I went on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House on Sunday morning with Ann Pettifor to talk about the Greek election. The idea was to talk about whether it really mattered who won (you can listen to it here, from about 11 minutes in). The answer, from both of us, was “no, not really.”
If a person is deeply in debt and not producing the income to cover the interest plus a bit, he is beholden to his creditors one way or another – to his mortgage lender, or perhaps to his bankruptcy trustees. If a company is deeply in debt and having the same trouble it management is at the mercy of its banks and its bond holders (see my post on Glencore here). The same goes for countries.
As long as Greece is determined to stay in the eurozone and run its affairs in euros, it is subject to the bailout plan agreed with its creditors. So whoever won the election, (however left wing or right wing, however pro-austerity or anti-austerity) would have had no choice but to have a go at delivering on the reforms and spending cuts that make up his bailout deal.
You can only spend money as you wish if you have money. And Greece, with its €86bn bailout underway, quite clearly does not – something the Greek people with their firm endorsement of Tsipras clearly understand. That doesn’t mean that Greece has no options.
In the introduction to the 2012 edition of his book The Rotten Heart of Europe, Bernard Connolly pointed out that it was inevitable that the structure of the eurozone would cause financial crisis. Those suffering most would then be offered the chance to “sign away their sovereignty in return for some supposed economic palliative”. They would have to choose between more Europe or no Europe.
So far, with Greece having just voted for the government that has promised to administer the EU bailout plan, they have chosen more Europe (a choice that, given the refugee crisis, even the rich countries are going to have to think more about). Bernard reckons they’d be better off with no Europe. The idea that there is a legal problem with this is, he says, “nonsense”:
“If a country declares that a new national currency is henceforth its legal tender and if that country’s central bank withdraws from the Eurosystem, that country will be in infringement of the treaty. So what? The Commission issues hundreds of infringement proceedings every year and some of them years later find their way to the so called ECJ. Why should a country suffering the purgatory of monetary union (the official German view of monetary union as it affects others) accept it as an eternal hell for fear of ECJ censure any more than it worries about infringement procedures because it has not complied with NSU rules on, say, the size of print on packets of breakfast cereal?”
The main barriers to Greece leaving, then, are political (the elite doesn’t fancy it much) and financial – with the latter clearly being the tricky one. Leaving the euro could easily create financial chaos in Greece (and elsewhere).
But Greece isn’t exactly a financial paradise at the moment. It also isn’t much of a democracy (it is ruled by the EU’s finance ministers and the ECB). However it is still a sovereign nation. If it wants its freedom back, it can leave the eurozone (if not the EU). Then its next election would at least be worth voting in – unlike the last one.