Leading article: Greece's prime minister deserves a fair hearing

For all the glib talk of a 'Grexit', it remains the least attractive outcome

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After some weeks of relative quiet, the euro is approaching yet another crunch point. This time, the spotlight is back on Athens. Antonis Samaras, the centre-right prime minister, is asking for some "breathing space", an extra year or two for Greece to meet the deficit-reduction targets imposed by international lenders in return for €230bn in bailouts.

Yesterday, Mr Samaras took his plea to Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the group of eurozone finance ministers; on Friday he will meet the German chancellor, on Saturday the French president. He is adamant that Greece is not after more money. His government has – he says – put together the package of extra spending cuts needed to secure the next €31.5bn instalment of much-needed bailout funds. But it needs more time to meet the longer-term targets, thanks to the delays of the general election that brought him to power in June.

Mr Samaras' proposal will be difficult to sell to his creditors and their voters, particularly in Germany. Although Angela Merkel has remained characteristically tight-lipped so far, senior figures across the political spectrum, not least finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, have made outspoken calls for Greece to stick to the letter of its agreement or face the consequences. Public opinion, by and large, agrees.

It is reasonable enough that northern eurozone taxpayers are concerned to ensure that Greece fulfils its side of the deal. But if Athens' commitment can be shown to be sincere, an extension to the deficit-reduction timetable is the right course. True, progress has been slow. Privatisation plans have all but stalled and both tax reforms and state job cuts are behind schedule. But there are signs that Mr Samaras' newly installed government is more serious about tackling Greece's problem than its predecessor was, and it is both more realistic economics and also sounder politics to give him a chance to prove it.

Why? Because the Greek economy is in freefall, shrunk by as much as a fifth over five consecutive years of recession and facing another sharp contraction in 2012. The situation is so dire, and the impact on tax receipts so calamitous, that the austerity required by Greece's lenders is creating an inescapable downward spiral. Take the next round of cuts: they are required to reach €11.5bn net, but will actually need to be nearer €13.5bn, to make up for falling government income.

Nor is the problem Greece's alone. With ordinary Greeks already struggling to cope, ever more retrenchment will swiftly become politically untenable, either forcing the current government to abandon the euro, or precipitating an election with the same outcome. And for all the glib talk of a "Grexit" as the neatest solution, it remains the least attractive option, one that would wreak havoc in Greece, punch a hole in the European banking system, and send shockwaves – political and economic – worldwide.

Even for those who downplay such complications, the immediate contagion to Portugal, Spain and Italy, as investors' worst fears are realised, should give pause for thought. Until the upgraded eurozone firewall is in place – which depends largely on a decision from Germany's constitutional court next month – Europe simply cannot afford to cut Greece loose.

For once, the fact that there is not likely to be a swift decision is good news. But if the assessment of Greece's progress and the viability of its latest cuts proposals due from the "troika" of lenders next month judges Athens' plans to be credible, the case for giving Greece more time becomes compelling. There never has been, and never will be, either a single solution to the euro crisis or a single moment at which it can be saved. There are, however, any number of moments at which it may be lost. We are fast approaching one of them.

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