Tsipras, a Political Master

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Europe and the world should be taking a moment and reflect on the political mastery of Alexis Tsipras of Greece. In less than a year, Mr. Tsipras won two general elections, won a referendum and implemented contradictory policies, all this by changing his political standing and under terrible domestic and economic conditions. Aside from political ideology, Alexis Tsipras is undeniably one of the most talented European politicians. However has his mastery of politics translated into sound governing skills?

Early 2015, most Europeans, including a some Greek citizens, had never heard of Alexis Tsipras. The 41 year old tieless politician finds his political ideology in extreme left affiliated at first to the Communist Party. His political house is centered in the extreme left side of the political spectrum. After years of internal evolution in the Greek lefts, he then became the leader of the exteme-left wing party, Syriza (which means Coalition of the Radical Left) and was elected at the helm of Greece in February 2015. This was the beginning of his true political exposition.

Chapter 1: His election in February 2015 marked the end of the decade long transfer of power between the two leading parties. Tsipras was elected based on a program of anti-austerity policies, fight for Greek interests before the Troika (ECB, IMF, and Commission), increase of minimum wages, restauration of state employees and increase of pensions. If European media were deeply skeptical about his rise and thought that he would not last a year, they have appeared to be wrong. Ensuing his election, Tspiras disappeared from European minds until the looming of the deadlines for debt repayments of the IMF and ECB.

Chapter 2: The second chapter of his reign started several weeks prior the eventual default 478861728of Greece for the repayment of a  €1.5 billion to the IMF on June 30th, and a second one to the ECB mid-2015. These negotiations at EU finance ministers level and EU leaders level were extremely tense as neither Tsipras nor his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, wanted to accept the deal put on the table by the Troika and Germany. At the last minute, PM Tsipras called for a referendum on July 5th asking Greeks to decide on their fate: voting yes to the deal implied more austerity measures; a no vote was a rejection of the deal and could lead to a Greek default and leaving the Eurozone, known as a Grexit. Not only did Tsipras organized the referendum without noticing his European partners, but he campaigned for the no vote.

Chapter 3: The no camp, or Oxi, won the referendum with 61.3% and Europe was expecting a progressive departure of Greece from the Eurozone. Even President Juncker of the European Commission asked for a report on how to accompany Greece outside the Euro area. Instead of using his domestic mandate, Tsipras fired his finance minister (officially he resigned desipte winning) and went back to the negotiation table

ATHENS, GREECE - 2015/06/29: The word 'OXI' (NO) written on a banner in front of the Greek parliament. Greeks demonstrate in Syntagma square in support to a 'NO' vote in the referendum that will take place on the 5th of July, whether to accept the new agreement between Greece and it creditors. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE – 2015/06/29: The word ‘OXI’ (NO) written on a banner in front of the Greek parliament. Greeks demonstrate in Syntagma square in support to a ‘NO’ vote in the referendum that will take place on the 5th of July, whether to accept the new agreement between Greece and it creditors. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

requesting the initial deal. Germany refused and France played an important role of holding together the parties and the negotiations alive. Ultimately, Greece agreed on a worst deal than previously offered and Tsipras implemented additional austerity measures and required reforms. The deal entailed the following aspects: raising the age for retirement; a VAT hike at 23% across sectors; privatization of key sectors of Greek economy; and removal of tax breaks for some Greek islands. These reforms would permit to unlock a third loan package of €86 billion until 2018.

Chapter 4: Tsipras agreed on the second deal, agreed at EU level on July 13th, which was worst than the initial offer, and brought it back home for a vote. The Greek Parliament voted and agreed on July 15th, on the bailout deal, which was approved with a 229-64 majority. However, Tsipras’ party, Syriza, seems to have lost some unity with 32 Syriza MPs defying their leader’s pleas and rejected the deal. Throughout July and August, Tsipras was facing serious political criticism and opposition by the members of his own party. Syriza was divided between a radical branch, led by Mr. Lafazanis, and a more centrist one counting Tsipras. The radical branch of Syriza had not accepted the political move by Tsipras to go against the popular vote of the referendum. “Mr Lafazanis’s supporters speak of an ‘ideological betrayal’ and ‘treachery’ by Mr Tsipras’s faction.”

Chapter 5: On August 20th, PM Tsipras announced his resignation and his candidacy for the next general election that would take place mid-September. His rationale was to get reelected without the radical branch of Syriza. His political gamble worked as he was reelected with 35.5% of the vote and was able to drop the hard-liners from his party. Syriza won 145 seats out of the 300 seats of the parliament, only four fewer than after the January elections. In order to assure a majority, Tsipras agreed on a coalition with right-wing party Independent Greeks (ANEL) with its leader Panos Kammenos. ANEL is an ultra-nationalist anti-immigrant party, often compared to UKIP in the United Kingdom. With this alliance, the Syriza-ANEL coalition offer the majority with 155 seats in the Parliament to Tsipras. Even President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, expressed his concerns directly to PM Tsipras about this political alliance.

Political Talent over Governing Skills?

In less than a year, PM Tsipras has demonstrated his political talent in remaining alive and electable despite party, domestic and European pressures all this under dire economic conditions and an unemployment level around 25%. If Tsipras proved to the world that he cannot lose an election, he needs to now tackle the true problems of Greece: crony capitalism, clientelism, systemic corruption, and implementing structural reforms of the economy and state. The country has been on life line for over 5 years, its intellectuals are fleeing away, higher education is barely financed and Greece cannot even protect its borders. Winning elections is one thing, implementing reforms and governing are another.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
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Will Tsipras 2.0 be better than Tsipras 1.0?

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Alexis Tsipras resigns after seven months in power, but is seeking for reelection in elections in late September. His time at the helm of Greece was marked by a impossible conundrum: defend Greek interests against powerful European and international forces, ending the austerity while finding growth, and dealing with an ideological split within his party.

Prime Minister Tsipras is calling for a new round of elections, most likely scheduled for September 20th, and he will lead the Syriza party. “I believe we haven’t yet seen our best days” announced the Prime Minister on television “and I’m going to ask for the people’s vote to govern this country – with more experience, with my feet more firmly on the ground.” With a disastrous economic and fiscal situation, Greece is now facing even deeper political uncertainties. With his resignation the country will be governed by an interim-government until the next snap elections in September 20th. Tsipras is leaving office for a better comeback and freeing himself from the rebels of his party. He is looking to “return to power with a more manageable coalition.”

Reflection on Tsipras’ First Tenure

Several points need to be reflected upon his time in office. First, PM Tsipras came into power based on an anti-establishment campaign. His extreme-left party, Syriza, took the power based on many promises: defending Greek interests by ending the international and european austerity measures; and an anti-establishment campaign.

Second, his time in office was quite smooth until the looming of the deadlines for repayment of the IMF and ECB loans. Even though he remains one of the most popular politicians in Greece, the summer has created serious political tensions within his party Syriza. The fight between Greece and the Troika (ECB, Commission, and IMF) over an agreement after missing the initial deadline forced the Tsipras’ government to close Greek banks for almost three weeks. Tsipras was obliged to agree to the terms requiring tax hikes and further spending cuts under the threat of complete collapse of the Greek banking system (read here a past analysis). The deal with European creditors infuriated members his party Syriza, but Tsipras managed to get it approve through the Parliament with the help of the opposition.

Third, the resignation of Alexis Tsipras, which should be seen as a two-step process – first the referendum, and second the agreement to the terms of the bailout – marks in some ways a complex existence and survival of socialism in Europe. To many, Alexis Tsipras was the last embodiment of socialism in Europe. Now the question is: was the international market seeking to make a point in going after Tsipras? With Tsipras’ departures, it seems that austerity measures have become the European landmark in solving deep structural economic crisis. But if reelected, Tsipras would be a much more centrist politician than seven month ago. Tsipras had to move towards the middle creating a split with the radical core of his party.

Referendum, Bailout and Political Tension

When did it go all wrong for Tsipras? And, did it go wrong for Tsipras? For many Europeans, PM Tsipras lost the battle after calling for a referendum and advocating for the no vote (remember the oxi?). In retrospective, the results of the referendum actually did not matter, aside for many Greeks feeling that Tsipras tried to defend them. The referendum was perceived by European partners, especially the Germans, as an act of treason. Greece was already on the thin line with his Eurozone partners since the collapse of its economy and the first bailout five years ago. Greece had mis-behaved and lied to its partners (read here a previous interview on the topic). The referendum was another act of treason for European partners. Once Greeks had voted in favor of the no

ATHENS, GREECE - 2014/10/13: MP with the SYRIZA political party, Mr Panagiotis Lafazanis, talks with a megaphone to the demonstrators expressing SYRIZA support. Kurdish people that live in Athens organised a demonstration in support of the Kurdish fighters that defend the Kobani town in Iraq from ISIS insurgents. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Photo: George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

vote, and a week later PM Tsipras agreed to the new terms of a third bailout, his time was counted. His vocal lieutenant, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, announced his resignation days after the victory of the no vote. Once Varoufakis was gone, and Tsipras agreed with the terms (criticized by the IMF) and started his transition towards the center. But in some ways, Tsipras’ fate was sealed, or not? In addition, it created a real ideological split within Syriza. Tsipras is undeniable moving towards the center, while the old guard of Syriza, led by the former Energy and Environment Minister, Mr. Lafazanis, have not changed their position. On the referendum, The Financial Times reported that “Mr Lafazanis’s supporters speak of an ‘ideological betrayal’ and ‘treachery’ by Mr Tsipras’s faction.” The paradox between calling for the referendum opposing the bailout and then accepting the terms of the bailout created an unsustainable political condition for Tsipras.

Some experts and media are comparing Greece to a European protectorate (at least in the leftist literature) after the agreement on the third bailout’s terms. But aside from asking for the approval of his policies, does Greece need another election in such dire times? Tsipras is gambling on a new election in order to get rid of rebels, or what The Economist calls the ‘wild ones,’ build on its domestic legitimacy, and try to govern and reform Greece with a fresh flow of money. Let see if Tsipras can win another election, and how different will Tsipras 2.0 be from the Tsipras 1.0? Can Tsipras 2.0 bring Greece to reform and become a growing and sustainable country under the current conditions? This remains to be seen.

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

It is Politics, Stupid!

CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY
CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

“I really cannot remember, in all my time in European politics, whether I have come across a situation like this. This is really all about the European Union. If the EU is going to have any credible force, it is going to have to demonstrate it is capable of solving its own problems.” – President Martin Schulz on July 12th, 2015 during the Euro Summit Meeting

Forget about economics, finance, banking regulations, social welfare policies, debt forgiveness; the future of Greece solely depends on politics. “The answer [of endless negotiations on solving the Greek crisis these last five years] cannot be found in economics,” writes Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, “because it resides deep in Europe’s labyrinthine politics.” Greece’s destiny is a simple political question based on several concept: trust and confidence.

The Deal

After a week long of back and forth between Greece and the European capitals, Brussels is once again the siege of a Greek marathon. A meeting of the Eurogroup finance ministers started on Saturday, July 11th and ended the next day around 3pm. Ensuing it a general EU summit, with the 28 leaders, was supposed to take place, but was instead cancelled and transformed into a crisis summit of the 19 EU leaders of the Eurozone. The future of Greece as a member of the Eurozone was clearly on the line with a very reticent German team (Chancellor Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble proposing an eventual ‘temporary Grexit’).

As reported by the Financial Times, the finance minister negotiations, which were fruitless and tense, let the way to the EU leaders, whom could not do better considering Germany’s position. Until François Hollande, President of France, whom had been extremely active in advising, helping and defending Greece in the last mile, called for a meeting in Tusk’s office. Preisdent Tusk was reported saying “Sorry, but there is no way you are leaving this room” until a deal is reached.

Credit: Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Credit: Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Interestingly enough, Tsipras’ proposal prior the July 11th meeting included: raising the age for retirement; a VAT hike at 23% across sectors; privatization of key sectors of Greek economy; and removal of tax breaks for some Greek islands. These reforms would permit to unlock a third loan package of $59.6bn until 2018. Tsipras’ proposal was highly similar to the one offered by the international creditors. Even Jean-Claude Juncker during the meeting recognized the proposal brought by Tsipras as almost identical to the one put on the table by the creditors weeks earlier. And the President of European Parliament, Martin Schulz, called for avoiding a Grexit and find a solution.

Based on the deal reached on July 13th, the Greek Parliament voted and agreed on July 15th, on the bailout deal, which was approved with a 229-64 majority. However, Tsipras’ party, Syriza, seems to have lost some unity with 32 Syriza MPs defying their leader’s pleas and rejected the deal. Clearly the terms of the bailout are in direct contradiction with Syriza’s policies, beliefs, and promises, as well as sidelining the results of the referendum. These contradictions could push even further the political crisis in Greece and lead to yet another election during the summer.

Chancellor Merkel, the Finish government and others are not convinced about the proposal and especially Greece’s commitment. The Greek drama is taking more than a simple economic/financial turn, it is purely political. It appears that some EU Member States, like Germany, Finland, Slovakia and others, are more inclined to go after Greece and its leftwing government led by Alexis Tsipras, than finding a real deal that would help in the long term the country.

One core reason is trust, or at least ‘lack of trust.’ Some experts have argued that Tsipras was now on Merkel’s black list after his political coup, the referendum. Merkel and others EU leaders do not trust any longer Tsipras and his government. Or even has argued by Yanis Varoufakis, “based on months of negotiation, my conviction is that the German finance minister wants Greece to be pushed out of the single currency to put the fear of God into the French and have them accept his model of a disciplinarian eurozone.”

Death of the European Project?

The Greek file should be considered as an overall failure for the European ethos. Many economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, have been very critical of the negotiation process and the agreed deal. One of the most virulent denunciation of the deal was Paul Krugman, writing that “it’s [the deal] a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.” Even the International Monetary Fund, a global advocate for austerity measures and straightjacket policies, has been critical of the dealbroken_euro_fit calling instead for a huge debt relief for Greece.

Last but not least, Nicolas Gros-Verheyde of Bruxelles2 wonders about a core question: “Is Europe becoming the sum of its egos?” The Greek file embodies more than solving an economic problem, it has become a vicious fight between powerful EU Member States. These egos are affecting their global visions and understandings of the core principles and values of the European endeavor. But right now, the EU is failing at this important crossroad. The EU cannot find a real solution on any major crisis from counterterrorism in Mali, to migration crisis in the Mediterranean, to Ukraine/Crimea, to the domestic rise of nationalism, and naturally Greece. Are politics killing the EU? It certainly looks like it.

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

Greece votes Oxi, Europe says Grexit

ATHENS, GREECE - 2015/06/29: The word 'OXI' (NO) written on a banner in front of the Greek parliament.  Greeks demonstrate in Syntagma square in support to a 'NO' vote in the referendum that will take place on the 5th of July, whether to accept the  new agreement between Greece and it creditors. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE – 2015/06/29: The word ‘OXI’ (NO) written on a banner in front of the Greek parliament. Greeks demonstrate in Syntagma square in support to a ‘NO’ vote in the referendum that will take place on the 5th of July, whether to accept the new agreement between Greece and it creditors. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“All of us are responsible for the crisis and all of us have a responsibility to resolve it.” – President Donald Tusk, July 7th, 2015

Greek citizens voted in majority Oxi to the July 5th referendum. The question asked by the Tsipras government, which was campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, was yes or no to accepting a continuation of the bailout program with all the austerity measures coming with it (read here a previous analysis). The results were very clear throughout the country with 61.31% for the no vote and 38.69% for the yes vote (see here the map produced by the Gr20150711_woc001_0eek Ministry of Interior showing that the no vote won in each Greek region). Greek citizens felt that the best option – out of two bad – was to reject the terms of the bailout on the table. If for a day the discussion was about the meaning of the ‘no’ vote (is it against the EU, the Euro, or simply a desire to remain a member of the Eurozone), today’s reality is about the future of Greece as a member of the Eurozone. So where do Greece and the EU go from now on?

Negotiations and Survival

In less than two days, a succession of events has taken place. For over five years, it seems that the Greek file was dragging, it has certainly taken an all new meaning and urgency. Prior to the results, Chancellor Merkel of Germany was meeting her counterpart, President Hollande, in Paris in order to find a common ground. The day ensuing the political victory of the Tsipras government, the infamous Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, announced his resignation. Many advanced that Tsipras had to go in order to demonstrate to his European counterparts that Greece was serious in seeking for a viable option. Varoufakis had gone too far and had lost some of his support within the Eurogroup of finance ministers.

Then on Tuesday, an emergency summit meeting took place with no substantial results.

Credit: Yves Herman/Reuters
Credit: Yves Herman/Reuters

Tsipras was supposed to bring, as highly recommended by the French government, a new proposal. But the summit meeting failed as Athens did not provide an acceptable option. Tsipras has now until Thursday (as requested by Merkel) in order to present a new proposal to his creditors. A failure in finding an agreement could lead to “the bankruptcy of Greece” warned Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, “and the insolvency of its banking system.” Tusk added that “tonight I [Donald Tusk] have to say it loud and clear — the final deadline ends this week.” On Sunday, as announced by the 19 eurozone countries on tuesday, the 28 EU leaders will be deciding on the future of Greece.

In addition, the New York Times reported that for the first time – at least publicly – the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has announced that he has “a Grexit scenario prepared in detail.” If a Grexit scenario is now on the table, Tsipras will be defending his case before the European Parliament on Wednesday morning.

Consequences of Staying in the Eurozone, or Leaving It?

In the middle of the negotiations and in finding a solution, a key player is the European Central Bank (ECB). Currently the ECB is the institution that is keeping the Greek banks alive by providing liquidity. Because today Greece is unable to borrow money on the international market and the Europeans are the one providing money to Greece in order to have its economy and banking systems going. The ECB will continue to do so if a deal is agreed. However, in the case of a break-up, the ECB will remain a central player as it will stop providing liquidity to Greece. In addition, even if Greece missed its first payment of July 1st to the International Monetary Fund of $1.8bn, the second deadline of July 20th to the ECB of $3.8bn will be key for Greece and the EU.

If Greece wants to stay in the Eurozone, they will have to implement a set of policy measures that will require: tax reforms; fixing the pension program, which will affect early retirement program; labor market practices. Once these are ongoing the international and european creditors will have to give meaningful debt relief.

In the case Greece decides to leave, or is expelled from the Eurozone, then it will have to introduce a new currency. The country will ultimately default on their debts, and will have to create its own economic agenda in order to lay down the foundation for future economic growth. This scenario will naturally require serious structural reforms.

If Size does not matter, Precedent does

The Greek case is not about the size of the Greek economy. In fact the Greek economy only represents 2% of the Eurozone GDP. So far it does not appear that a Greek default could take with it the whole Eurozone and send a massive shockwave throughout the global markets. No, the case of Greece is a matter, for the EU and its Member States, of establishing a precedent. Germany and other wealthy Eurozone members want to avoid such precedent, where a member state refuses to pay its debts and call for a national referendum in order to provide such country leverage at the European level. Chancellor Merkel was correct in claiming that Greece is a sovereign state and has the right to organize such a referendum, however what type of legitimacy does that provide the Tsipras government in coming back at the bargaining table?

The Greek referendum is national decision on a complex financial question. But the Greek referendum does not affect the decision of Greece’s creditors. If the vote empowers Tsipras domestically, it does not at the European level. Now, Tsipras has to navigate in these tumultuous waters of a domestic electorate, opposed to additional austerity, while providing a proposal acceptable to his creditors, most of them highly in favor of additional austerity measures. Tsipras seems to be facing a conundrum, either remaining in the Eurozone and what it entails, or leaving the Eurozone, and dealing with the consequences of a default.

In the mid-term, there are many technicalities that need to be figured out if Greece decided to leave the common currency. The legal baseline is the 1992 Maastricht Treaty,

Photograph by Federico Gambarini — picture-alliance/dpa/AP
Photograph by Federico Gambarini — picture-alliance/dpa/AP

which does not provide any information in order to leave the common currency. In the contemporary European history (aside from the collapse of Habsburg empire), there are no precedents, no rules and no plans in order to leave a common currency. But with a return of the Drachma, the real question for the Greek government will be about the exchange rate between the Drachma and the Euro as all Greek accounts are in Euros. At the end of the day, the Greek savings will be severely devaluated causing massive financial losses.

The Greek drama illustrates the complexity of the unfinished European construction. Since the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 laying out the current foundations of the European Union, the Member States have avoided any decisions for furthering/deepening the integration process or completely loosening it. Today, if Greece is in such trouble, is certainly because of its domestic problems (high level of corruption and lack of structural reforms), but as well because of an integration à la carte of the Eurozone. At the end of the day, a Grexit or not is only a technicality. The real question is: will the Eurozone members be working once and for all on finalizing a fully integrated and functional Eurozone?

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

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).