Leading article: Just one move in the eurozone chess game

The question is not if the Greek bailout will do, but how best to use the time it has bought
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The Independent Online

Before the ink was even dry on the latest Greek bailout, the sceptics were decrying the €130bn deal as no better than a sticking plaster for a patient that is terminally ill. Athens may now be able to pay off the €14.5bn due in mid-March, they say, but the remission has been bought at a price – in terms of both living standards and sovereignty – that the country will not be able to pay. Better to stop delaying the inevitable. Better to pull the plug and let Greece drop out of the single currency.

It is an argument that sounds plausible but is missing the point. Indeed, to ask whether the latest bailout will be enough is to start from the faulty premise that there is a resolution to the euro crisis available, if only Europe's politicians would grasp it. Not so. There is only a grindingly slow process of evolution, fraught with peril at every stage. The question is not whether the latest deal can solve Greece's problems, but rather how to make best use of the breathing space it has created.

First, however, the bailout. On paper, compromises from Athens, the troika of lenders, and private sector bondholders, will see Greek debt come down to a more manageable 121 per cent of GDP by 2020. In fact, the process has barely begun, as yesterday's muted reaction from the financial markets attests. For a start, Greece still has prior commitments to fulfil to ensure the deal goes ahead. Talks must also now begin on the question of how much of the burden will fall to the IMF. And bondholders will have to accept in reality the hair cuts to which they have agreed in principle.

Meanwhile, the uncertain process of ratification by individual eurozone governments now begins. Most crucial of all is next Monday's vote in the German Bundestag. Between the cabinet rows over talk of letting Greece go to the wall, and the latest spat over nominating a new federal President, it is clear that Angela Merkel's government is feeling the strain.

Even if all goes to plan, a bailout for Greece was but one part of the three-dimensional chess game. The immediate threat of a default averted, attention can now focus on the EU summit in two weeks' time, with plans to expand the rescue fund designed to act as a firewall to stop Greece's ills spreading elsewhere top of the agenda. Even that is only another mechanism to make time for the eurozone to inch towards closer fiscal union, with all that entails in terms of law, economics and bureaucracy, let alone the thorny matter of democratic mandate.

But there is no alternative to the chess game; there is no short-cut route to saving Europe from economic meltdown. Only by buying time for Greece can there be a chance of putting together a lasting solution to the euro's problems. Buying time is, therefore, no bad thing. Quite the reverse. Particularly when the alternative is to let Greece crash out of the euro, with incalculable results.

One crucial piece is still missing, however. Greece is already into its fifth year of recession. Without economic growth, no amount of austerity will enable it to pay its debts. Neither can it wait for structural reforms of the kind that Europe's politicians are only now, so belatedly, starting to discuss. The Greek economy needs an immediate shot of adrenalin. To provide it, Europe must put together a Marshall-style infrastructure spending plan. The cost would be fractional compared with the amount being poured into paying off Athens' debts. Without it, Greece is locked into a spiral of recession and austerity that leaves the troika's deals looking dangerously like the Treaty of Versailles.

It is far too simplistic to claim Greece's exit from the euro to be inevitable. But it will take more than fiscal discipline to ensure that the Greek people can bear the price of remaining. The latest bailout was only ever the beginning.