A Bluffing Game, Part 1: European Politicians in Denial as Greece Unravels

February 1st, 2012

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Sven Böll, Alexander Neubacher, Ralf Neukirch, Christian Reiermann, Christoph Schult and Anne Seith, January 30, 2012. (comming next – Part 2: The Dismal Greek Economy).

… Europe’s politicians continue to battle reality. Everyone knows that Greece cannot repay its massive pile of debts, now at more than €350 billion ($459 billion). But instead of effectively reducing the financial burden, European politicians intend to approve new loans for the government in Athens and go on fighting debt with new debt. “If the country wants to remain in the euro zone, we should support it,” says Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.  

No Progress:

Though the rescuers may be issuing calls for perseverance, resistance is growing in Europe. In Athens, political parties and citizens are fighting too keep austerity measures from transforming their economic downturn into a full-on crash. And in Germany, the main donor country, leading politicians within the two coalition parties, the CDU and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), do not believe that a majority of parliamentarians will vote for additional aid to Greece. “Our position has not changed,” says Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). “There is no money for a standstill in reforms.”

The effort to rescue Greece is clearly moving in circles, and there is no evidence of any progress.

Ironically, only three months ago European leaders believed that things were already on the mend. Greece’s private creditors were supposed to abandon half of their claims, and the partner countries planned to contribute another €130 billion ($172 billion). These efforts were expected to bring the country’s debt level from more than 160 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to a more tolerable 120 percent by 2020.

But these hopes were deceptive. The Greek economy is shrinking faster than European politicians believed was possible in autumn, and now the country is short on funds once again. The representatives of the so-called troika, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), estimate the shortfall to be about €15 billion, meaning that Greece needs €145 billion instead of €130 billion. “We do not assume that the additional funds can be collected solely from private creditors,” say sources within the troika.

The only other option is to redistribute the burden. Under the current program, the IMF is responsible for about one-third, and the Europeans for two-thirds of the costs. But obtaining cash is becoming increasingly difficult. A serious dispute over who will come up with the additional money has been raging behind the scenes for days — a dispute that resembles a game of Old Maid.

Politicians Bicker with Banks:

The German government feels that the financial sector should bear much of the additional burden. If additional funds were needed, the banks would simply have to contribute more, the Germans argue. The countries involved are already pitching in €130 billion to the new bailout package, and Berlin feels that that ought to be enough … (full text).

(The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 5/2012 – Jan. 30, 2012 – of  DER SPIEGEL).

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