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Published on November 7th, 2011 | by Ben Phillips
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo credit: France Diplomatie"][/caption] We know, as yet, none of the details of Greece's soon-to-be national unity government, currently the subject of negotiations between George Papandreou and the opposition leader Antonis Samaras, save one: that Papandreou himself will not feature in it. The new PM is widely tipped to be Lucas Papademos, the former Vice-President of the European Central Bank who also, ironically, helped negotiate Greece's 2001 entry into the Eurozone in his then-capacity as head of the Bank of Greece. That Papandreou will not feature in the new government is a mark of an ostensibly widespread lack of confidence in both his competence and, perhaps more importantly, his ability to act as a unifying force amidst the crisis. Yet both the sheer pervasiveness of the anti-Papandreou consensus and the speed with which it has come about, in the immediate aftermath of his thwarted call for a Greek referendum on the bailout package, are truly remarkable. There's little doubt that Papandreou's downfall owes most directly to the threat his referendum call presented to the bailout package, and the fury his move sparked amongst those Eurozone heavyweights whose private banking sectors had, and have, the most to lose from a Greek default. There are two ways to read Papandreou's referendum bid. The first is to see it as the move of a socialist prime minister, forced into acquiescence with the EU and the IMF but naturally antipathetic towards the provisions of the debt deal and aware that a decisive majority of his own people have neither the appetite for more austerity nor any interest in the continued wellbeing of the Eurozone. The second is the rather less charitable interpretation of Costas Douzinas in today's Guardian, for whom it represented 'the irrational act of a regime that had lost touch with the people and was trying desperately to save its skin.' It was 'not a late recognition or a democratic redress of the repeated humiliations visited upon Greeks, or a reassertion of sovereignty against the IMF and Germany...[but] the government's attempt to regain the initiative against its own people clamouring to see it exit the stage.' Yet whichever interpretation one adopts, neither the Eurozone heavyweights nor Christine Lagarde's IMF emerge from this affair looking especially virtuous. As Douzinas, reflecting legitimate Greek anger over both Papandreou's humiliation by Merkel and Sarkozy and outside interference in Greek politics, observes, 'the European involvement in this endgame is problematic'. The new coalition government is being formed to one end only - to approve the bailout package without recourse to an irritable Greek public - and it is being formed at the behest of the EU and the IMF. As the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn put it, 'we have called for a national unity government and remain persuaded that it is the convincing way of restoring confidence and meeting the commitments.' Given the parlous fiscal positions of Italy and other Eurozone member states, it is quite understandable that those with most invested in the single currency should wish to head off both a Greek default and the domino effect that would surely follow it. Yet the pressure applied by such figures as Rehn and Lagarde* counts as interference in a sovereign nation's political affairs and alerts us to the serious democratic and legal issues raised by this episode. Just as worrying, if not more, is the now-explicit threat to Greece's EU membership in the event of her leaving the single currency. As the Forbes journalist Maha Atal makes clear, such legal waters are uncharted, as no EU treaty makes provision for a nation to leave the single currency. Nonetheless, she suggests, the choice has been taken to use EU membership as a stick with which to 'force compliance with loans-for-cuts agreements in Greece, Italy or other beleaguered countries', implicitly suggesting 'that the euro is a fundamental condition for EU membership'. This represents a deeply uncomfortable development for the ten EU member states outside the Eurozone. They, one imagines, will now be hoping for a swift, trouble-free approval of the debt deal in Greece as fervently as anyone in Paris or Berlin. *The IMF head, overheard in conversation with the Greek finance minister Evangelos Venizelos in Washington recently: 'What Greece am I talking to, the one who endorses reforms, who accepts austerity or the one who doesn't?'

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Greece: the democratic and legal implications

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo credit: France Diplomatie

We know, as yet, none of the details of Greece’s soon-to-be national unity government, currently the subject of negotiations between George Papandreou and the opposition leader Antonis Samaras, save one: that Papandreou himself will not feature in it. The new PM is widely tipped to be Lucas Papademos, the former Vice-President of the European Central Bank who also, ironically, helped negotiate Greece’s 2001 entry into the Eurozone in his then-capacity as head of the Bank of Greece. That Papandreou will not feature in the new government is a mark of an ostensibly widespread lack of confidence in both his competence and, perhaps more importantly, his ability to act as a unifying force amidst the crisis. Yet both the sheer pervasiveness of the anti-Papandreou consensus and the speed with which it has come about, in the immediate aftermath of his thwarted call for a Greek referendum on the bailout package, are truly remarkable.

There’s little doubt that Papandreou’s downfall owes most directly to the threat his referendum call presented to the bailout package, and the fury his move sparked amongst those Eurozone heavyweights whose private banking sectors had, and have, the most to lose from a Greek default. There are two ways to read Papandreou’s referendum bid. The first is to see it as the move of a socialist prime minister, forced into acquiescence with the EU and the IMF but naturally antipathetic towards the provisions of the debt deal and aware that a decisive majority of his own people have neither the appetite for more austerity nor any interest in the continued wellbeing of the Eurozone. The second is the rather less charitable interpretation of Costas Douzinas in today’s Guardian, for whom it represented ‘the irrational act of a regime that had lost touch with the people and was trying desperately to save its skin.’ It was ‘not a late recognition or a democratic redress of the repeated humiliations visited upon Greeks, or a reassertion of sovereignty against the IMF and Germany…[but] the government’s attempt to regain the initiative against its own people clamouring to see it exit the stage.’

Yet whichever interpretation one adopts, neither the Eurozone heavyweights nor Christine Lagarde’s IMF emerge from this affair looking especially virtuous. As Douzinas, reflecting legitimate Greek anger over both Papandreou’s humiliation by Merkel and Sarkozy and outside interference in Greek politics, observes, ‘the European involvement in this endgame is problematic’. The new coalition government is being formed to one end only – to approve the bailout package without recourse to an irritable Greek public – and it is being formed at the behest of the EU and the IMF. As the EU’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn put it, ‘we have called for a national unity government and remain persuaded that it is the convincing way of restoring confidence and meeting the commitments.’ Given the parlous fiscal positions of Italy and other Eurozone member states, it is quite understandable that those with most invested in the single currency should wish to head off both a Greek default and the domino effect that would surely follow it. Yet the pressure applied by such figures as Rehn and Lagarde* counts as interference in a sovereign nation’s political affairs and alerts us to the serious democratic and legal issues raised by this episode. Just as worrying, if not more, is the now-explicit threat to Greece’s EU membership in the event of her leaving the single currency. As the Forbes journalist Maha Atal makes clear, such legal waters are uncharted, as no EU treaty makes provision for a nation to leave the single currency. Nonetheless, she suggests, the choice has been taken to use EU membership as a stick with which to ‘force compliance with loans-for-cuts agreements in Greece, Italy or other beleaguered countries’, implicitly suggesting ‘that the euro is a fundamental condition for EU membership’. This represents a deeply uncomfortable development for the ten EU member states outside the Eurozone. They, one imagines, will now be hoping for a swift, trouble-free approval of the debt deal in Greece as fervently as anyone in Paris or Berlin.

*The IMF head, overheard in conversation with the Greek finance minister Evangelos Venizelos in Washington recently: ‘What Greece am I talking to, the one who endorses reforms, who accepts austerity or the one who doesn’t?’

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