Analysis: Tsipras’s gamble backfires as Greece nears exit

Next 48 hours crucial after bailout extension refused and pressure on banks grows

Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras speaks at the country’s parliament. ‘Tsipras will have to resign if the referendum results in a signal of support for the euro’. Photograph: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras speaks at the country’s parliament. ‘Tsipras will have to resign if the referendum results in a signal of support for the euro’. Photograph: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

 

More than five years after Greece entered its first bailout programme, the country looks as close to an exit from the euro zone as it has been at any point in this crisis.

The decision by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras to announce a referendum in the early hours of Saturday morning in Athens stunned creditors and most of his own people – allegedly Greece’s negotiators in Brussels only heard of the referendum through Twitter.

In many ways it was obvious that Tsipras was never going to agree to sign on the dotted line on Saturday – politically it was in his interest to hold his fire until the last second in order to extract the best possible deal for his country. As a sort of self-styled Che Guevara figure, he was not going to surrender his ideals without a fight.

But it his decision to call a referendum for next Sunday, five days after the Greek bailout expires, that has sparked alarm.

Unsurprisingly, Tsirpas’s gamble that the eurogroup would agree to an extension of the bailout on Saturday backfired. Not least, a bailout extension would need to be ratified in six national parliaments, including the German Bundestag.

German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble told ministers that it would be impossible for him to get the requisite German parliamentary support, while Finnish finance minister Alex Stubb was unequivocal about his views, warning before the meeting that “Plan B” had now become “Plan A”.

The Greek government may still be hoping that lenders are bluffing and will agree to extend the bailout at the last moment, but that seems unlikely.

The next 48 hours are crucial for Greece and its future in the single currency.

Firstly, precedent suggests that there is no guarantee that the Greek referendum will take place. Four years ago, George Papandreou, backtracked on his pledge to have a referendum on austerity measures demanded by international lenders after reaching agreement with creditors.

Referendum

Despite the Greek parliament backing the decision to hold a referendum late last night in Athens, it remains unclear what the public will be asked to vote on, considering that the bailout package will not exist after Tuesday.

As the past week has shown, the planned referendum could be superseded by events, or if it does take place is likely to be more symbolic than pivotal.

The immediate focus over the next 24 hours will be the Greek banking system. With collateral and deposits falling, and queues building at ATMs over the weekend as panicked depositors try to access their funds, there are now expectations that the banks will be closed on Monday or capital controls introduced.

Sunday’s European Central Bank governing council meeting will be critical – at this point the bank could freeze rather than increase the amount of liquidity assistance it is providing to Greek banks.

Tuesday is another deadline. While the looming €1.6 billion repayment to the IMF is weighing on minds, arguably the expiration of the bailout is more serious.

Should Greece find itself outside a loan programme, this would give the green light to the European Central Bank to stop propping up the banks, either by increasing the haircut it applies to the collateral the Greek central bank uses to draw down funds, or by simply halting emergency liquidity.

Finally, the domestic dynamics of the Greek crisis are likely to come into play this week. Should the referendum take place and the Greek people signal their support for the euro and the austerity pledges that involves, Tsirpas will have to resign, given that Syriza has already said it was campaign on a “No” platform.

Stirrings

Already, there are stirrings in the opposition benches. Former prime minister Antonis Samaras who met with senior EU figures last week in Brussels is undoubtedly waiting in the wings – he is due to hold talks with the president on Sunday and has said he is willing to serve in a cross-party government to pull Greece back from the brink of bankruptcy.

As Schauble stressed, a default does not necessarily mean Greece would exit the euro. Nonetheless Greece is moving precariously close to that inevitability. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said on Saturday, the euro area is entering unchartered territory.

“It is not a question of waiting to see what might happen on Monday in terms of a crisis,” he said. “The crisis has commenced.”

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