Papandreou and the one trillion euro question

Greeks are hoping for two things: leadership and a miracle.

It is not often that a prime minister stands up to make a speech to his party's MPs only to have his finance minister, and second in command in the party ranks, follow up by saying the exact opposite. That kind of political theatre takes epic dimensions when it happens as the country is on the verge of collapse.

But that is the state of Greek politics as we await a confidence vote that will determine the PM's fate. He seems isolated, having lost the trust of his people, the opposition, his party and his EU peers in the European Council.

Domestically George Papandreou has to deal with an internal rebellion in his own party, unhappy not just about the way he announced a referendum but mostly for having to lend their support to hugely unpopular austerity measures that has gained them the fury of the electorate.

Papandreou also has to deal with an opposition that has been playing politics throughout the process, refusing to provide him with political support in the hope they can force his government to collapse.

In the international scene, his referendum move has cost him all legitimacy with his EU partners, forcing them to accept for the first time that Greece leaving the euro is a very real possibility indeed.

So what happens now? A lot depends on the kind of deal Papandreou is able to strike with his own party and the opposition.

Many in the ruling Pasok want to see him go, not least his finance minister Evangelos Venizelos. The same goes for the New Democracy opposition. They have in the past 24 hours entertained the notion of a grand coalition government only to withdraw their support for such a notion hours later and suggest a government of technocrats to ratify the new bail-out package before calling for elections.

They are adamant not to offer any political cover to the PM and they want to ensure that he is nowhere near a new government.

Having said that the outcome of tonight's confidence vote is not set in stone yet. Papandreou might just survive, in which case the question is whether he will try to get the bail-out plan through parliament with the support of his party alone, pursue a coalition government that the opposition does not want or call an election.

The problem is that nobody knows whether an election will produce a conclusive result.

Politicians' popularity is at an all time low, no matter which party they come from. So the protest vote is expected to be big and a hang parliament very likely. Which means we will have to go into another electoral contest or a coalition government, which takes us back to square one, having wasted time and recourses in a divisive election campaign with the whole world watching.

Not to mention that the next instalment of IMF money will not be released until the new bail-out programme is agreed, an important factor in the equation considering the Greeks have some expensive bills to pay by mid December. Time is off the essence.

What does all that mean for the EU and the Eurozone? Uncertainty in Greece is causing nervousness in the markets with a direct impact in the way they view Italy, the latest victim of self-fulfilling prophecies.

But in many ways, and despite the turmoil, it buys time for the eurozone leaders to iron out all the outstanding details that were left pending after the 26-27 October European Council.

The fact is that two thirds of that deal remain intact and provided EU leaders push forward with plans to recapitalise banks and strengthen the EFSF (the eurozone's bail-out pot of money) the eurozone should be sound in the short and medium term.

Returning to Greece, the one trillion euro question is whether the country will be able to salvage its eurozone membership. The stakes are high and the consequences catastrophic.

A default and a return to the drachma will see the value of the new currency fall through the floor, with the cost of the debt, which will be in euros but serviced in drachmas, going through the roof. Greeks' savings will evaporate, not that this will mater much with the banking sector collapsing all around them.

Hence it is imperative that the government (and the opposition) get hold of the situation, abandon brinkmanship and Machiavellian manoeuvring and put the wellbeing of the country first. It's is hard to predict what the next few hours will bring but everyone is hoping for two things.
Leadership and a miracle.

Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK.

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle