Business World

Tuesday 23 January 2018

'Grexit' would spark a chain reaction that will damage EU

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. Photo: Reuters
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. Photo: Reuters

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in London

Greece is drawing up drastic plans to nationalise the country's banking system and introduce a parallel currency to pay bills unless the eurozone takes steps to defuse the simmering crisis and soften its demands.

Sources close to the ruling Syriza party said the government is determined to keep public services running and pay pensions as funds run critically low. It may be forced to take the unprecedented step of missing a payment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) next week.

Greece no longer has enough money to pay the IMF €458m on April 9 and also to cover payments for salaries and social security on April 14, unless the eurozone agrees to disburse the next tranche of its interim bailout deal in time.

Months of EU bluster and reproof have failed to cow Greece. It is becoming clear that Europe's creditor powers have misjudged the nature of the Greek crisis and can no longer avoid facing the stark reality in front of them.

Any deal that goes far enough to assuage Greece's justly aggrieved people must automatically blow apart the austerity settlement already fraying in the rest of southern Europe. The necessary concessions would embolden populist defiance in Spain, Portugal and Italy, and bring German euroscepticism to the boil.

Emotional consent for monetary union is ebbing dangerously in Bavaria and most of eastern Germany, even if formulaic surveys do not fully catch the strength of the undercurrents.

This week's resignation of Bavarian MP Peter Gauweiler over Greece's bailout extension can, of course, be over-played. He has long been a foe of EMU. But his protest is unquestionably a warning shot for Angela Merkel's political family.

Mr Gauweiler was made vice-chairman of Bavaria's Social Christians (CSU) in 2013 for the express purpose of shoring up the party's eurosceptic wing and heading off threats from the anti-euro Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

Yet if the EMU powers persist mechanically with their stale demands - even reverting to terms that the previous pro-EMU government in Athens rejected in December - they risk setting off a political chain-reaction that can only eviscerate the EU Project as a motivating ideology in Europe.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission's chief, understands the risk perfectly, warning anybody who will listen that a Grexit would lead to an "irreparable loss of global prestige for the whole EU" and crystallise Europe's final fall from grace.

When Warren Buffett suggests that Europe might emerge stronger after a salutary purge of its weak link in Greece, he confirms his own rule that you should never dabble in matters beyond your ken.


Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras leads the first radical-leftist government elected in Europe since World War II. His Syriza movement is, in a sense, totemic for the European left, even if sympathisers despair over its chaotic twists and turns. As such, it is a litmus test of whether progressives can pursue anything resembling an autonomous economic policy within EMU.

There are faint echoes of what happened to the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, a litmus test for the Latin American left in its day. His experiment in land reform was famously snuffed out by a CIA coup in 1954, with lasting consequences. It was the moment of epiphany for Che Guevara, then working as a volunteer doctor in the country.

A generation of students, from Cuba to Argentina, drew the conclusion that the US would never let the democratic left hold power, and therefore that power must be seized by revolutionary force.

We live in gentler times today, yet any decision to eject Greece and its Syriza rebels from the euro by cutting off liquidity to the Greek banking system would amount to the same thing, since the EU authorities do not have a credible justification or a treaty basis for acting in such a way. Rebuking Syriza for lack of "reform" sticks in the craw, given the way the EU-IMF Troika winked at privatisation deals that violated the EU's own competition rules, and chiefly enriched a politically connected elite. A forced Grexit would entrench a pervasive suspicion that EU bodies are ultimately agents of creditor enforcement. It would expose the project's post-war creed of solidarity as so much humbug.

Willem Buiter, Citigroup's chief economist, warns that Greece faces an "economic show of horrors" if it returns to the drachma, but it will not be a pleasant affair for Europe either. "Monetary union is meant to be unbreakable and irrevocable. If it is broken, and if it is revoked, the question will arise over which country is next," he said.

"People have tried to make Greece into a uniquely eccentric member of the eurozone, accusing them of not doing this or not doing that, but a number of countries share the same weaknesses. You think the Greek economy is far too closed? Welcome to Portugal. You think there is little social capital in Greece, and no trust between the government and citizens? Welcome to southern Europe," he said.

Greece could not plausibly remain in Nato if ejected from EMU in acrimonious circumstances. It would drift into the Russian orbit, where Hungary's Viktor Orban already lies. The southeastern flank of Europe's security system would fall apart.

Rightly or wrongly, Mr Tsipras calculates that the EU powers cannot allow any of this to happen, and therefore that their bluff can be called.

"We are seeking an honest compromise, but don't expect an unconditional agreement from us," he told the Greek parliament this week.


If it were not for the fact that a sovereign default on €330bn of debts - bail-out loans and Target2 liabilities within the ECB system - would hurt taxpayers in fellow Club Med states that are also in distress, most Syriza deputies would almost relish the chance to detonate this neutron bomb.

Mr Tsipras is now playing the Russian card with an icy ruthlessness, more or less threatening to veto fresh EU measures against the Kremlin as the old set expires.

"We disagree with sanctions. The new European security architecture must include Russia," he told the TASS news agency.

Leaked IMF minutes from 2010 confirm what Syriza has always argued: the country was already bankrupt and needed debt relief rather than new loans. This was overruled in order to save the euro and to save Europe's banking system at a time when EMU had no defences against contagion.

Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis rightly calls it "a cynical transfer of private losses from the banks' books onto the shoulders of Greece's most vulnerable citizens". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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