Greece: apocalypse postponed?

The key question is whether Greece can retain the euro and reduce austerity.

After yesterday's Greek election it is clear that most of the country's voters want two things: for Greece to remain in the euro and for it to adopt a reduced pace of austerity. The key question today is whether these competing demands can be reconciled. All of the Greek parties, to varying degrees, are calling for an easing (or abandonment) of the bailout conditions, with both the victorious centre-right New Democracy and the third-placed centre-right PASOK demanding slower cuts, higher unemployment benefits and a reversal of the reduction in the minimum wage. They are also insistent that Greece must remain in the single currency (the exception being the communist KKE, which has called for the restoration of the drachma.)

The likelihood is that the country will now be led by a grand coalition of New Democracy-PASOK. Last night, PASOK insisted that it would not join a coalition without the presence of the left-wing Syriza, which finished second with 27 per cent of the vote, prompting some to raise the spectre of a third election. Syriza, which relishes the prospect of becoming the country's official opposition, has already ruled out joining any coalition. Who will broke the deadlock? Despite its reluctance to join a "bailout coalition" (seen as an act of electoral suicide), PASOK will almost certainly drop its insistence on the participation of Syriza and, at the very least, offer New Democracy "confidence and supply".

The question will then be whether the new government can extract more favourable terms from its EU creditors. There are some signs this morning that it may be able to do so. On the Today programme, German CDU politician Michael Fuchs suggested that Greece could be given more time to repay its debts. But at this stage, minor concessions will do little to alter Greece's fate. Germany must use the window of opportunity provided by the election to finally engage in fiscal stimulus and allow the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort. But so long as Merkel, the high priestess of austerity, remains wedded to her current course, the eurozone is destined for stagnation at best and collapse at worse.

New Democracy party leader, Antonis Samaras, smiles at supporters after his party came first in the country's general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.