The Referendum in Greece – an inside view

Posted on July 6th, 2015 by

What we did on our holidays this year was to go for a vacation in the news: Greece – specifically, a week on the lovely island of Lesbos.

On arrival two weeks ago, our hard-working friends at the Amfitriti Hotel, Molivos, told us that they hoped we’d enjoy the new mattresses in the rooms. When I asked if they were stuffed with Euros or Drachmas, we had a good laugh, another Metaxa and a heated discussion.

Our hosts told us that most ordinary Greeks now despised the radical Left government, wanted them to stop messing around with the ideological posturing, work out a deal and stay in Europe.

After a week’s stay, the morning we returned, yet another “brink” was reached when the Eurozone rejected Syriza’s bailout extension pleas, the ECB said that further credit to the nation was being refused and Greece edged closer to actual financial collapse.

The stock exchange closed and banks shut all week, plus €60 (£42) a day cash-withdrawal restrictions were placed on locals (but not tourists). Then the Yes/No (Ne/Ochi) Referendum was announced – and, another week on, the “No” voters (against Austerity and/or for “Grexit”, depending who you listen to) have won.

The only clarity discernible is that no-one’s really saying what they mean; or whether they’re voting with their feet, hearts or minds (delete where applicable); or what anyone really, actually wants to happen.

Today’s UK national newspaper headlines are unanimous on the gravity of the situation – several “Greek Tragedy” references – but similarly confused over what it all means.  Several convey puzzlement not just at what’s gone on, but also at what happens next. The common note is one of disaster:

Daily Mail: “Meltdown: EU in crisis as Greece votes ‘no’ to crippling cuts and heads for Eurozone exit”

Financial Times: “Greeks vote ‘no’ – Europe shudders” and “Greece’s Eurozone future hangs in balance as No vote set to triumph”

Times: “Europe faces crisis after gambling Greeks say No” (it later observes that Greek voters “have effectively committed political and economic suicide”)

Guardian: “Greek voters defy Europe”

Telegraph: “Europe in turmoil as Greeks vote No

Independent: “Greek ‘no’ plunges Europe into crisis”

…with some perhaps predictable “comic” relief:

Mirror: “Rhodes to ruin?”

Star: “It’s Greece frightenin’”

Sun: “Greeky bum time” (which I confess to not “getting” – anyone help?)

When_Greece_falls crop

The tragi-comedy angle also gives way to some barely concealed glee at the confusion and its implications for the EU. The Times had already described the Referendum as “fatuous and fraudulent”; today it thunders:

“The euro project, a vision of political and economic harmony achieved through the common use of a single currency, is now severely damaged… The blame does not lie entirely with Greece — though its Syriza politicians have proved themselves as mendaciously inept as they are clownishly inflexible; it lies in a currency system that has no mechanism for dealing with a country whose fiscal recklessness is far beyond the experience of Brussels negotiators, and whose design provided for no safe exit strategy should things go wrong.”

Noting the implicit lesson about negotiation and strategy, one interesting distinction drawn by The Times is between “normal” and “political” players, in this instance Germans: “The euro idealists, especially in Germany, may insist that, even now, Greece must be rescued. But the euro’s users, especially German voters, will increasingly think otherwise.”

The Sun characteristically has a go at Greek voters and their decision to “stick two fingers up to the rest of Europe and back the Marxist nutters who are now in charge of the country”; then hedges its bets with: “You can’t blame voters for hating EU leaders. Their obsession with the euro turned Athens into a Greek tragedy.” Riiight… so that’s still about as clear to me as Greeky bum time.

The Telegraph settles on the Greek PM as its villain: “For Greeks, economic misery will continue; contrary to the Syriza fairy tales, there is no painless remedy to Greece’s problems. As for Mr Tsipras, he may consider himself victorious, but the fact remains that Greece urgently needs a new government – one that is willing to be honest with the country about its problems and their solutions. Now more than ever, Greece deserves better than Mr Tsipras and his party.”

The Guardian, meanwhile, suggests that Tsipras and his (former) finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, chose to stage a referendum “that aimed squarely for the heart rather than the head.” Then attacks  the country’s “hawkish” creditors and European political leaders, including Angela Merkel:

“They imagined scared voters rallying to yes, trashing Mr Tsipras’s personal authority and perhaps unravelling his loose-knit Syriza alliance… they broke all the usual protocols by weighing into someone else’s democratic contest. It was an appallingly presumptuous path to go down… the creditors should have shown humility about the abject failure of five years of imposed austerity, which have not even succeeded in the very narrow terms of making it feasible for Athens to pay its debts.”

What is clear is the agenda of some UK commentators to use the whole Greek “negotiation” piece as a tool in their own wider case for Brexit. The Mail says that the crisis “proves once and for all the hubristic folly of Europe’s one-size-fits-all single currency.”

After oscillating between sympathy for the plight of ordinary Greeks and intolerance for the running up of “its colossal £230bn debt” the Mail settles on anger with “the real villains… the deluded zealots of Brussels who bent the economic figures to allow Greece into the euro in the first place… ditching the euro and going back to the drachma – painful as it will be in the short term – may be its best hope of long-term salvation… It will also free the world’s oldest democracy from the shackles locked on it by the reckless apparatchiks of Brussels.”

Ditto the Express: “It was utter folly to attempt to link the hugely differing economies of northern and southern Europe and utterly predictable that it would end in catastrophe because there will be many more years for the fallout to continue.”

Greek No Vote

Only The Mirror emphasises that the No vote strengthens Tsipras’s negotiating hand; all the rest agree on the “disaster” line and most of them denounce Tsipras. The Mirror falls into line with the others, though, on the note that the vote lands a “heavy blow” against “bullying” Angela Merkel.

“Both sides must give some ground if chaos is to be avoided in Greece – chaos that would shake Britain too… Ordinary Greeks did not create this mess and should not be victims.”

With this observation, The Mirror echoes the cheeky line of Matt Frei in his Channel 4 blog: “Make no mistake, the no vote has been a resounding ‘nein’ to Germany’s chancellor, who has been calling the shots on the Greek crisis ever since it erupted four years ago.”

On balance, then, the Referendum result appears to be: Greek people 1, Merkel 0. It also appears to be the conclusion that a lot of players wanted to see drawn.

However you consider the various, shifting negotiation positions, the upshot appears to be that Merkel now needs to decide whether to make good on the threat that a No vote would mean No to the euro, or to get back into haggling with Tsipras.

As Frei astutely points out: “…if [Merkel] gives in to more demands for less austerity from the Greek government, she will appear weak to her own electorate, the financial markets and, of course, interested parties watching from the sidelines like the Russians and the Chinese. Mutti will be seen to go mushy.

“If she stands firm and gives no ground, she will be at loggerheads with the very principle of democracy. It is a Gordian knot (forgive yet another cliché from ancient mythology) pitting the principle of democracy against the power of creditors.”

As for those unanimous disastrous predictions – once again, confusion reigns: what “crisis”? This morning’s initial dips in the value of the euro and global stock markets have swiftly gone into reverse at the time of writing. The euro is now down less than 1% against the dollar, while the FTSE is off by even less!

Investors have apparently started to buy again in the hope of a deal made easier by finance minister Varoufakis’s resignation, on the grounds that “if you take out the most irritating man in the room then you might get a more reasonable response from Germany and France” (Chris Beauchamp, market analyst at trading group IG).

It’s all looking very pantomime, with its villains and heroes. Well, “theatrical behaviour is to be expected in negotiations” (Frank Adoranti, The Managers Guide to Understanding Commercial Contract Negotiation). Meanwhile, if there’s a prize for best gag in all this, my vote goes to Simon French, chief economist at stockbroker Panmure Gordon, for his cheesy pun on the inevitability of Grexit as a “feta-ccompli”!

What are your thoughts? Let us know!