde of July 4th.

Greece and the European Union have their backs against the wall. Greece faces two deadlines, June 30th repayment of €1.6bn to the International Monetary Fund (which remains unpaid until the results of the referendum), and the July 20th of €3.5bn to the European Central Bank (ECB). Even if Greece were to repay the first bill, it would be unable to do so on July 20th.

So far, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, feel that the terms of the new bailouts are too destructive and would require more cuts on Greek social programs that they have asked Greek citizens to vote on their futures (the referendum is currently taking place in Greece). Without an extension of his first debt, Greece has no chance of receiving the remaining of the credit of €7.2 billion and would ultimately default. So, how has a crisis starting in October 2009 been so poorly managed and is putting at risk the stability of Europe and global markets?

A Call for Democracy?

On the night of Saturday  27th, Prime Minister Tsipras announced on television, at the great surprise of his European counterparts, that he would be holding a referendum on July 5th asking the Greek citizens to decide on the future of Greece, either by accepting the deal and the ensuing austerity measures, or by rejecting the deal and ultimately having to default. In order to hold the referendum, Tsipras asked his creditors to postpone the June 30th deadline by five days, which has been rejected. For instance, the leader of the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said at a news conference that “The Greek government has broken off the process. However regrettable, the program will expire on Tuesday night.”

International public opinions have been deeply divided when reflecting on Tsipras’ call. On the one hand, some have argued that Tsipras is gambling with the future of Greece and ultimately the Eurozone and the stability of global market. While others have talked of a smart political move by Tsipras. On the question of the referendum, Prime Minister Tsipras has already expressed that he will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote (read here Varoufakis’ recommendation for a no vote). Two of the top American economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, announced in separate editorials that they would vote ‘No’ at the referendum. Joseph Stiglitz said clearly in his op-ed that the tension between Greece and its creditors (troika) is about power and democracy rather than economics. Yet, many media outlets have been very critical towards Tsipras as one can see the recent cartoon published by the Economist:

The Economist - July 4th
The Economist – July 4th

Merkel & Hollande, European Leaders? Think again…

The current crisis is more of a political failure than an economic/monetary one. It is the failure of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and François Hollande of France to recognize that saving Greece is more important than letting a Eurozone member

Photo: EPA/WOLFGANG KUMM
Photo: EPA/WOLFGANG KUMM

defaulting on its payments and obligations. Chancellor Merkel has been portrayed as the leader of Europe, which seems to be a wrong assessment in retrospective. A leader is not an individual working on protecting solely the interest of his/her country, but in the interest of the system as whole. In addition, one needs to recognize that Merkel rejected a last minute call by Tsipras to redefine the terms of the agreement. She reiterated that there was no point in holding talks with Greece before the July 5th referendum. Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was more critical, saying, “Greece is in a difficult situation, but purely because of the behaviour of the Greek government … Seeking the blame outside Greece might be helpful in Greece, but it has nothing to do with reality.” As hard it may be to justify another rescue of Greece to her electorate, Angela Merkel needs to recognize that a Greek default would endanger Germany, the Eurozone, the EU and global financial markets as a whole.

In the case of François Hollande, he has been too quiet and distant on the question of the Greek default. François Hollande, a socialist by political affiliation, missed a strategic moment in establishing himself as the axiom between the members of the South with the ones of the North. François Hollande’s gamble has been to bandwagon with Germany rather than positioning himself with a clear strategy and eventually offering alternative options in favor of Southern members. Hollande’s gamble is not only failing, but he has become irrelevant on the Greek dossier (not what French finance minister, Michel Sapin, would claim). Such strategic absence by France is regrettable, as the country economic base is so fragile that a Greek default would certainly put a halt to the more than timid recovery if one considers the degree of involvement of French banks in the Greek economy. It is difficult to imagine France striving through another Eurozone crisis with GDP growth rate of 0.6% and an unemployment level at 10.5%.

Global Earthquake, and American Powerlessness

A Greek default would have serious global consequences causing contagion throughout the world. Since Monday morning, global stock markets have been declining and are waiting on the eventual repercussions of a Greek default as many unpredictable consequences could occur considering the complex interconnection of world financial system.

The United States has been following the European drama very closely and powerlessly from the other side of the pond. Even though the US economy is slowly picking up, it has remained very timid with strong quarters and weaker ones. President Obama has been in directly contact (and through his Jack Lew, his Secretary of Treasury) with his European counterparts, Ms. Merkel and M. Hollande, expressing his concerns about the eventual consequences on the global finance and calling for a resolution. Speaking at a news conference, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, said that “To the extent that there are impacts on the euro-area economy or on global financial markets, there would undoubtedly be spillovers to the United States that would affect our outlook as well.” The US have been very worried about the course of actions taken by the Europeans and has urged Greece and the Europeans to reach a deal in order to avoid a default.

A second reality, beside economics, is pure geopolitics and security. With a Greek default, the country would become unable to secure its borders, a real problem with the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean – wherein the EU and its Member States are failing to address – (read previous analyses here and here). Even if most of the coverage has focused on Italy, Greece is the second entry point to Europe by the sea and land. The second geopolitical reality is the rapprochement of Athens with Moscow. This rapprochement is taking place at a time

Reuters
Reuters

wherein the EU is extending its economic sanctions against Russia (so much for European unity vis-à-vis Russia). Greece and Russia are working on an deepening energy and agricultural ties. “Russia wants to build a pipeline through the Balkans, and Greece wants it, too” said Dimitris Vitsas, a ruling leftist Syriza party lawmaker, “We can develop a common enterprise not only in this, but for agricultural products and so on.” From Moscow’ standpoint, the gas deal with Athens is an important entrypoint into European politics. Moscow has been financing European radical parties and worked on transforming its image from within (read here a previous analysis on Russia in Europe).

Geopolitics highly matter in the Greek dossier and seem to have been sidelined for obvious economical and financial realities. With or without a Greek collapse, geopolitics will remain and affect the stability of Europe.

A New Meaning of Europe?

The European project is based on core principles, norms and values: solidarity, peace, democracy and respect. At several occasions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the phrase, “If the euro fails, Europe fails,” in order to talk about the need to save Greece. With the Greek fiasco, it seems that each normative dimension has been violated by all European parties. The concept of European solidarity is not embedded in punishing but assistance.

Greece is so indebted with a debt representing 183.2% of the GDP with an unemployment rate above 25% that its future can only be with a serious assistance by its European counterparts. Even if Greek debt is abysmal, Greece’s economy only represents 2% of the eurozone. In order to make Greece stable and functional, it will need to go through serious structural reforms and clean up the high level of corruption. Certainly some Eastern, Central and Baltic Member States, like Lithuania and Bulgaria, feel that Greece should implement the necessary reforms as the quality of life in Greece, especially the level of pensions in Greece, are much higher than in poorer EU Member States. But this could be adjusted once Greece is under European protection. Can these take place under additional austerity measures?

Last but not least, the European political narratives have evolved these last five years. Back in 2009, the concept of Grexit was not an option, just a concept describing an unthinkable future (read an interview on the topic here). Today, a Grexit appears as an option and eventually a reality. On the verge of a default, it seems that the EU project may be endangered because of lack of flexibility and lack of understanding of its heritage. Letting Greece default would be a failure of leadership and failure of strategic thinking.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

 

Grexit, Zombies and Back to the Future

grexit

With the looming Greek deadline, it is interesting to revisit an interview conduced back in 2011 about the future of Greece as a member of the Eurozone. Not surprisingly, not much as changed since then aside from the perpetual rotation of Prime Ministers unable to balance the debt, european and international pressures, and domestic forces.

In almost five years, the EU, the Eurozone and Greece are in the same situation that they initially were. Today Greece is on the verge of defaulting on its debt of €1.5 billion to the IMF on June 30th. Since the election of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the fight between Greece and the Troika+Germany has been tense with no real solution (read a previous analysis on Syriza here). The bargaining process has brought the EU and Greece in front of a wall. The only difference between 2011 and 2015 is the acceptance of the concept of Grexit. In 2011, Grexit was only a word to express the unthinkable. In 2015, Grexit is an option.

Here is the interview of Dr. Lorca-Susino taken place in Miami in 2011:

“What makes a currency unique? The symbols, monuments, leaders figuring on the paper money, are exemplifications of the collective identity and shared culture. In the case of the Euro, as underlined by Gideon Rachman, the symbols on Euro’s coins and bills are fictitious.

Last week [September 15th, 2011], I ask one of my close friends, Dr. Maria Lorca-Susino, and also co-worker at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami to grant me a little of her time for an interview on the future of the Euro and its impacts on the EU as whole. The fraternity among Europeans living abroad is such that she could not refuse. Dr. Lorca-Susino has emerged as one of the top thinkers on the Euro and recently published an outstanding book, The Euro in the 21st century, from the ashes of her dissertation. I had in mind to do the interview à la Financial Times, unfortunately neither lunch nor coffee were part of it.

Zombies have become a very trendy concept to use in International Relations and mass culture [it was the case in 2011 with all the movies, tv-shows and Drezner’s book Theories of International Politics and Zombies], and I could not resist on using it for this piece. Is Greece a zombie? Can a bite from Greece lead to contagion to the other members of the Eurozone? and ultimately to the European Union as a whole? Could it lead to the comeback of national currencies? Would a default of Greece be like a heat shot to a zombie? These were my general questions throughout our discussion.

I started straight with a large, contentious and complex question, “How do you see the future of the Euro?” As a true academic, she replied by “it depends,” and then claimed that it will be “without Greece.” Greece has been at the heart of a massive political storm in Europe for several reasons: first, Greece is seen by the Troika – EU, IMF, ECB – as not doing enough; second, Greece could be considered as a failed-state. The problem with Greece is that the Greek government is unable to raise money [this changed in 2014 in Greece], as opposed to be unwilling to. Furthermore, from an economic standpoint, the case of Greece is a problem of solvency – no more assets – as opposed to have a problem of liquidity, which is the case of the Italy.

Dr. Lorca-Susino underlined that the Eurozone without Greece is not a “big problem” as the Treaties have been already breached many times. The no bailout rule has been breached, so why would it be a problem to remove Greece for the Eurozone? At that time, I should have raised the fact that one of the problems is perhaps not political, but instead unethical. But even the notion of ethics on the Greek fiasco lost its value a long time ago, when the Greek government cooked the books. The fact is that Greece lied and did not report the “real” data concerning its deficit and debt. The expulsion of Greece from the Eurozone is not a question of economic weakness, as argued by Dr. Lorca-Susino, but instead a consequence of its dishonesty to the other Member States. The cover-up by the Greek government did put the entire system in jeopardy, as she recalled, but also limited the time for action or reaction of the other Member States in dealing with such crisis.

I, then, wondered about the need to restructure, redesign the architecture of the Eurozone. She replied very simply that, “the Eurozone has all the requirements. But the only problem is that they have not been respected.” Originally and “in good faith” – as underlined several times throughout our discussion – Member States were allowed to maintain their fiscal autonomy. She went on and argued that the “unwritten rule for this fiscal independence” was because of a shared belief that Member States were part of a so-called “gentlemen club.” In other words, Member States’ words were the only guarantee needed for a stable and safe economic climax within the Eurozone. Short-term breaching was permitted, as it was the case with France and Germany, as long as Member States readjusted their deficits.

What about a common EU fiscal system? “Fiscal unity is complicated,” argued Dr. Lorca-Susino, “because it would send the entire European political class to unemployment.” Her vision of the role of politicians is reduced to their abilities to make the budget in accordance with the country’s needs. Fiscal unity is not a fiscal question, but instead a political one. However, another problem would be to design a common European taxation system with all its complexity around the question of redistribution in accordance with national taxation and European needs. Fiscal unity would ultimately lead toward a federal state along the lines of the United States.

But, what is the role of the European public in all that? Have European citizens been removed from the equation? Since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, the European public, all across the Union, has been extremely critical and vocal of all the austerity measures undertaken, especially the ones implemented in Greece, Spain, Italy, Britain, and to some extent France. A large segment of Europeans see the European Union as the supra-entity forcing national governments to cut their budgets and ultimately weakening the power of the welfare state. Her answer, once more, was sharp and clear, “the Euro is like Bush! Everybody blames it!” Her argument is that European citizens truly believe that life post-Euro was better. To some extent, the economic rationale is valid, monetary autonomy. Furthermore, national governments have used the Euro as a shield in order to push unpopular national economic policies without affecting the electability of its political class.

On the international stage, the Euro has been used as an instrument from diversion especially in the US. On the money market, the Euro is not seen anymore as a strong, stable currency leading investors in buying massive amount of Swiss Franc with all the consequences it entails for the Swiss authorities.

To conclude this piece, I would emphasize two points: first, the Euro is far from being perfect, however, it has become an European scapegoat. At least, Member States can agree on something; second, as argued by Dr. Lorca-Susino, “Greece is not buyable as a country, as an economy.” Greece looks like a zombie. One of the problems with zombies is the difficulty to find a vaccine. “

0,,18530052_303,00Putting this interview in perspective and as a concluding remark, one should mention the call by Prime Minister Tsipras to put the decision in the hands of the Greeks by holding a referendum on July 5th. This fascinating political move by Tsipras put the Greeks in the driver seat. Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, are opposed to the terms of the new bailout. For instance, in his public address on June 26th, PM Tsipras said “After five months of tough negotiations, our partners ended up with a proposal in the form of an ultimatum,” with “new, unbearable measures,” which would force for additional cuts to pensions, salaries and tax increases. He added that “the goal of some of Greece’s partners is the humiliation of an entire nation.” It is the first time since the beginning of the eurozone crisis that a government is asking directly its citizenry to make a choice on their future.

In order to do so Tsipras had asked to his creditors and the Eurogroup to give a 5 days extension. The next day, June 27th, the finance ministers of the Eurogroup rejected Tsipras’ demand. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the leader of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, told a news conference that “The Greek government has broken off the process. However regrettable, the program will expire on Tuesday night.” Ultimately, Greece seems on the verge to leave the Euro. A Grexit is now a reality.

This piece was initially published on Foreign Policy Association’s Blog on September 23rd, 2011 under the title of “Euro, Zombies, and Greece: A Discussion with Dr. Lorca-Susino”
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).