Archives for February 2015

Greece – one month on

It is now one month since Syriza came to power in the Greek general election. Much has been said across Europe, many meetings held but little has changed.

Syriza said, both ahead of and immediately after the election, that they would immediately and unilaterally throw out the Troika (the term for the EC, ECB and IMF group that oversaw Greece’s adherence to the bailout conditions imposed) to regain sovereignty over economic policy and end austerity. They said that they would demand a haircut on the amount of debt owed and that the rest of Europe would agree to this because it was (a) fair and just and (b) Europe would be scared that Greece might pull out of the euro and set off a chain reaction amongst other members that would call into question the very existence of the single currency.

Over the last few days Syriza has backed down from all of these demands, with apparently very little gained in return. Europe has stated very clearly that any write-down in the value of the outstanding debt is unacceptable to them, and Europe has continued to demand that the same trio of institutions (though now called the institutions rather than the Troika) determine whether Greece is complying with its obligations under the original bailout agreement. Also rather than anything happening immediately as Syriza demanded further discussions will take place over the next four months and conclude just before Greece is required to repay the next tranche of its debt.

It seems difficult to argue anything but that Syriza has failed miserably to deliver what it had promised the Greek voters – and indeed the risk now is that Syriza is unable to get its own MPs to give parliamentary approval to what it has agreed with Europe – which would lead to a new crisis.

With a finance minister who was formerly a professor of game theory, everyone was interested to see the negotiating techniques that Syriza adopted. At the time, and even more so with hindsight, they do not seem to have been very smart. The first acts of Tsipras and Varoufakis (the prime minister and finance minister) seemed designed to upset and offend the Germans, which may have good for domestic politics, but not ideal for bringing on board the key decision-maker in reaching agreement with Europe. They also made significant concessions very early – within a few days of coming to power, Tsipras was saying that Greece intended to repay every euro of its debts. Syriza’s maximum leverage was always likely to be immediately after the election, when “democracy” was on their side – by allowing discussion to go on for another four months they will lose that benefit. Finally it became clear as time went on that the “disaster” scenario of Greece pulling out of the euro, was something that Germany was quite prepared to live with (indeed many Germans are actively campaigning for it) whereas Syriza did not have a mandate to allow that , given that 70% of Greeks want to remain in the euro.

By contrast, Europe, led by Germany but strongly encouraged by both other Northern countries such as Finland who share the German approach to economic discipline, and by Southern countries such as Spain and Portugal, who have been through similar austerity programmes to Greece without (much) complaint and did not see why Greece should get any special treatment, played their hand in a very robust style. Schauble, the German finance minister seemed to revel in the role of “euro-enforcer”, and has insisted on Greece backing down on almost every substantive element of their demands.

The lessons from the last month seem to be (i) when going into a negotiation you need a credible fall-back position if you can’t get what you want – Syriza rather put a gun to their own head and threatened to shoot, (ii) Syriza, by conceding externally in Europe, may well have lost credibility internally, disappointing both many of their own party members and many Greeks who voted for them and (iii) Europe does not recognise democracy as an appropriate reason to go against past agreements and the rule of law (Juncker has made this point explicitly) – it should now be abundantly clear that being a part of the euro means a substantial loss of sovereignty for a nation, especially if they have a weak financial system.

Not much has changed in the last month. Greece is still stuck with debt it will never be able to repay, the Greek government has almost no say in how its economy is to be run, and the European political class have asserted their right to ignore the results of democracy in their quest to maintain the structurally-flawed single currency. This is not a long-term equilibrium – there are more crises to come.

“Alptraum” – German for nightmare

Recent events in Europe have seen many of Germany’s worst fears come true.

  • January 22 saw the ECB finally agree to initiate a policy of Quantitative Easing despite the objections of the German members on the Council. The ECB, supposedly created in the image of the Bundesbank, is now committed to a policy of money creation whose deliberate target is to increase in the inflation rate. Both the policy and its objective are in violent opposition to all that German monetary policy has sought to achieve over the last 70 years.
  • January 25 saw the Greek election result in Syriza polling far higher and thus gaining many more seats than had been expected. Instead of choosing to go into coalition with a more moderate centre-left party, Syriza formed a coalition with the far-right Independent Greeks, with whom they disagree completely on most issues but are agreed on one key policy – the tearing-up of the bailout agreements. The Independent Greeks are strongly anti-Germany and wish to reclaim war reparations they claim Germany owes to Greece. Today Greece now has what is arguably the most anti-German and authentically communist government in the European Union. The coalition are committed to tearing up the bail-out agreements signed by previous Greek governments and are demanding that much of the debt they owe be written off. Germany was a necessary, but very reluctant, party to these agreements as they appeared to compromise the key “no bailout” clause of the Maastricht Treaty.
  • January 26 witnessed Tsipras’ – the newly sworn-in Greek prime minister – first act paying a visit to the Kesariani rifle range, the site of a memorial to 600 Greek resistance fighters who were executed in a single day in 1944 by German occupying troops. The symbolism of Greek resistance to German subjugation today through opposition to the hated bailout agreements was clear and very deliberate.
  • Following this visit, the first ambassador that he decided to meet with was the Russian ambassador, who re-affirmed Russia’s readiness to provide financial support to Greece should they require it. The EU’s policy of sanctions on Russia, of which Merkel was a key influence and driver last year, has to be extended in the summer and requires unanimity from EU members.
  • The first domestic policies that the new government intends to enact are an end to planned privatisations, a large increase in the minimum wage, the re-establishment of thousands of public sector jobs that have been cut in recent years and increases in pensions. All of these will make meeting the targets for the Greek budget deficit impossible to achieve in the short term – they will also hit the competitiveness of the Greek economy and threaten to undo the gains that have been made in this area in recent years.

Though both the German and Greek governments are saying they do not want Greece to leave the euro, the possibility of this occurring is now very real as the halving of the prices in Greek bank shares since Syriza’s victory is indicating (Greek banks would be immediately bankrupt should they lose the liquidity support of the ECB). Many Germans are now quite prepared to take the risk of another eurozone crisis should Greece leave the single currency, and in domestic political terms, Merkel has little in the way of compromises that she can offer. Until quite recently Syriza was calling for Greece to leave the single currency, but in recent months softened their rhetoric as polls show that three-quarters of Greeks wish to remain in the euro. Being effectively thrown out of the euro by the EU for standing up for Greek interests may well be seen by many in Syriza as a good outcome.

The last week has seen each side harden their positions. Whilst the history of the EU tends to be one of finding the minimum necessary compromise at the last possible minute, the philosophical differences between the German and Greek governments are ultimately not reconcilable and one or both of them will have to give way on key points of principle for Greece to remain in the single currency.