Leading article: A historic election – but it may not move Berlin


As the dust starts to settle on the Greek general election – surely the most scrutinised election in modern Greek history – the eyes of Europe are trained not only on the outcome of the vote in Greece but on the likely reaction in Berlin.

In Greece, the question is whether sufficient numbers of voters have taken a bet on the anti-bailout left wing under Alexis Tsipras of Syriza, presumably resulting in a rapid, disorderly exit from the eurozone, or whether they have plumped for some form of continuity under the centre-right New Democracy. If it's the former, a head-on clash with Germany, the champion of the EU's current financial orthodoxy, looks unavoidable.

In reality, the choice is less dramatic, though not because Syriza has shown any sign of backing away from its pledge to tear up the terms of the Greek bailout. Rather, it is because – although this has escaped general notice – New Democracy is also firmly committed to changing the terms of the existing deal, which obliges Greece to slash its deficit to below 3 per cent of GDP by 2014.

In other words, whoever forms the next Greek government will have a popular mandate to seek new bailout terms – the only substantive difference being that the left will demand them while the right will ask nicely.

But then what? No one outside Greece takes seriously the view that Angela Merkel's resistance to renegotiating the Greek package will suddenly crumble in the face of Syriza's "Can't pay, won't pay" slogans. But the assumption is widespread, at least in Britain and France, that the German Chancellor may shift her position – by agreeing to tweak the existing deal rather than scrap it – if her preferred Greek partner, New Democracy, forms the next coalition government in Athens.

More sensitive to the views of Paris and Rome than to those of EU member states farther east, opinion in Britain seems persuaded that Ms Merkel has become so isolated in her intransigence over the Greek austerity package that she has no option but to row back. Well, she may. The German Chancellor does have past form in budging under pressure.

But we shouldn't bank on this outcome. The merest whisper of a "Grexit" may have been enough to spook policymakers in Berlin a few months ago but the mood has since changed. Key figures in Ms Merkel's inner circle now sound more resigned to the restoration of the drachma than terrified by the prospect. Some of them evidently assume that it is bound to happen sooner or later. As a result, it cannot be considered a given that Germany will try to avert a Grexit at literally any cost, even if only at the last minute. Syriza may believe it still has the upper hand with Ms Merkel in this matter, and is holding the equivalent of a gun to her head. But many Germans, and their ranks probably include the Chancellor, now suspect that those bullets are blanks.

In Britain, we also underestimate the degree to which Germany is supported in its hard line within the European Union. President Barack Obama may deplore Ms Merkel's economic rigidity, as may the French President, following the transfer of power in the Elysée from Nicolas Sarkozy to François Hollande. But Germany is still far from isolated in calling for more austerity with no ifs and buts.

It has allies on this matter to the east, south and north, starting with Austria, Finland, Latvia and Slovakia. Some of these countries have already experienced the shock of tough, so-called "front-loaded" austerity programmes, and none inclines to the idea that Greece should be treated as a special case.

Power may be about to change hands in Athens – but we should not assume it will lead to a change of heart in Berlin.