Does Greece have "odious" debt?

Alexis Tsipras wants Greece to stop paying odious debt. But does it have any?

"My five point plan": a phrase borrowed from Ed Miliband* may have helped boost the chances of Alexis Tsipras, leader of radical left-wing Greek party SYRIZA, which stormed into second place in the Greek parliament.

Admittedly, the Tsipras plan is rather more radical than Miliband's. It calls for:

  • Cancelling the technocratic former government's bailout terms, particularly its cuts to pensions and salaries.
  • Overturning their abolition of collective bargaining and other laws that attack workers' rights.
  • Changes to improve democracy and social justice, from removing MPs immunity to prosecution to overhauling Greece's proportional electoral law.
  • A public review of Greek banks.
  • A hold on all debt servicing, and an international committee examining the Greek deficit, particularly looking at whether any of the debt can be termed "odious".

The last point is the most interesting one. Odious debt is a legalistic term: It refers to debt run up by a former dictator, which a legitimate successor government can realistically argue ought not to be paid off. As a paper in the Duke Law Journal (via alphaville) puts it:

By enshrining a doctrine of odious debts as a recognized exception to the rule of state succession, some modern commentators have argued, a successor government would be able legally to repudiate the loans incurred by a malodorous prior regime. This, they contend, would have two benefits: it would avoid the morally repugnant consequence of forcing an innocent population to repay debts incurred in their name but not for their benefit, and it would simultaneously force prospective lenders to an odious regime to rethink the wisdom of advancing funds on so fragile a legal foundation.

The authors of the paper point out the problem with such a concept, though:

If this new version of the odious debt doctrine is to be workable, someone must assume the task of painting a scarlet letter "O" on a great many regimes around the world. Who will make this assessment of odiousness and on what criteria? The stakes are high. An unworkable or vague doctrine could significantly reduce cross-border capital flows to sovereign borrowers generally.

Their fears are proved right by Tsipras' argument. For all that the imposition by the EU of a technocratic PM on the Greek people was questionable democratically, the resulting government was hardly on par with the last one which brought odious debt into the public arena: Saddam Hussein's.

Even if Tsipras is making the weaker claim that debt left over from Greece's junta, which collapsed in 1974, ought to be cancelled (if there is even any outstanding), he would be on questionable grounds legally. The whole argument seems far more likely to be a way to announce a selective default without actually announcing a selective default. That or a cynical ploy to get elected.

We'll see the final outcome next Thursday, when the next round of legislative elections are rumoured to be pencilled in for.

*Probably not.

Alexis Tsipras, head of SYRIZA, at a press conference in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.