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Who's Next? Ireland, Portugal Share Fears And Loathing As Greek Crisis Escalates

Europe hustles to figure out how to save its single currency in the face of an escalating debt crisis in Greece. Germans are looking surprisingly fondly at Ireland and Portugal, which have shown a commitment to austerity that Greece has simply not managed

Ireland's Enda Kenny and Portugal's Pedro Passos Coelho at the EPP Summit in March 2012 (EPP)
Ireland's Enda Kenny and Portugal's Pedro Passos Coelho at the EPP Summit in March 2012 (EPP)
Stefanie Bolzen and Florian Eder

BERLIN - At a recent meeting of European finance ministers, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan and his Portuguese colleague, Vítor Gaspar, put pressure on the Greeks to pull up their socks. According to Portuguese media, they told Greece's Ambassador to the E.U. Theodoros Sotiropoulos that his country is "ruining it for everybody."

"We're doing everything we can to implement austerity programs," they said in a joint statement. "If you don't, we'll be the ones who end up paying."

Like the Greeks, the Irish and Portuguese are also being monitored by the European Commission, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) troika. The two countries fear that if Greece goes down, they could be next.

It's therefore not surprising that at the special summit of heads of state and government that took place in Brussels on Wednesday evening, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to count on two firm allies joining her in insisting that Athens stick to its word: Enda Kenny, head of the Irish government, and Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

Ireland and Portugal, however, are by no means the only European countries worried about the bankruptcy of Greece. The head of Greece's United Left Alliance and winner of the May 6 election, Alexis Tsipras, knows how to play on that fear -- because even if it is no longer taboo to run through scenarios that have Greece stepping away from the euro, the voices calling for Greece to stay in the euro zone are not only louder but backed by willingness to do a great deal to make that happen.

The European Commission has expressed the "strong wish" that Greece stay within the euro. Following a meeting Wednesday with interim Greek Prime Minister Panagiotis Pikrammenos, Commission President José Manuel Barroso promised to "continue doing everything in our power" to keep Greece in the euro zone.

That is exactly the type of reaction Tsipras is counting on: that the euro zone will not drum Greece out of its ranks for fear of uncontrollable consequences. Tsipras, who has been traveling throughout Europe to meet with other leftist groups, is also angling for concessions and for the severity of austerity measures to be loosened.

Ireland and Portugal sticking to their commitments

The whole situation has left the Irish and Portuguese steaming. Unlike Greece, Ireland and Portugal are pedaling frantically to honor their respective commitments to the European Union, ECB and IMF. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed in Germany, where Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble shared words of praise for the two countries. "The news from Ireland and Portugal is encouraging," he said. "Both governments are determined to implement what's been agreed on, and they are doing it."

Schäuble's words were also a barb aimed at the Greeks, who have been late from the start – and continue to be – in implementing savings and reform measures. These days, Greece doesn't even have an elected government to do business with, which is why the troika has put off its next mission in Athens until after the June 17 election.

Irish Prime Minister Kenny, on the other hand, demonstrates in both word and deed that his country intends to honor its commitments. He is working hard to make sure that what pushed the European Union into crisis in 2001 and 2008 -- when Ireland refused to ratify the Nice and Lisbon treaties, doing so only the second time round -- doesn't happen again. His tactic is one of icy severity, as illustrated by the fact that he raised the value added tax by 2% to 23% - one of the highest rates in Europe.

Kenny's government lowered the state minimum wage, required banks to increase the levels of their own capital, and shrunk the budget. The moves were not only in line with the prime minister's own political convictions, but also aimed at meeting conditions set by creditors for the 70-billion euro loan the country received.

But if the Greeks succeed in getting concessions, Kenny could end up with a problem on his hands – for three reasons. One, it would show the Irish right before an important vote that stubborn resistance achieves the desired result. Two, the Irish economy depends on exports, and must therefore prove a responsible partner on the world economic stage. And third, the Irish, Portuguese and all of Europe fear further unrest on the financial markets.

The country fearing it most, however, isn't Ireland or Portugal, but rather Spain, which is being treated as a potential candidate for bailout funds. For that reason Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, after a meeting with French President Françoise Hollande, said that the austerity measures were certainly very hard on the Greeks -- but unavoidable.

The German government and national bank take the position that any lightening of the agreements with Greece would severely weaken trust in negotiations and contracts within the European currency union.

The Greeks give the impression that they are not particularly impressed by such talk. Their ambassador in Lisbon, Vassilos Costis, said on Wednesday that "every country has specific problems," that must be addressed with the "right dose of discipline and growth."

Costis went on to say that the Greek people and other E.U. partners expected understanding from Germany. A few days earlier the troika visited Lisbon on its fourth inspection and praised Passos Coelho for the way the savings and reform programs are being carried out in Portugal.

Read the original article in German

Photo - European People's Party - EPP

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