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26 January 2015

Greece: the `1789’ moment - but via the ballot box rather than guillotine

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The people have spoken clearly and broken the mould of the ancient regime. In practice, Syriza should be able to govern adequately.

The exit polls are predicting an upheaval though the precise magnitude will only become clear as election results are declared formally. It may yet be that Syriza has not won an outright majority in the 300-seat Parliament. Nonetheless, the people have spoken clearly and broken the mould of the ancient regime.

At the moment of writing, the projections are that Syrizia will only get 150 seats - precisely half the number of seats in the Parliament, so short of an absolute majority. Providing party discipline can be maintained, what are the realistic chances of all the other MPs combining to block Syriza actions? Quite small - after considering the huge array of political views likely to be represented in the Parliament. In practice, Syriza should be able to govern adequately.

What EU policy events will happen next? 

  • Grexit risk will be swiftly and comprehensively dismissed – much to the chagrin of the British media. There appears to be no planning for Grexit: formally it would require a Treaty change – with all the delays and uncertainties that would leave the Greek banking system totally vulnerable to a ruinous run on deposits. Grexit could be achieved by leaving the EU – which would be quick. However, re-applying for membership could turn out to be a very lengthy process during which time Greece would be cut off from all EU funding via agricultural payments, structural funds, EIB loans etc. Further loan disbursements would stop and formal default would seem inevitable. These options are so unappetising that another route seems certain and Commissioner Moscovici has already said that planning has been done by the EU for many scenarios.

  • Few observers seem aware of the scale of the debt relief already granted by the EU: see my article last week.

  • Cutting the annual cost of servicing the debt: As EFSF CEO Klaus Regling put it, these policies produce “annual budget savings of €8.5 billion per year, or the equivalent of 4.5% of Greek GDP - year after year. Consequently, there is no debt overhang in Greece over the next 10-20 years, despite very high debt to GDP ratios.”

  • The alternative policy of forcing a default – perhaps associated with “Grexit” (though it has never been clear how that could be achieved within the existing EU Treaties) would create massive economic disruption. The absence of an interest moratorium for a decade would probably cause an increase in interest payments as the `new Greece’ might find it difficult to borrow in the markets at the same rate as the EFSF and pay interest every year from now on.”

  • Eurogroup President Dijsselbloem told Germany’s Spiegel Online on Friday “There’s certain wriggle room to negotiate, to talk about the form of the adjustment programme…But just to ask for a credit without having to meet conditions - that won’t work.” That seems an entirely sensible policy as Grexit would surely be accompanied by a complete write-off of the loans from the EU to Greece – far more painful than a bit of `wriggling’.

Greek policy events:

Perhaps the biggest policy conundrum is how Syriza will deal with the oligarchs and other such vested interests – the `1789 moment’. The market economy approach might seem improbable from a “Communist fire-brand” but is that an accurate description of Tzipras? The smell of power has already caused some rapid re-positioning. The reality of power may now force further shifts – though perhaps tempered by the Syriza party’s membership. At first sight, none of this seems impossible for the EU to `wriggle’ its way round. The upside for the EU is immense: trigger a major revival of the Greek economy, banish fears of Grexit and demonstrate even further solidarity with those who finally may have elected a government that will deal with the actual problems.  Hope springs eternal, but this could be a game changer.

PS: An additional benefit - the advocates of `Brexit’ would find their arguments substantially undermined! 

© Graham Bishop

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