Chaos, drama and crisis are all Greek words. So is catharsis. Europe is perched between chaos and catharsis, as the political dramas in Athens and Rome reach crisis point. One path leads to destruction; the other to rebirth. Though there are signs of hope, a few more missteps will lead down into the chasm.
The dramas in the two cradles of European civilization are similar and, in bizarre ways, linked. Last week’s decision by George Papandreou to call a referendum on whether the Greeks were in favor of the country’s latest bailout program set off a chain reaction that is bringing down not only his government but probably that of Silvio Berlusconi, too.
The mad referendum plan, which has now been rescinded, shocked Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy so much that they threatened to cut off funding to Greece unless it got its act together – threatening a move that would drive it out of the euro. But this is probably an empty threat, at least in the short term, because of the way that Athens is roped to Rome. If Greece is pushed over the edge, Italy could be dragged over too and then the whole single currency would collapse. So, ironically, Athens is being saved from the immediate consequences of its delinquency by the fear of a much bigger disaster across the Ionian Sea.
Italian bond yields, which were already uncomfortably high, shot up after the Greek referendum fiasco. Berlusconi was forced to pacify Merkel and Sarkozy at the G20 meeting in Cannes by agreeing to a parliamentary confidence vote on his government’s lackluster reform program as well as to monitoring by the International Monetary Fund. The humiliation in Cannes, where Berlusconi’s finance minister pointedly failed to back him, could be the final nail in the prime minister’s coffin.
The end of the Berlusconi and Papandreou eras should, in theory, be a cause for celebration. Although the Italian leader’s behavior has been scandalous, whereas the Greek prime minister’s has not been, they have both led their countries deeper into debt. They are also both members of political castes that have enfeebled their nations for many years. Getting rid of them could be the start of a renewal process.
The snag is that it’s not certain that what comes next will be better. In both countries, where I have spent much of the last fortnight, the best outcome would be national unity governments committed to rooting out corruption and cutting back overgenerous welfare states. This could happen either before or after snap elections. Unfortunately, the old political castes die hard. They could continue bickering over who suffers the most pain and who gets the top jobs until they are staring into the abyss – or even fall in.
Many in the rest of Europe, meanwhile, would probably love to push them over the edge if they were themselves strong enough to take the strain. But Merkel, Sarkozy et al. have been criminal in their lack of preparation. The so-called comprehensive plan agreed to at the euro summit of Oct. 26 was another case of too little, too late. Not only was the plan for recapitalizing Europe’s banks only about half as big as it should have been (while also be foolishly delayed until next June), the scheme for leveraging up the region’s safety net, the European Financial Stability Facility, is full of holes. This became clear at Cannes, where Merkel had to admit that few other G-20 countries wanted to invest in it.
The whole of Europe is now in a race against time. The Greeks have to get their act together before the rest of Europe is ready to cut them loose. The Italians have to restore credibility before they get sucked into a vortex from which they can’t escape. And the rest need to put in place really strong contingency plans in case Athens and Rome continue to let them down. If everybody runs very fast, the last week could be the beginning of the catharsis. If not, chaos beckons.
Hugo Dixon is an editor for Reuters in which this piece appeared Nov 6.