For Europe’s sake Greece must renege on its bailout commitments – my op-ed in Le Monde

Le Monde commissioned me to write an op-ed explaining my view that it is in Europe’s interest that Greece resists the ‘terms and conditions’ of its bailout package while staying within the eurozone. In effect, to explain why there is no contradiction between (a) the Greek people’s determination to stay in the eurozone, and (b) their tendency to vote overwhelmingly for parties that reject the terms of the ‘bailout’. For the french version, as published in Le Monde, click

Le prochain gouvernement doit refuser les termes de l’accord de “sauvetage”

For the english (original) version, read on…For Europe’s sake Greece must renege on its bailout commitments

Conventional wisdom has it that, if Greece wants to stay in the Eurozone, it must abide by the terms and conditions of its ‘bailout’ deal.

It is my considered opinion that the conventional wisdom is, once more, profoundly wrong. That Greece’s only realistic chance of staying in the Eurozone is to challenge the terms of its ‘bailout’ agreement. Moreover, I shall be arguing that such a challenge would be a great gift to Europe. Indeed, it may prove a prerequisite for the Eurozone’s survival.

Consider the following indisputable facts: 

  1. A week ago the bankrupt Greek state borrowed  4.2 billion from Europe’s bailout fund (the EFSF) and immediately passed it on to the European Central Bank (ECB) so as to redeem Greek government bonds that the ECB had previously purchased in a failed attempt to shore up their price. This new loan boosted Greece’s debt substantially but netted the ECB a profit of around  840 million (courtesy of the 20% discount at which the ECB had purchased these bonds).
  2. During the same week, the fiscally stressed Spanish government was injecting large amounts of capital into Spanish banks. Simultaneously, to help finance the Spanish state, the ECB has provided large loans to Spanish banks (at 1% interest rate) which they then re-lent to their ‘saviour’, i.e. the Spanish state, at interest rates often exceeding 6%.
  3. For the Greek and the Spanish governments to be ‘allowed’ to borrow the monies involved in the operations described under 1 and 2 above, the ECB and the European Commission (plus, in Greece’s case, the International Monetary Fund) demanded of them that they deflate their economies through savage spending cuts which will, with mathematical precision, reduce the national income from which loans, new and old, must be repaid.
  4. Average interest rates in the Eurozone (even if we exclude the three countries that have fallen out of the markets and have received ‘bailouts’, and include Germany’s crisis-induced ultra-low rates) are at least 1.5% higher than nations with a higher average degree of indebtedness, e.g. the UK.

The German Chancellor (correctly) argues that we cannot escape a debt trap by accumulating more debt. However, consider facts 1,2&4 above: they constitute a typical case of adding debt to debt; of insolvent states borrowing in order to pay a Central Bank that is lending to insolvent banks which, at once, receive capital from insolvent states and lend to them part of the money they themselves borrowed from the Central Bank!

Is this prudential, austerity-driven, economics that a country like Greece must abide to? Or is madness-in-action? With such policies in place, is it any wonder that the Eurozone has already entered an advanced stage of disintegration?

Something must shatter this vicious cycle. If not, the Eurozone will soon join the Latin Union as a footnote in the economic history books of the future. But what could that ‘circuit-breaker’ be? Can President Hollande provide it? His willingness notwithstanding, he is hampered by the state of the French state’s finances and the accusation his criticism of austerity is a ‘cunning ploy’ to have Germany finance French ‘white elephants’.

This is where the next Greek government enters the scene as a potential circuit-breaker. Imagine if the incoming Greek Prime Minister were to try out something novel: Telling the truth! Addressing our European partners and telling them that, even if every Greek man, woman and child strove to stick to the nation’s ‘bailout’ commitments, Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio will remain on an explosive path which guarantees an ignominious exit from the Eurozone. And then add:

  • that Greece will not borrow another euro from the troika until and unless a rational plan is in place
  • that this ‘rational plan, must apply to all member-states, rather than privilege Greece at the expense of Ireland, Portugal, Spain etc.
  • that until such a plan is in place, Greece will strive to live within its meagre means within the Eurozone, suspending temporarily all payments to all creditors

At that point, Europe will have to make a momentous decision. Either ignore this Greek call to sanity, and instruct the ECB to cut Greece loose (with devastating repercussions for the Eurozone as a whole), or choose to europeanise the banks throughout the Eurozone (i.e. recapitalise them directly by the EFSF, without that capital counting against national debt), europeanise investment projects (via the European Investment Bank) and europeanise part of the member-states’ debt (via eurobonds). 

Am I proposing that Greece blackmail Europe? Certainly not. Since when is telling the truth and refusing to take loans that one cannot repay a form of blackmail? By taking this principled stance, Greece will be acting as a good citizen of Europe and will offer leaders like President Hollande a splendid opportunity to stop the rot that is nowadays consuming Europe’s body and soul.