Leading article: Collapse deferred

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A choice "between collapse and salvation". Such were the words with which Greece's finance minister hailed the bailout agreed yesterday between Athens, Brussels and the IMF, which will enable Greece to access €110bn over the next three years. Unless the German parliament baulks at offering a sizeable contribution towards this huge rescue package, in which case all bets are off, phase one of the drama is over in the sense that Greece will not default on 19 May, the deadline by which it has to make a large debt repayment to its creditors.

What happens then depends partly on whether Greece's fractured and mistrustful society can put up with the austerity measures to which the Prime Minister, George Papandreou, has agreed in order to obtain the bailout money. Another unknown is the degree to which enforced belt-tightening will push Greece's economy further into negative growth. The deeper the recession the less likely it is that Greece will ever repay anything. The temptation to default will then return. A final decision on whether Greece belongs in the single currency zone, therefore, has only been deferred.

Several of Greece's regional neighbours, meanwhile, will be cursing its profligacy for having damaged their own European Union membership prospects. Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia among others are all sitting in the EU waiting room, reflecting on the extent to which events to the south have hardened the phenomenon known in the EU as "enlargement fatigue" into something more like outright enlargement hostility. All have jumped through numerous hoops to harmonise their standards to those of the EU. All manage their finances far more responsibly than does Greece, yet their membership prospects have suffered nevertheless because without German support they can get nowhere – and Germany is not enlargement-friendly right now.

The hope must be that Greece bends but does not break over the next few years, and that the reforms which the EU and IMF insist on do not impoverish Greeks but ultimately create a more open and entrepreneurial society. At the same time, Greece's neighbours should not be held hostage to a positive ending to the Greek drama. It would be ridiculous if the noble idea of EU enlargement were to perish altogether, as a consequence of what is going on in Athens. Several countries outside the EU, looking in, remain desperate to give the EU their best shot. It would be a pity if their chances to do so were blighted forever on account of their neighbour's behaviour.

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