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Greeks Still Have Their Logic Upside Down

In Athens
In Athens
Claus Hulverscheidt


MUNICH — Talk to a Greek person about the difficult situation their country faces and you're likely to hear some pretty astounding things. Some argue, for example, that the financial collapse came at the right moment, that without it Greece wouldn't have been pressured into the reforms needed to halt its downward spiral. But few come to the conclusion that it was their fault in the first place.

People prefer to blame the hard times on Angela Merkel or German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. That kind of thinking had much to do with the landslide victory by Alexis Tsipras, who clumsily distorted the realities of cause and effect.

Berlin's strategy to help highly indebted EU countries is not above reproach. But to disregard the role that Greece's nepotism, waste and refusal to reform its economy played in all of this is, at best, a shining example of ignorance. At worst it's a case of simply deceiving voters. If the euro care-packages didn't exist, Greece would have left the eurozone in 2010.

The temporary four-month extension of the EU bailout of Greece that was reached on Friday adds a new wrinkle to the story but doesn't answer core questions about whether the new administration in Athens understands what must change.

The price of solidarity

Tsipras' brilliant victory entices him to believe that it is not he who is isolated in Europe but Chancellor Merkel. It should have been obvious to him after his first visits to Paris and Rome that this is not the case.

Merkel's basic principle that Europe's citizens can only function as guarantors of billions of euro in loans to indebted Euro countries when the cause of debt is removed by these countries is a generally accepted rule. As a result it was not Schäuble who led the criticisms of Greece, but Portugal, Ireland and Spain: governments that have already done what was necessary, even though their citizens are suffering consequences that Greece's citizens — for some reason — are not expected to bear.

Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, justify their demands for unconditional help from the euro-partners by saying that the previous policies no longer apply, that they were put to rest on Jan. 23. That is one way of looking at it. But the conclusion they draw, that a political program legitimized by elections is above the European law, is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the EU as a contract association.

How little Varoufakis is concerned with European law is demonstrated by his suggestion that the European Central Bank share some of the debt of the euro countries and provide a multi-billion amount for investment. Both processes would be highly illegal.

What would happen in Athens if Tsipras were to be just as energetic in trying to turn the economy around as he is in lecturing Brussels? What is deterring a left-wing government from introducing a tax reform that would force the rich to finally participate in financing public welfare? Why does the Greek prime minister not introduce capital movement controls that would prevent the rich from safely "exporting" their money abroad?

The possible legal consequences should surely be of no concern to a government that was just a moment ago suggesting a break from European law. The immediate approval of a reform agenda would make it easier for the EU partners to agree to a moratorium that would provide more time for new negotiations.

Tsipras has to finally wake up

With their open shirts, leather jackets and James Dean-esque attitude, Tsipras and Varoufakis have managed to gain many admirers amongst left enthusiasts and the readers of the culture section in newspapers. And indeed it should be seen as a real chance that, for the first time in decades, the Greek prime minister is not part of the kleptomaniac political aristocracy. But this only holds true if Tsipras finally wakes up from his victory-induced slumber and uses the leeway given to him to do more than just make one unrealistic demand of Brussels after another.

The young head of government considers himself to have the strategic advantage as he knows that the disintegration of the European Monetary Union would have extreme economic and political consequences. Greece remaining within the eurozone justifies a high asking price — but it shouldn't come at any cost!

A line has to be drawn. A single European state cannot, through clumsily conducted blackmail, abuse the commitments other partners have made to the EU. Only those who repay solidarity with solidarity should have a claim to that solidarity in the future.

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