Tuesday 27 September 2016

The marriage is breaking down but no one wants to call the lawyers

Published 23/06/2015 | 02:30

(L-R) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, French President Francois Hollande and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attend a Eurozone emergency summit on Greece in Brussels
(L-R) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, French President Francois Hollande and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attend a Eurozone emergency summit on Greece in Brussels

Observing the charade that was yet another emergency summit on Greece yesterday was like watching the final stages of a stale marriage where nobody quite has the courage to call in the lawyers.

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All that faux drama. All those hysterics. All the boredom. The complete absence of chemistry. It's over even if the main protagonists cannot bring themselves to admit it because they are scared of the hefty financial settlement and being single again.

No matter what is decided this week, it won't be enough to restore faith in the durability of the European Union's bonds. The betrayal on both sides has left too big a wound. Nation states once again seem much more durable than trade pacts.

The sad thing is that the marriage started off pretty well. There was real love, or at least genuine affection, from the 1960s to the late 1990s. It hurt yesterday to remember the good times: the summits where Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl could negotiate for days and come up with grand plans that often amounted to something of consequence. Summits where Albert Reynolds could come home with money and a grin and the nation cheered. Summits where all sides could claim victory and everything did not feel like a zero sum game.

In retrospect, there was always a dark side; the European Economic Community was born out of fear. Fear of war. Fear of US dominance. And fear is rarely a good basis for a lasting relationship. Now that the fear has (foolishly) disappeared, the one-time lovers want to go their separate ways.

The Greeks, the British and the Danes are all considering leaving and it is not impossible that one of them, or even all three, will be gone within two years. The inventors of democracy, the greatest exponents of democracy in recent centuries and perhaps the best functioning democracy on the planet are all tired of going through the motions.

As the Taoiseach arrived late last night for a meeting that his finance minister had already dismissed as little more than a prelude to further meetings, it was difficult not to wonder how our country is being served by the two most important politicians spending yet another day overseas when the basis for a deal was absent.

Finland's finance minister Alexander Stubb complained ruefully about all the air miles spent on the Greek crisis so far.

One aspect of the talks rarely remarked upon is this lost opportunity to do something more productive than wallow in the Greek crisis. This Thursday's meeting, for example, was meant to deal with a range of problems, from the refugees dying in the Mediterranean to the trade talks with the United States and the UK's demands for treaty change. Once again, it looks like this will all be put on hold to discuss the detail of the Greek compromises.

While there was optimism in some quarters about a deal late last night, early this morning or later this week, it was difficult to understand what had changed.

To be sure, Greece has agreed to a retirement age of 67 and made a few other concessions on VAT but no finance minister appeared remotely confident about the arithmetic underpinning the concessions.

Optimism among political leaders and pessimism among finance ministers has long been a hallmark of the past few years of fruitless talks on the financial crisis.

Like Brian Lenihan before him, Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras has repeatedly said that a solution can only come from a meeting of the heads of state.

That sounds democratic but it's nonsense. Presenting 17 governments with rescue plans just hours before they meet precludes any serious discussion.

Where Mr Tspiras is correct is his bet that leaders must worry about issues such as the relationship between Athens and Moscow, a subject that does not interrupt the dreams of most finance officials.

We have seen the results of hasty decision-making in Greece and in our own country over the past few years.

Jean-Claude Juncker's head of cabinet, Martin Selmayr, said that the latest Athens proposals were progress but described the talks as a "forceps delivery" because of the hard work required to prevent Greece leaving the eurozone.

It was a neat analogy. Full of hope and offering the chance of a difficult but successful birth. The question, however, is not whether there will be some sort of birth. That is almost certain. The real question is whether the jaded, bickering parents will be able to put their differences behind them and patch up their ropey marriage.

Irish Independent

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