Athens’ fate may soon be determined regardless as despite no breakthrough and another wrong paper fiasco, proposals were welcomed as ‘detailed and credible’
Greece’s date with destiny started with its upstart prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, being slapped on the face. It is the customary gesture of endearment from Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European commission. It means the two men are friends, despite Juncker saying at the weekend he no longer trusted Tsipras.
And the day that was supposed to arrest Greece’s collapse into bankruptcy, and prevent the euro’s diminution, ended more than 12 hours later on Monday evening with the bizarre spectacle of a phantom summit.
Monday’s hotly awaited emergency gathering of eurozone leaders, called last Thursday evening to fix the Greek crisis or at least to attach sticking plasters to Greece’s bleeding wounds, had nothing to decide and no real agenda to discuss.
For that to happen, the finance ministers of the single currency bloc who gathered earlier in the afternoon had to assess the chances of a deal and make their recommendations to the leaders. They could not do that, said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chaired the session, because they did not have enough time to study what Athens was proposing. Their minions would have to negotiate hard and come back later in the week.
“The leaders are always free to have a different opinion,” the Dutchman smiled.
The leaders flew in from Paris and Berlin, Madrid and Vienna, Dublin and Bratislava in any case, perhaps to teach Tsipras a lesson.
“There is no question of cancelling the summit,” said an EU official. “The idea is to remove from Tsipras the illusion he can get a better deal at the summit, or that a decision can be taken at the summit level. The point is to have Tsipras learn the position of the other leaders. No negotiation, no technical discussion. Make sure everybody understands where the others are.”
It was Tsipras who wanted a summit in the first place, insisting that Greece’s pain and the eurozone’s troubles could only be sorted at the highest political level. The answer to Tsipras on Monday evening from the chancellors, presidents, and prime ministers was an ultimatum: “You can have your summit, but you’re not getting a negotiation.”
Behind the confusion and the last-minute improvisation lay a weekend of frantic communication and crossed signals over a Greek proposal that was not really a proposal. Or was it?
Negotiations collapsed in Luxembourg last Thursday with Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, memorably complaining there was no point in engaging in dialogue with the Greeks unless there were “adults in the room”.
Tsipras, a neophyte prime minister, then spent much of Sunday on the phone to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, President Hollande of France, and Juncker, trying to prove he was an adult. Following a long list of rejected economic reform offers aimed at securing bailout cash, he promised new proposals.
The number crunchers from the creditors – the commission, the IMF, and the European Central Bank – assembled in the Berlaymont building in Brussels at 5pm on Sunday to receive the Greek offer.
They waited. And waited. At midnight the lights were still burning on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont. It was already Monday when the Greek paper arrived just after midnight. The technocrats got to work on the arithmetic that would determine whether a deal was doable: VAT rates, pension costs to GDP ratios, fiscal targets and primary budget surpluses.
Martin Selmayr, the German christian democrat and Juncker’s powerful chief of staff, tweeted that it might be tricky, but for the first time an agreement could be discerned. “Ein Zwangsgeburt,” he predicted – a forceps birth.
The commissioner for the euro, France’s Pierre Moscovici, instantly took to the French airwaves to talk up the chances of a deal. But as he slapped Tsipras playfully on the cheek, Juncker started sounding worried.
The Financial Times reported that the document the technocrats had been working on was the “wrong” one. The Greeks had sent the wrong piece of paper and only supplied the right one on Monday morning. Not for the first time. In February at a crucial stage in the bailout negotiations, Athens also sent the wrong set of proposals to Berlin. The weekend before last, the Greeks showed up in Brussels for negotiations without any proposals on the Saturday afternoon. They were asked to document their intentions and came back 24 hours later with nothing new.
The latest “wrong paper” fiasco on Monday morning gave eurozone finance ministers cause to dismiss the chances of any breakthrough on the grounds that Tsipras was playing for time and seeking to avoid detailed technical negotiations. The German, Finnish, Irish, and Austrian finance ministers voiced contempt. The Greeks maintained their habit of tardiness when Yanis Varoufakis, the outspoken finance minister, turned up 45 minutes late for the session. Dijsselbloem said the meeting could not decide anything because they did not have enough time for their aides to check whether the Greek sums added up.
But commission sources, keen to strike a deal, believed the hawks on the creditor side were trying to wreck the agreement or at least make it more difficult. Juncker’s spokesman said they had received the Greek proposals just after midnight, signed by Tsipras (a first), and that the Greek plan had been passed to the ECB and IMF. The “new” version on Monday morning contained only minor and cosmetic changes. Dijsselbloem admitted that and conceded the confusion over the two papers was not much of a problem.
And despite the ministerial dissing of the Greeks, officials on the creditor side not normally known for being lenient towards Athens agreed that the Greek proposals were the first “detailed and credible” policy shifts they had seen from Tsipras in his five months in office.
Merkel, as usual, hedged her bets and noted that there were several days in a week – a week being the time remaining until Greece’s bailout lapses and a €1.6bn (£1.15bn) payment is due to the IMF.
The ministers will be back in Brussels on Wednesday or Thursday, the leaders on Thursday and Friday. And there will be no phantoms.
Eurozone crisis Europe Greece European commission European Union
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