Germany is bluffing on Greece
from Mark Weisbrot
You can ignore all the talk of a “Grexit,” the bluff and bluster of right-wing German ideologues such as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who would celebrate it, and repetitive, stubbornly dire warnings that time is running out. Did you notice that the much-hyped June 5 deadline for the Greece’s payment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) came and went, Greece didn’t pay and nobody fell off a cliff? Trust me, this is not a cliffhanger.
Although there have been numerous references to game theory in the ongoing commentary, it’s really not necessary if you look at the revealed preferences of those whom the Syriza government is polite and diplomatic enough to call its European partners. Take partner-in-chief German Chancellor Angela Merkel: If there’s one thing she doesn’t want to be remembered as, it’s the politician who destroyed the eurozone.
Of course, we don’t know if a Greek exit would do that, but there’s a chance that it could. Even if the European Central Bank would be able to contain the resulting financial crisis, it is possible that Greece would, after an initial shock, ultimately do much better outside the euro, which might convince others to want to leave. Whatever the probability of that scenario, Merkel is, like most successful politicians, a risk-averse creature who won’t roll those dice.
And there is an elephant in the room that she is not going to ignore: the United States. There are scattered press reports that Barack Obama’s administration has put pressure on Merkel to reach an agreement with Greece, but the importance of that has been vastly understated. Unless it is a request that could get a German government voted out of office — such as George W. Bush’s bid for support of his invasion of Iraq in 2003 — something that is strategically important to Washington is extremely likely to find agreement in Berlin. And in this case, Merkel and Obama are basically on the same page.
The politics of empire are much more important than any economic concerns here. For the same reasons that the United States intervened in Greece’s civil war (1946 to ’49) and supported the brutal military dictatorship (1967 to ’74) — with all the murder, torture and repression that these involved — Washington does not want to have an independent government in Greece.
Europe is the United States’ most important ally in the world, and Washington doesn’t want to lose even a small piece of it, even little Greece. Everybody knows that if Greece leaves the euro and needs to borrow hard currency for its balance of payments, it will get some from Russia and maybe even China. Greece could leave NATO. Greece could participate in Russia’s proposed gas pipeline project, which would make Europe more dependent on Russia — something that American officials warned against, drawing a sharp rebuke from Greece’s energy minister, who rightfully told them it was none of their business.
It would be nice to think that the worst features of U.S. foreign policy have changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they have not. The Cold War never really ended, at least insofar as the U.S. is still a global empire and wants every government to put Washington’s interests ahead of those expressed by its own voters. The current hostilities with Russia add a sense of déjà vu, but they are mainly an added excuse for what would be U.S. policy in any case.
Once we take all these interests into account and where they converge, the strategy of Greece’s European partners is pretty clear: It’s all about regime change. One senior Greek official involved in the negotiations referred to it as a “slow-motion coup d’état.” And those who were paying attention could see this from the beginning. Just 10 days after Syriza was elected, as I noted previously, the European Central Bank cut off its main line of credit to Greece and then capped the amount that Greek banks could lend to the government. All the hype and brinkmanship destabilize the economy, and some of this is an intentional effect of European authorities’ statements and threats. But the direct sabotage of the Greek economy is most important, and it is remarkable that it has gotten so little attention.
The unannounced objective is to undermine political support for the Syriza government until it falls and get a new regime that is preferable to the European partners and the U.S. This is the only strategy that makes sense, from their point of view. They will try to give Greece enough oxygen to avoid default and exit, which they really don’t want, but not enough for an economic recovery, which they also don’t want.
So far, the damage to the Greek economy has been quite significant. The IMF projected growth of 2.5 percent this year, and now the economy is in recession.
According to leaked documents published by The Financial Times on June 5, the European officials’ negotiating position is a primary budget surplus of 1 percent of GDP in 2015 and 2 percent of GDP in 2016. This represents a climb down from the ridiculous goals that the IMF previously put forth, which called for primary surpluses at “above 4 percent of GDP” for “many years to come.” But with the economy in recession and the current primary surplus at negative 0.67 percent of GDP, the current proposed targets would stifle Greece’s recovery, perhaps even prolong the recession and maintain depression levels of unemployment.
Another sticking point in the current negotiations has to do with debt relief. Even the IMF now recognizes that Greece’s current debt burden is unsustainable, but the European officials are not budging. This pretty much guarantees more crises down the road, which is a major drag on recovery. Who wants to invest or even consume very much with inevitable financial crises on the horizon?
The European officials’ demand for further pension cuts is even more difficult to justify, given what Greece has already done. Besides raising the retirement age by five years (from 60 to 65), The Financial Times reports, “main pensions have been slashed 44 to 48 percent since 2010, reducing the average pension to 700 euros a month … About 45 percent of Greek pensioners receive less than 665 euros monthly — below the official poverty threshold.”
European officials are making more demands for labor law reform, on the dubious theory that further weakening labor’s bargaining power and driving down wages (as if 26.6 percent unemployment doesn’t do that enough) will increase competitiveness enough to spur an export-led recovery.
So we see the ugliest of scenarios playing out: The people primarily responsible for Greece’s deep and prolonged depression and high unemployment are pushing policies that would extend the crisis and worsen its impact on those who have suffered the most — not to mention subvert the will of the electorate.
So far, the government is hanging in there, with the latest polls showing Tsipras’ approval rating at 66 percent. It’s impressive that so many Greeks still understand who is responsible for the crisis, in spite of the balance of media prejudice against the government. It’s vitally important, because Greece’s adversaries are counting on being able to deceive them.