It’s not just a question of being morally right -- it’s sound economics. And Athens has a lot more leverage than anyone thinks.
- By Philippe LegrainPhilippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think-tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. Previously economic adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right.
Ever since the initial bargain in the 1950s between post-Nazi West Germany and its wartime victims, European integration has been built on compromise. So there is huge pressure on Greece’s new Syriza government to be “good Europeans” and compromise on their demands for debt justice from their European partners — also known as creditors. But sometimes compromise is the wrong course of action. Sometimes you need to take a stand.
Let’s face it: no advanced economies in living memory have been as catastrophically mismanaged as the eurozone has been in recent years, as I document at length in my book, European Spring. Seven years into the crisis, the eurozone economy is doing much worse than the United States, worse than Japan during its lost decade in the 1990s and worse even than Europe in the 1930s: GDP is still 2 percent lower than seven years ago and the unemployment rate is in double digits. The policy stance set by Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin, implemented by the European Commission in Brussels, and sometimes tempered — but more often enforced — by the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt, remains disastrous. Continuing with current policies — austerity and wage cuts, forbearance for banks, no debt restructuring or adjustment to Germany’s mercantilism — is leading Europe into the ditch; the launch of quantitative easing is unlikely to change that. So settling for a “compromise” that shifts Merkel’s line by a millimeter would be a mistake; it must be challenged and dismantled.
While Greece alone may not be able to change the entire monetary union, it could act as a catalyst for the growing political backlash against the eurozone’s stagnation policies. For the first time in years, there is hope that the dead hand of Merkelism can be unclasped, not just fear of the consequences and nationalist loathing.
More immediately, Greece can save itself. Left in the clutches of its EU creditors, it is not destined for the sunlit uplands of recovery, but for the enduring misery of debt bondage. So the four-point plan put forward by its dashing new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is eminently sensible. This involves running a smaller primary surplus — that is a budget surplus, excluding interest payments — of 1.5 percent of GDP a year, instead of 3 percent this year and 4.5 percent thereafter. Some of the spare funds would be used to alleviate Greece’s humanitarian emergency. The crushing debts of more than 175 percent of GDP would be relieved by swapping the loans from eurozone governments for less burdensome obligations with payments tied to Greece’s GDP growth. Last but not least, Syriza wants to genuinely reform the economy, with the help of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), notably by tackling the corrupt, clientelist political system, cracking down on tax evasion, and breaking the power of the oligarchs who have a stranglehold over the Greek economy.
Had the Varoufakis plan been put forward by an investment banker, it would have been perceived as perfectly reasonable. Yet in the parallel universe inhabited by Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, such demands are seen as “irresponsible”: Greece must be bled dry to service its foreign creditors in the name of European solidarity.
While the Greek government is certainly in the right, there is still fear that the might of the German government will prevail. The Greek government may run out of cash — perhaps as soon as next month. Faced with a run on Greek banks, the ECB could deny the country’s central bank the right to provide them with the emergency liquidity that they need to survive. At that point, compromise — surrender — could impose itself.
Or not. The belief that Greece has little leverage in its negotiations with eurozone authorities is false. If no agreement is reached and Greece is illegally forced out of the euro by Berlin and Frankfurt, it would doubtless default on all its debts to both eurozone governments and the ECB, as well as the Bank of Greece’s Target 2 liabilities. Speculation would soon start about which country might be next to exit the euro — Portugal? — and the single currency would suddenly look eminently revocable.
Do Berlin and Frankfurt really want to push Athens over the brink? I doubt it. Especially since, freed of its external debt and an overvalued exchange rate, Greece would doubtless be growing again once the immediate chaos subsided. After all, even an economy as badly managed as Argentina started growing again only a year after the government defaulted and junked its dollar peg in 2002.
Of course, eurozone authorities may miscalculate, or allow their emotions to trump economic logic. And since Athens does not want to leave the euro, it also has a fallback option, as Willem Buiter, chief economist of Citigroup, and John Cochrane of the University of Chicago have pointed out. The Greek government could meet its domestic obligations, such as pension payments, by issuing tradeable IOUs that could also be used to make tax payments — in effect, creating a parallel currency. This virtual money could also be used for other purposes: for instance, to recapitalize ailing banks. That would enable the Greek government to default on its EU creditors relatively painlessly, while remaining within the euro.
The eurozone establishment and much of the media think Greece is foolish to stand up to Germany. But what would be truly foolish is giving in. That would leave only the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn in the anti-Merkelism camp, which might portend ill political omens. So long as the Greek government is willing to stand firm — as a vast majority of Greeks and many Europeans are urging it to — it can obtain a fairer deal for the Greek people and, with luck, the eurozone.
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