After weeks of stalemate negotiations and never-ending game-theoretical analysis, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has drawn the joker or the so-called “democracy card.” Unable to be bailed-out and unwilling to be “black-mailed”, he has decided to abandon the negotiations and give the power entrusted upon him back to its primary source – back to the demos.
In many ways it seems particularly cruel and pernicious to leave the choice between pest and cholera – between a Grexit and a life of austerity – up to the Greek people. The Greek people are not to blame for their continuous slide into insolvency. As Yanis Varoufakis puts it: “democracy did not have a good day in Saturday’s Eurogroup meeting. But nor did the institutions.” And nor did Europe.
This is no game of visionaries
Within hours a Grexit no longer seemed unfathomable, impossible or undeserving. “Plan B is quickly becoming Plan A,“ was Finnish finance minister, Alexander Stubb’s, first reaction to Alexis Tsipras’ “bizarre” referendum announcement. Grexit seems “almost inevitable”, says Austria’s Finance Minister, Hans Jörg Schelling.
According to the creditors, a non-extension of the loans and ultimately a Greek exit is the result of the unwillingness of the Hellenic government to act as a humble debtor should and accept their “reasonable” conditions.
The game between creditors and debtors has never been a particularly moral one or one played by great visionaries. Back in ancient Rome, debtors were stripped of their rights as men until they were either able to service their debt or found a noble citizen to redeem them, or as we say today, to “bail them out.” If Merkel and the creditors had wanted a perfect or at least sustainable debtor, they should have given into the simple pleas of then-Greek PM Antonis Samaras for looser conditions and more time back in 2014. Instead they got Syriza.
To the dismay of the creditors and evermore the rest of Europe, Syriza came into government on the promise to abandon Greece’s role as a debtor and re-institutionalize the sovereignty and agency of the Hellenic republic.
Rather than accepting the moral debt of their dysfunctional and corrupt parliamentary heirs, Syriza fathoms itself as a revolutionary movement – a party in revolt against Europe: the institutions, their agreements and more than anything the dogma of austerity.
Where are the big ideas?
After seven years of crisis and Greek bankruptcy, Syriza hoped that, sooner rather than later, not only the creditors but all Europeans would come to water and realize that austerity alone cannot work wonders and will not solve Greece’s debt problem – not in the short run and probably not in the long. The malfunctions of our monetary system and austerity are not only the kinds of obvious truths or “known unknowns” that creditors choose to ignore, but that every European citizen and the so-called political class may have realized, if we were willing to think, to fight, to speak up for or to dream of a better and different Europe. After seven years of crisis, where are the big Keynes-like ideas and our willingness to overcome past mistakes, abandon wrong dogma, bad institutions and invest in our future?
The real tragedy is not that the institutions still want their money back or that Greece hasn’t magically found a source of growth or a spur of liquidity. The real tragedy is that we have left our entire political future up to a stalemate game between three creditors and a debtor.
Both the Grexit and the continuation of austerity will cost Europe billions and billions more in moral capital. Both alternatives are a failure. But they are not merely the failure of a negotiation; they are the failure of an entire political class.
Read more in this column Juliane Mendelsohn: On Risks and Wrongs