Jul 13 2015

Greek-22: the paradoxical situation of the Greek problem

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By Spyros Katsoulas, Research Associate at the Institute of International Relations of Panteion University, Athens

“Greek-22” is a paradoxical situation in which a desired outcome is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently contradictory conditions. The current article covers developments in the Greek situation during the past two weeks, starting from the call of a referendum in Greece on June 27th up until the long Euro summit of July 12th.

Spyros KatsoulasThe not-so ambiguous vote of an ambiguous referendum

Polls are doomed to oblivion. Authoritative as they may appear to be up until an election—or a referendum for that matter—takes place, once the result is declared nobody really cares to go back and check the validity of their predictions. Yet, the clear verdict in the Greek referendum came as a big surprise, as all indications had been pointing towards an unpredictable derby contested down to the last vote. It is interesting to see how this purportedly close race turned into a landslide victory for the “no” camp, regardless of where this “no” may lead to in the negotiation process. In a paradox way, Greeks responded with a clear “no” to an unclear question with an even more unclear use value.

PM Alexis Tsipras’s call for a referendum in the early hours of June 27th—five months and two days since the Greek people trusted him to bring from Brussels a better deal than the previous governments did—came as a bolt from the blue, as most people were under the impression that some sort of agreement with the Institutions was close. The referendum was scheduled for July the 5th, leaving only a few days for the electorate to think upon a highly complicated and hugely important issue for the country. In the time that elapsed between Tsipras’s sudden initiative and the referendum day, there was so much ambiguity about what voters were asked to decide upon. This vagueness was perhaps most obvious in the slogans of the two large demonstrations held simultaneously a couple of days before the referendum day in the city center of Athens, only a few miles away from each other. Proponents of “yes” chanted in favor of staying in Europe; proponents of “no” chanted against further austerity measures. Rarely are referendum questions so vague. This was the first time in more than forty years that Greeks were asked to decide by referendum. In almost all previous occasions throughout the 20th century, referendums in Greece were about restoring or abolishing monarchy and the question was pretty much clear: do you want the King or not?

By contrast, the wording of the 2015 referendum question was lengthy and vague, and scenarios about the outcome of the voting result were open to guess. Greeks were asked to decide whether they accept or reject the bailout terms that international creditors had proposed, despite the fact that immediately after the announcement of the referendum the suggested accord was withdrawn, rendering the whole process in a sense pointless. Nevertheless, the Greek Premier openly asked people to vote “no” to what he saw as an ultimatum towards the Greek democracy, and said that he considered the referendum as part of the negotiation process, not in lieu of it. Much to the contrary, proponents of “yes”, as much as most prominent European leaders, argued that the real question was about Greece’s membership in the Eurozone, if not in the European Union itself. In essence, the Greeks were not asked to reply to the question itself, but to the man who posed the question. In other words, the real question was: do you still trust me?

So, how did Greeks feel about it? It is interesting to see what polls showed, up until the day before the referendum took place, and then compare it to the voting result. During the tense week before the referendum, the Greek populace appeared schizophrenic. The mood was best described by a phrase used by many different people: my mind says “yes”, my heart says “no”. That is “I don’t want to get kicked out of Europe, but I don’t like being blackmailed either.” It should not have come as a surprise then that, according to polls conducted hastily after the referendum announcement, the Greek electorate appeared evenly divided in two: about 40% would vote “yes”, 40% would go for “no”, with the rest being either ambivalent or willing to abstain. Up until the referendum day, the general impression was that the “yes” vote was slightly in the lead. According to the latest polls conducted on Friday but released only after the end of the election process on Sunday, the “no” vote appeared to be slightly ahead. What a surprise it was then when the eye-popping result came out with 61,31% voting “no”, and 38,69% voting “yes”. What this translates into is a difference of as many as 1,3 million people.

So, the question is who is this 61% of Greeks who voted “no”? Here are some observations based on the Ministry of Interior data and the findings of Metron Analysis, an independent survey company. First of all, the “no” vote appears consistent throughout Greece. The electoral map is impressively homogenous, as every single district in the country voted for “no” by more or less the same amount. There was not a single district throughout the country in which the “yes” vote took more than 42%. An area where one can find considerable divergence is the electoral district of Attica—by far the largest district in Greece. The richest suburbs of Attica, where one can find the highest GDP per capita and the highest property value, voted clearly for “yes”, whereas the poorest municipalities of Attica, where unemployment is sky-high and most small businesses have closed down, voted massively for “no”. Still, if the whole district is taken together, the result is the same with the rest of the country: 59,7% for “no”, 40,3% for “yes”.

Second of all, most Greeks seem to have voted along party lines. This is to say that people voted in the referendum the same way they did in the January elections. The “no” camp brought together some strange bedfellows: the ruling radical left SYRIZA party, the conservative right-wing co-governing ANEL party, and the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party. To the “no” camp should be also added the supporters of the Greek Communist Party, who voted massively for “no” (67%) despite the fact that the official position of the party was to cast a null vote. The “yes” camp drew all centrist parties together: the liberal conservative New Democracy party, the social-democratic PASOK party, and the centrist Potami party. Statistics show that the majority of each party’s voters followed the party’s line. However, this indication should be handled with caution. The matter at hand was not as much about ideological conflicts, as it was about standing by the government in its all too risky gamble or standing against it thus asking essentially for new elections. Another determinant factor in people’s vote choice was that the “yes” camp was identified with all those political figures considered responsible for the current situation. It is no coincidence that the two biggest political parties of the recent past—New Democracy and PASOK—have fallen from an aggregate of 80% in the 2009 elections to an aggregate of 32% in the 2015 elections. In that sense, the fact that all ex-prime ministers from 2000 onwards openly sided with the “yes” camp, did probably more harm than good, as they have been all considered highly responsible for the shambles of the Greek economy.

A third interesting finding is the emergence of a generation gap. Young people massively voted for “no” (67%, with the number being even higher among university students—75%), whereas older people voted “yes” (59%). This should come as no surprise, as youth unemployment in Greece ranks among the highest in EU countries and young people see no prospect of finding a job in their home country. On the other hand, older people were mostly concerned about rumors of a “haircut” on their lifetime savings. A final finding with great interest, albeit with not so surprising results, comes from taking social class as an indicator: working class voted “no” by a huge difference (72%), lower middle class leaned towards voting “no” (53%), upper middle class leaned towards “yes” (52%), while upper class voted “yes” en masse (73%). Yet, numbers are not telling the entire truth.

Referendum questions are by definition polarizing. Nevertheless, the Greek society is not as dichotomized as people tend to believe. The reason is that the contest was not between two equally promising options. The choice was rather between worse and worst; that is between a painful bailout agreement and a Grexit. The last time the Greek society was seriously divided was in the early Cold War period, when the choice was between two different political systems and ways of thinking. Now, there was no such dilemma. On the contrary, a closer look at the arguments of the two sides reveals that they do have more in common than they think. Yes voters certainly do not want the country’s European trajectory to be set at risk, but they do not like austerity measures any more than no voters. The latter have had more than enough with austerity measures, but their vote does not equal to leaving the Eurozone, let alone the European Union. The two sides further share a big disappointment about the governments of the recent past, as well as a deep concern about the country’s future. They do certainly have their disagreements about the handlings of the incumbent government, but it will not be so hard to reconcile.

In sum, it appears that the rough past weighted more heavily than the uncertain future in people’s mind. Ambiguous as the referendum was in terms of its actual use in the negotiation process, the result was not so ambiguous as people believed it would have been. The result made rather clear that the Greek electorate trusted the ruling coalition government. This is what history will remember it for, whether for good or bad.  In any case, the referendum was not the final scene, but merely another chapter of the Greek drama. The chorus was asked and a clear reply was given; it was then time for the heroes to act.

In the wake of the referendum

The battle of the referendum did not come without casualties. On the “yes” camp, the opposition leader Antonis Samaras got the message of public discontent with his policies and resigned the same night the vote was taken. On the “no” camp, the most famous finance minister of recent times, Yanis Varoufakis, stepped down from his position, allegedly after pressure from the European leaders, but also in a show of goodwill from the part of the Greek government. Apparently, his iconoclastic and controversial attitude was considered as part of the problem, in a proof that the complicated Greek issue is about much more than just economics. It is mainly political, and has been increasingly getting personal. Thus, nonconformist Professor Varoufakis was replaced by low-key Professor Euclid Tsakalotos. It remains doubtful, however, whether this was a change of substance, rather than merely of style. The new finance minister said in the parliament that the Greek government is after an agreement that will be better than the one Greek people rejected in the referendum. He also brought with him a dose of pragmatism saying that better does not mean easy. The agreement, if reached, will be difficult. But it is, still, better than non-agreement.

Prime Minister Alexis Tripras knows all that very well. As he put it, “for six months now we’ve been in a war, in which we lost some difficult battles. Now I have the feeling we’ve reached the boundary line. From here on there is a minefield, and I don’t have the right to dismiss this or hide it from the Greek people.” Thus, Tsipras wanted, first, to sign the treaty that ends the war, and then he would figure out how to dodge the minefield of implementing the agreement. Just like in Thucydides’ Melian dialogue, Tsipras has come to realize that even between partners “the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The question is how much suffering is compatible with the principles of the European Union.

Had one not followed the referendum campaign and just read about Mr. Tsipras reform proposals sent to Brussels on Thursday, he would have guessed that the Greek Premier had campaigned for “yes”. Greece had been asked to make clear proposals ahead of a weekend of summit meetings that could determine Greece’s future in the Eurozone. Even if in defiance of his own beliefs and promises, Tsipras appeared resolved to make concessions to reach an honorable compromise. Note that “honorable” is an important qualifier. There were many indications that during the Sunday Euro summit Germany was mainly seeking to humiliate Greece. Mr. Tsipras went to Brussels ready to exploit the capital that the Greek people granted him through the referendum, as long as he did not lose face completely. If anything, the referendum outcome was a personal triumph for the Greek Premier. The first polls after the referendum showed that, if parliamentary elections were held right away, SYRIZA would win by a huge margin: 38.5% to 19.1% for the conservative party. They also showed that, the vast majority of Greeks (84%) want to stay in the Eurozone. So, the mandate of the Greek people is not for rupture, but for an economically sustainable deal within the Eurozone. This should explain why Greece’s reform package could be nothing else but virtually identical to the one Greeks had overwhelmingly rejected four days earlier. With one crucial difference: debt restructuring. The Greek government sees debt restructure as a prerequisite of success for reforming Greece—Varoufakis’s lasting legacy. The Europeans consider it as a reward to be awarded only after reforms have been implemented.

It is not only the Europeans that should be convinced by Mr. Tsipras’s proposals, but also some members of his own party. Friday’s vote in the Greek parliament presented us with another paradox. Tsipras won overwhelming support for the package with a majority of 251 votes in the 300-seat parliament, but suffered some important losses in his own party. This was a pyrrhic victory for as many as seventeen members of the ruling coalition did not back the plan, including two ministers and the speaker of parliament. What the vote result showed was that the implementation of any potential bailout agreement might not be possible because, without seventeen votes, the government no longer has the confidence of the elected parliament. Where this result might lead to is either a cabinet reshuffle or a new round of elections. It may not be too far in the future for this to happen, as Eurozone ministers gave Greece until Wednesday July 15th to pass twelve new laws.

Trust was the word of the day at the emergency summit of Eurozone leaders on Sunday July 12th. Earlier the same day, another Eurozone finance ministers’ meeting ended in failure. The choice would be political, as it should be. The Euro summit would not be just about restoring trust in the credibility of the Greek government to implement the measures. The tug of war between Eurozone hawks and doves, with France and Italy lining up with Greece against Germany and the northern and eastern Europeans, shows that this has been critical time not just for Greece, but also the Franco-German relationship and even the political union itself. The United States has no say in the table, but its clear wish to not “lose” Greece cannot be ignored.

Greek-22 is a paradoxical political problem. Greece has a huge debt problem that cannot be solved by the measures it is asked to implement, but without those measures things could go worse. The Eurozone leaders ask from Greece to pretend that the debt problem is manageable in order to approve a loan that pays for these measures. On July 12th, nineteen Eurozone leaders stayed up all night to sort this out. But, beware of solutions. Whatever sort of agreement is reached at the Euro summit, it is not going to solve the Greek-22 riddle that easily. This was not the final act. There is more to come.

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Jul 10 2015

Between Dilemmas, Difficult Decisions and a Looming Impasse

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Professor Konstantin FilisBy Professor Konstantin Filis, Director of Research Programme at the Institute of International Relations at Panteion University.

The recent referendum was a misguided choice. Despite causing brief euphoria among supporters of the “NO”, in essence it was an attempt on the part of the government to break through the impasse created by the government itself and the country’s lenders. The objective was – beyond gauging the people’s response to the question posed, given that it was no longer even on the table – to send a loud message that the policies of asphyxiating fiscal adjustment and attendant austerity are condemnable/unacceptable, and to give the prime minister a clear and fresh mandate to negotiate on a more favorable basis. Given that the question was moot, and thus open to multiple, if not infinite, interpretations, the referendum was essentially an evasive maneuver aimed at freeing the prime minister from the vice of opposition within his own party, while also legitimizing a transition to a more realistic stance that facilitates the forging of a solution.

However, the two main problems with this specific choice are these: On the one hand, the government called on us to decide, in the negative, on an agreement that had been withdrawn from the table. It would have been more logical and acceptable (to our lenders, as well) if the referendum had concerned a tangible agreement mutually acceptable to the Greek side and its partners; an agreement actually up for approval by the citizens. And on the other hand, the referendum was held in a highly charged atmosphere, with nerves especially taut, given the Greek programme’s imminent expiration. Brinkmanship carries certain risks, of course, but a responsible leadership anticipates repercussions. This union, which, according to president Tusk, is no community of angels, has little patience with ambushes and unpleasant surprises. Even if we accept that we were driven to this option, we still need to develop alliances to defend against our being left virtually/essentially isolated and seen as a recalcitrant and undisciplined ally. Meanwhile, it must be said that Europe’s problem is more general and has to do with the outlooks of its current leading circles, who approach the Union’s vast challenges with Manichaeistic, shortsighted thinking, Calvinist economic rationales, clear flexibility issues, limited solidarity, and lacking a progressive and creative plan for exiting the current crisis. Consequently, the fact that most Europeans have fallen in behind the German position makes it more difficult to solve the Greek problem in the manner desired by Athens. This, in turn, makes it easier for Europe to deny responsibility and point to Greece as the problematic partner, from whose positions the partners are so anxious to distance themselves. But why is this the case? And could the Greek side have anticipated this.

Greece’s lost opportunity and the contradictions of the referendum

Greece Fri 3In last Sunday’s referendum, the Greek prime minister took a calculated risk, consolidating his power domestically but making the climate more unfavorable abroad. In fact, this unpredictable move played into the hands of the extremists among the lenders, who feel vindicated in having argued that Athens has been prevaricating and making excuses ever since it realized, too late, how unfavorable the balance of power is, which has made it all the more difficult for the government to move ahead with the post-election commitments it made in its platform papers. In the view of many Europeans, this rendered it impossible for Greek lawmakers to ratify any agreement, and they thus attributed Greece’s obstructionism to the effort to bring round the dissenting voices within Syriza.

And what is it, exactly, that we are taking to the new negotiations? Is our position really any stronger in the wake of the referendum? Will democratic expression suffice to chastise – and, ideally, soften – the other 18 countries of the eurozone, given that they have their own democratic processes? Have we perhaps (unwittingly) strengthened the positions of those partners who have invoked their own parliaments and societies in arguing against decisions that would be favorable to our interests? For example, the Slovaks who point to their lower pensions, or Renzi, who balks at cutting Italian pensions to fund Greece (totally inaccurate, but these leaders, too, are obviously playing to their own domestic audiences)? What added value has the referendum brought to the ongoing negotiations, which, formally at least, were temporarily suspended but are reopening with Athens under even greater pressure due to our being outside any programme, and thus ineligible for funding/liquidity, as of 30 June? Are we returning to the negotiations on a better or worse footing, given the rapid deterioration of all the indicators of the real economy? Did we satisfy the domestic audience to the detriment of negotiations on which our country’s future hinges?

Will the “proud” NO, as some are calling it, perhaps lead in the end to a grand YES to an equally onerous programme, under the weight of the conditions created following the announcement of the referendum (bank holidays, capital controls)? Or, worse still, will it force us into (a) sudden death (scenario)? If the objective was to achieve a measure of national consensus, with the opposition being dragged into accepting of the government’s positions following the NO, this was feasible in any case: The political forces currently in the opposition once supported tougher measures, so their assent to the new proposal was essentially guaranteed. Given the powers arranged against us, our failure to secure the necessary alliances, and our difficult position of dependency, should we perhaps have realized in a more timely manner that it was foolish for us to link changing the European structure as a whole to a change in stance on the Greek issue? Did we perhaps pass up a unique opportunity to successfully promote a just and reasonable demand (with which large social majorities throughout Europe empathize), presenting that demand from what appeared to be an opportunistic perspective and as a lifeline, while we could have first stabilized the country, thus gaining legitimacy in the eyes of our partners as sponsors for the changes Europe so direly needs?

Moving as we did, we probably did more to stimulate the reflexes of the most conservative, establishment circles, some of who equated their stance against Greece to preserving their acquis. Thus, they exerted corresponding pressure on other member states, using all the tools at their disposal (certainly greatly outstripping Greece’s toolkit), while steadily preparing and informing public opinion at home, even with regard to the worst-case scenarios, misattributing exclusive blame to Greece. So, Athens, appealing to sentiment, may have won supporters and the battle of impressions, but, unfortunately, it appears to have lost (in the first round) in essence, having been shunned by most leaderships. In the final analysis, the counterargument is that a country that, beyond its finances, failed to reform its way to greater convergence with European standards has no right to speak, much less set change in motion, proposing an alternative model. Unfortunately, on the level of image (with past governments bearing the greater share of blame), Greece is seen on some issues as an example to be avoided rather than a model for emulation. Consider that the 2004 enlargement brought in new members who, for the most part (in broad terms), lagged behind Greece in terms of European culture and historical points of reference. Although we can’t say the situation has now been totally reversed, the “timeless Greek value” argument has clearly suffered significant erosion.

The lenders’ responsibilities as ‘partners’

Greece Fri 2As for our partners, they quickly traded in their initial suspicion for a punitive inclination against the “undisciplined” Greeks. For some time now, they have highlighted their role as lenders, de-emphasizing their capacity as allies/partners and, thus, ostensible sources of solidarity. There have been various instances of equivocation on their part, and it is now clear that they fortified their positions behind the constant delays/extensions in the negotiations, knowing that the pressure on the Greek side would increase as time went on. It would be no exaggeration to argue that, from a certain point onwards, they started to see the deliberations not as an opportunity for a viable solution, but as means to point up Greece’s weaknesses (as if those weaknesses were not a part of, or did not concern, Europe) and gradually undermine the government, with which, they had concluded, they couldn’t (wouldn’t?) come to an understanding. At the same time, putting on a stern face for the most part, they seized the opportunity to send a message to anyone entertaining following in Syriza’s footsteps (see Podemos). They proved to be dangerously inflexible, even in the face of reasonable proposals, prioritizing technical issues while ignoring the harsh reality of the situation. Moreover, they frequently made inept statements, aggravating the climate of division and perpetuating stereotypes and national misconceptions on both sides. In this way, they exacerbated the populism in Greece, where there is now perceptible polarization along class lines.

It is clear to Germany that it cannot lead in Europe without flexibility or while significant swaths of societies are taking a stand against its fiscal model, a trend evident in the convergence and growing strength of disparate configurations with anti-European agendas. These are not just your garden variety Eurosceptics, some of who want Europe, but simply in a different direction. In any case, the existing model cannot be called attractive on the level of European citizens, which necessarily raises concerns among leaders. If they continue to turn a blind eye, targeting countries they don’t like, they will soon be faced with increasing opposition from more systemic actors who are coming under equal pressure.

Scenarios for the day after: The enemy of ‘bad’ is ‘worse’

As we speak, all scenarios remain on the table. Of key importance today is an agreement that provides for the gradual restoration of trust. Although I am not optimistic, neither do I want to be a pessimist. So I will set out to the optimal scenario, all things being equal, and leave out the negatives: An agreement is reached (a comprehensive, long-term agreement is needed, as the funding gap has widened and the Greek economy is in a dire situation), and we are put under very close supervision/monitoring. The Institutions will badger us on compliance with the rules, they will ask for concrete commitments, responsibility, credibility and greater predictability. They will focus on the need for us to show, at every step, that we have taken on full responsibility for implementing a difficult agreement with many conditionalities. The goal is for the restoration of economic activity, through gradual funding, to proceed in tandem with the reforms (which most Europeans see the current government as being unable to implement), returning control of the government’s operations/decisions to the lenders, thus moderating any message to the effect that Europe is backing down under the will of Greece’s politicians. At the same time, the possibility of debt relief has re-emerged, based on the recent IMF report, although it is not very likely that it will be agreed too immediately. So, the question we will soon see answered is, did we all do too little, or even too much, too late, or will Europe once again show its ability to compromise, even at the very last moment.

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Jul 10 2015

The Great Game

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By Professor Michael Cox, Director of LSE IDEAS and Professor of International Relations at LSE, currently in Greece.

Greece Fri 1To read the press here in Greece, as well as in that far distant place most Greeks now refer to as ‘Europe’, one could easily conclude that the current crisis is about debt. The Greeks have acquired lots of it. Their creditors now want their money back. But the Greeks show no sign of being willing or able to pay any time soon. Hence the impasse in which Greek debtors and European creditors now find themselves.

Of course the crisis is about much more. There are other issues at stake. The problem is that both sides have a completely different understanding of what the issues actually are.

For the Greeks it is self-evident. It is about a failed austerity programme that was fast destroying their country even before Syriza came into office. As an angry Greek suggested to me the other night in Athens,  the problem right now is not the current government:  it’s all those crooks who went before! Maybe. But stay in Greece for more than a few days and you soon find out it is about much more besides. First, it is about Greek national pride, and the very strong belief in the country that Greece should not be pushed around by foreigners. And second, it is about that most Greek of all political ideas: democracy. Which is one of the reasons why Tsipras called that controversial, but deeply symbolic, referendum last Sunday.

Needless to say, none this is of any interest at all to the creditor countries. The Greeks might have invented democracy and had a seriously tough time with some other countries in the past. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t pay their bills. Or live within their means. Or claim privileges for themselves which others less pampered than they – like the Irish and the Portugese – have been denied. For all these reasons, and no doubt many more besides,  Syriza is at best not trusted, and at worst, quite literally hated by many politicians in Europe. Tsipras may quote Greek philosophers to his heart’s content. But that doesn’t cut much ice in Berlin, Brussels or Strasbourg. The left may admire him. Some may even see him as some sort of swashbuckling Robin Hood figure leading Europe out of the terrible impasse in which it now finds itself. But his numerous opponents from across the continent just can’t abide the man with his confident demeanour, anti- establishment rhetoric, and equally casual, anti- establishment dress code. ‘Why doesn’t he wear a tie for goodness sake’ a conservative Greek once asked me?

Greece Fri 4But behind all this there is something far more significant going on, and not just on the floor of the European Parliament where Tsipras recently spoke in his typically rock star way.  Hinted at by some, but without being talked about too loudly by most politicians,  this particular game is as important as any that has been played in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, it bears more than a passing resemblance to an idea that made its debut during the Cold War itself: and that idea, crudely stated, is that if a single country tries to challenge the established consensus, it will inevitably have a destabilising demonstration or ‘domino’ effect on several others. So the contagion must be contained and the country in question be forced to pay a heavy price ‘pour decourager les autres’. This will certainly hurt the country in question. Which is unfortunate. But that will at least have the effect of dissuading anybody else foolhardy enough to trip lightly down the same irresponsible path.

Viewed in this way the Greek crisis takes on a much wider significance for Europe as whole. And it’s not just about debt. It is about something else – namely, Europe’s political future. Will this future be shaped by a set of ‘liberal’ economic rules that take it as read that there is bound to be a lot more restructuring pain before there is ever going to be any real material gain. Or will it, as Syriza’s many enemies out there now fear – and fear with some reason given the fragile state of Europe – be increasingly shaped by those on the radical left (and even the populist right) who feel that the liberal economic model is bust and needs to be replaced by something else that will return ‘power to the people’. This in reality is what is now at stake.

The Greeks today obviously – and understandably – feel that they are occupying centre stage. That the current struggle is all about them. But in a very important sense Greece has become something of a side-show – albeit a very important side- show – in a much bigger game where the stakes could not be higher. We live, as the Chinese are always quoted as saying – probably unfairly – in ‘interesting times’.

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