Adrian Hamilton: Politics should finally decide the Greek crisis

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So the Greek parliament has voted to pass the "crucial" budget cuts, albeit with the narrowest of majorities. And we seem to be exactly where we were before. The strikes go on. The Greek public reject them. The economists continue to predict a default. The politicians and commentators outside still talk – with some eagerness on this side of the Channel – of the demise of the euro and even of the European Union.

Of course it might have been very different if the parliament had rejected the deal. Financial meltdown was the least of the gloomy warnings from the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Yet even that was being welcomed by some economists as preferable to a long and lingering crisis with only one ultimate conclusion – Greece's default on its debt and its exit from the euro.

They may be right, of course. But the one element that has been missing from all this analysis has been the political one. This crisis is political. It has been made so by the protests in Greece, as in Spain and now here in Britain. And it is fundamentally political in the wider sense that the efforts to "rescue" Greece from bankruptcy are driven by a desire to keep its problems from bringing the entire European house of cards down with it.

The narrow interpretation that would have the Germans, as the French, driven solely by the determination to stop a Greece default ruining their own banks is far too deterministic. European leaders, even David Cameron for all his public disassociation from the rescue efforts, are acutely aware that this is a real point of decision for Europe. If it can master this crisis, then Europe can show some worth. If it can't, it is difficult to see the whole project holding together.

The problem is that the politics are so fraught. It is very easy to regard the protesters on the Greek streets, as those here, as simply obstructionists screeching against the inevitable. And there is something pretty distasteful about a country which has grossly overspent, whose middle class evades their taxes, and whose political elite has bought votes through grossly inflating the public sector, now denying the right of their creditors to call in their loans.

One of the shortcomings of democratic politics in Europe brought out by this crisis is the extent to which citizens, having voted for governments on the basis that they were bringing wealth and growth, then declare that the elected politicians and their deeds are nothing to do with them. It's a sign of just how far parliaments and the people have grown apart. But then it is hard not to sympathise with ordinary Greeks, as ordinary British, who have paid their taxes, worked hard and are now being made to pay to bail out banks whose greed was responsible for the crisis in the first place. That is all the more so when every financial expert is telling you that the cuts demanded will never work and your sacrifice is quite fruitless.

This crisis is not going to be sorted out until there is some reconnect between what governments are trying to do with bail-outs and enforced austerity measures and what their voters feel is fair. And that, in turn, requires some sharing of the pain between creditor and consumer.

To that extent, one has to respect the French – so roundly abused by the Germans as well as the British and the Americans – for trying to find some formula by which the bankers take a voluntary "haircut" by deferring repayment of a substantial part of their loans without triggering a formal default with all its legal implications.

The German voter may be suspicious of anything that lets the Greeks off the hook. Why, after all, should the hard-working German savers in the north have to pay for a bunch of tax evaders in the south? But, if the alternative is to saddle the Greeks with medicine that will only worsen their condition, then an urge to flagellate seems the worst political response.

If the European Monetary Union, and indeed the EU, is going to get out of this crisis, it is going to have to face down the financial community. It can do it. The total sums involved are not overwhelming, and the size of the Greek economy compared to the whole is not that big.

Rescheduling is what happens with a bank and an ordinary customer who has got into too much debt. Some repayment is better than none, while the financial markets always face the possibility of being caught short in their desire to keep chasing the price of Greek assets down and the cost of their borrowing up.

The banks will kick and scream at anything that causes them to take a loss. The economists will argue that it never pays to confront the market. But after all the damage these two groups have done, maybe their most constructive contribution to a democratic solution would be a period of silence.

Freedom is not just another word



Timothy Garton Ash, formerly of this parish, made an interesting point at the end of Aung San Suu Kyi's first Reith Lecture this week. The mystery, he argued, was not why people went along with oppressive governments, but how individuals had the courage to resist them.

He's right. A decade ago the shelves were full, and they still are, of books examining why the German population co-operated with Nazi rule. Now the interest is more in those who do rise up and, like Suu Kyi (who has just been formally warned by the Burmese junta to cease all political activity), continue to fight despite all adversity.

I'm not sure we can understand such a reaction here in Britain, so distanced are we from war and oppression. But what we can do, as we respond to the Arab Spring, is admire those who brave the security forces to challenge regimes.



a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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