In an apparent reference to other European countries’ resistance to his demands for debt relief, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras insisted on Thursday, “Greece cannot be blackmailed because democracy in Europe cannot be blackmailed.”
Tsipras’ words came after German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble told his new Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, that it was not realistic to make electoral promises that burdened other countries.
Schäuble was right.
The new Greek leader has repeatedly hailed his far-left Syriza party’s electoral win last month as a victory for “democracy” over austerity, suggesting a conflict between the two where there is none and apparently disregarding the democratic wishes of other Europeans.
As The Economist‘s Buttonwood columnist points out, “German voters, when polled, seem pretty clear that they don’t want Greece to be given debt forgiveness. Since they would bear the cost of a Greek writeoff, why should their views count for nothing? And what about the Finns, Dutch, Austrians, etc.?”
An ARD-Deutschlandtrend poll conducted last month found that 68 percent of Germans oppose another reduction of Greek debt. A later Emnid poll for N24 found that only 16 percent are in favor of forgiving Greek debt.
The Netherlands’ prime minister, Mark Rutte, even made an explicit election promise in 2012 not give “another cent” to the Greeks.
The ruling parties in Austria and Finland have made similar promises to their voters.
Most of Greece’s privately-held debt was restructured in 2012. Some 90 percent of its debt is now owed to official creditors, mainly other eurozone governments. Debt forgiveness for Greece would thus simply mean other European taxpayers don’t get their money back.
Moreover, those taxpayers have loaned Greece €240 billion since 2010 on certain conditions. The country was supposed to reduce its government spending and debt and liberalize its economy. It fell short of those commitments under previous governments. Tsipras and his party have reversed some reforms altogether, by canceling privatizations, and they intend to break more promises, by rehiring public workers and raising the minimum wage.
Greek voters signed up to the conditions of their bailout when they elected parties that promised to honor them. Other European voters, in turn, agreed to help Greece when they elected, and reelected, parties that supported the bailouts. This was the democratic compact the Greeks made with the rest of Europe.
By voting Tsipras into office, Greek voters broke their word and their new prime minister is asking his European counterparts to break their word as well — except when it comes to their promise to help Greece.
Greece can’t have it both ways. It can’t expect Europe’s leaders to betray their voters but not their word to Greece. Not can it expect to continue to get help while reneging on its own promises. It either needs to stick to its word or go it alone.