Angela Merkel and François Hollande during a press conference after their meeting at the Elysee Palace tonight. Photograph: Getty Images.
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No relief in sight for Greece as Germany and the ECB toughen stances

Merkel warns that it is up to Tsipras to make new proposals as the country's banks are put under further strain. 

One of the main arguments made by Alexis Tsipras for a No vote in the Greek referendum was that it would strengthen his government's bargaining power. But a day after the country's decisive rejection of the previous eurozone offer, there is little sign that it has done so. At her joint press conference this evening with François Hollande following their meeting, Angela Merkel emphasised that the onus was on Greece to come forward with "very specific proposals" (offering no immediate concessions of her own) and even went as far as to describe the previous package as "generous". Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's vice chancellor and the leader of Merkel's coalition partners, the Social Democrats, has declared that "The ultimate insolvency of the country seems to be imminent". 

Hollande, as before, took a more accommodative stance. But while stating that "the door is open" (though not as open as he would like), he warned that "There’s not a lot of time left. There is urgency for Greece and there is urgency for Europe". Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commissioner for the euro, similarly concluded that "The no result unfortunately widens the gulf between Greece and other eurozone countries … There is no easy way out of this crisis. Too much time and too many opportunities have been lost."

It is time that is indeed the biggest obstacle to a deal. Greek's banks are close to running out of cash (one of the four biggest is reported to be on the brink). But the European Central Bank, the institution keeping them afloat, has again capped the level of emergency liquidity at €89bn. Rather than offering greater relief, it has tightened the noose by forcing the banks to provide more assets to the Bank of Greece as security against the loans. Robert Peston reports that this has reduced the spare cash-raising capacity of the banks from €17-20bn to between €5-7bn. By acting in this way, the ECB has opened itself to the charge that it has exceeded its mandate by intervening in a political dispute. 

The danger is that unless Greece makes immediate progress with the troika in the next two days, the banks will no longer able to function even at their current limited level (with ATM withdrawals limited to €60 a day and overseas transactions banned). Such a financial collapse would force Greece to leave the euro in order to allow its banks to issue a new and heavily devalued currency. Few are confident that it will be able to make a scheduled payment of €3.5bn to the ECB in two weeks' times. 

Of the three main possible outcomes to the crisis - a long-term deal to keep Greece in the euro, another short-term financing arrangement ("kicking the can down the road" as it has become known) or Grexit - it is the third that appears ever more likely. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear