The citizens of Greece face a referendum Sunday that could decide the survival of their elected government and the fate of the country in the Eurozone and Europe. Narrowly, they’re voting on whether to accept or reject the terms dictated by their creditors last week. But what’s really at stake? The answers aren’t what you’d think.
I have had a close view of the process, both from the US and Athens, after working for the past four years with Yanis Varoufakis, now the Greek finance minister. I’ve come to realize that there are many myths in circulation about this crisis; here are nine that Americans should see through.
1. The referendum is about the Euro. As soon as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the referendum, François Hollande, David Cameron, Matteo Renzi, and the German Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the Greeks that a “no” vote would amount to Greece leaving the Euro. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, went further: he said “no” means leaving the European Union. In fact the Greek government has stated many times that – yes or no – it is irrevocably committed to the Union and the Euro. And legally, according to the treaties, Greece cannot be expelled from either.
2. The IMF has been flexible. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde claims that her institution has shown “flexibility” in negotiations with the Greeks. In fact, the IMF has conceded almost nothing over four months: not on taxes, pensions, wages, collective bargaining or the amount of Greece’s debt. Greek chief negotiator Euclid Tsakalatos circulated a briefing on the breakdown that gives details, and concludes: “So what does the Greek government think of the proposed flexibility of the Institutions? It would be a great idea.”
3. The creditors have been generous. Angela Merkel has called the terms offered by the creditors “very generous” to Greece. But in fact the creditors have continued to insist on a crushing austerity program, predicated on a target for a budget surplus that Greece cannot possibly meet, and on the continuation of draconian policies that have already cost the Greeks more than a quarter of their income and plunged the country into depression. Debt restructuring, which is obviously necessary, has also been refused.
4. The European Central Bank has protected Greek financial stability. A central bank is supposed to protect the financial stability of solvent banks. But from early February, the ECB cut off direct financing of Greek banks, instead drip-feeding them expensive liquidity on special “emergency” terms. This promoted a slow run on the banks and paralyzed economic activity. When the negotiations broke down, the ECB capped the assistance, prompting a fast bank run and giving them an excuse to impose capital controls and effectively shut them down.