Letting Greece Off The Hook is a Moral Issue For Many Germans

Angela Merkel Close Up

When shopaholics find all their credit cards are maxed out and they've lost their job they only have two options. They can stare into the middle distance while all their possessions are taken away one by one, or they can contact their creditors.

It is always better to find a go-between such as Citizens Advice, which can arbitrate and will usually persuade angry lenders that a customer who loses their job cannot pay all the money back.

The International Monetary Fund rejected the intermediary role in the aftermath of the financial crisis. When, in 2010, euroland's most indebted shopaholic, Greece, found itself without enough income to cover debt payments, the IMF sided with her creditors. It told Athens to repay the lot in a scheme arranged by Germany, France and the other northern European creditor countries that backed the deal.

However, once the IMF joined as a creditor in this new repayment programme, it realised officials had made a serious miscalculation. Greece had no money to pay back its debts. The Washington-based super-bank arranged a 50% write-down and told Germany to live with losses. Greece struggled on.

This week the IMF in effect admitted that the debt programme for Greece has failed again. Greece needs more time, it said, which is another way of saying there is no way it can repay its debts, which continue to climb.

With pressure mounting on Greece day by day, the IMF produced a general rule that appeared from nowhere as a balm to a raging sore: it said spending cuts and tax rises, when implemented in a short space of time and under pressure from international money markets, can backfire spectacularly. All the chatter at the IMF's annual meeting in Tokyo last week was of this "scientific" study carried out by IMF economists on the effects of austerity.

Germany was livid (and UK finance minister George Osborne was not best pleased either). Here was an examination that appeared to prove that British-style austerity, replicated across Europe at the behest of the Germans, was reducing GDP and making governments borrow more money, not less. Questions about the veracity of the report's findings occupied many debates. Nevertheless, the IMF stood by its theme that hastily implemented austerity hurts and switched back from its role as joint enforcer to sympathetic adviser.

Sparking a furious row in Brussels, the IMF is understood to be insisting that Greece's eurozone creditors and the European Central Bank write off another €30bn (£24bn) to close the latest funding gap in the Greek rescue plan. For many Germans, letting Greece off the hook is a moral issue. After years of self-imposed austerity, Europe's biggest exporter is upset that when others are asked to go through the same pain they opt out. For the average Christian Democratic Union supporting German, the shopaholic is to blame.

But everyone who borrows money must find a willing lender. And that lender must consider a number of risks, including that the borrower will turn out to be incompetent with money, reckless or unfortunate. Mario Draghi, the boss of the European Central Bank, said at the conclusion of the IMF conference that creditors and borrowers must share the blame. (It is for comments like these that he is suspected by German rightwingers of being a closet socialist.

Draghi and other pragmatic, practically minded European policymakers have pressed for a banking union and cross-border supervision to share the debts among member states. Yet it is a kind of subterfuge that allows banks to be given the money they need supposedly without the eurozone's richer citizens (the Germans, Dutch, Austrians and Finns) noticing. The reasoning is that banks remain the biggest problem for Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland, which are in deep trouble largely because of the colossal bank debts built up after the crash.

A banking union will allow institutions to be refinanced from the centre without governments needing to put a hand in their pocket.

A move like this sidesteps the moral argument over who deserves a bailout. Angela Merkel, who is nothing if not a practical politician, can see the numbers cannot add up on a Greek deal unless payments are delayed and for that reason she has fallen in behind Draghi, agreed the banking union and giving more time to Greece.

Her visit to Athens last week was all about showing to the right wing of her party and the free market FDP, who are in her coalition and run the foreign ministry, that Greece will remain a euro member whatever the circumstances.

Writing off more Greek debt is problematic after she, like most European policymakers, promised that the latest €130bn of loans was the last word. Hence the need to battle with the IMF. At the moment the banking union is her preferred vehicle.

The question now is whether a banking union and more Greek debt forgiveness can haul the eurozone out of its hole and restore confidence and growth. According to Ollie Rehn, the commissioner in charge of economic affairs, it is the cornerstone of recovery. But this conjuring trick could create as many problems as it solves. In Britain, it must galvanise the eurosceptic voter, especially when the EU attempts to include the 10 non-members of the eurozone, including Britain, in the banking union.

If Brussels finds a legal formula that allows Britain and Sweden to stay outside the banking union but inside the financial supervision structure, which is an EU construct, there will still be a fight over shifting funds from rich to poor under the guise of the new finance act.

What will Ukip say? That the EU is seeking greater powers to steal the money of rich nations to deal with the feckless Spanish and Greeks. It's got to be a reasonably safe bet. Many other perfectly sane Europeans, with more muscle through their PR voting systems, will agree. There is the promise from Brussels of more powers for the EU parliament to counter this threat. Maybe.

It is understandable that policymakers are fixed on solving economic problems, But if the cost is democracy, then it will be angry, unruly politics that unravels the deal.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Phillip Inman in Tokyo, for The Guardian on Sunday 14th October 2012 14.52 Europe/London

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image: © Dirk Vorderstrasse

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