Greece Still Doesn’t Get It; Tsipras Lashes Out at Creditors

Alexis Tsipras accuses other European countries of “punishing” Greece. But he will still take their money.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and French president François Hollande in Paris, February 4
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and French president François Hollande in Paris, February 4 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

Greece’s radical prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, still doesn’t seem to understand his country is in no position to make demands. In an article for France’s Le Monde newspaper, he lashes out at other European states for imposing “harsh punishment” on Greece and forcing it to enact supposedly failed austerity policies in exchange for more aid.

“The lack of an agreement so far is not due to the supposed intransigent, uncompromising and incomprehensible Greek stance,” writes Tsipras.

It is due to the insistence of certain institutional actors on submitting absurd proposals and displaying a total indifference to the recent democratic choice of the Greek people.

Tsipras came to power in January after winning an election for his far-left Syriza party on promises to raise the minimum wage, restore collective bargaining and cancel other liberal economic reforms previous Greek government had enacted.

Immediately after taking office, he canceled the privatization of Greece’s largest seaport and its public power utility.

The new prime minister’s refusal to honor the commitments his predecessor made irked especially Northern European countries, including Germany, but also peripheral eurozone member states that received financial support during the bloc’s sovereign debt crisis. Ireland and Portugal both implemented tough austerity measures and do not see why Greece should get respite when they bit the bullet.

Greece is due to pay back the International Monetary Fund €1.5 billion over the next two weeks with the first, €300 million installment expected on Friday.

Eurozone officials fear that if a deal isn’t reached this week, Greece won’t have time to legislative and implement reforms on which another bailout would be conditioned.

Other countries have loaned Greece €240 billion since 2010 and wrote off most of its debt in 2012. In return, the Balkan nation promised to reduce its government spending and debt and liberalize its economy.

Greece fell short of those commitments under previous administrations. Tsipras insists that January’s election repudiated the austerity program altogether. What he describes as the “recent democratic choice of the Greek people” should, he says, overrule the democratic choices made by other people in the European Union who only reluctantly agreed to borrow Greece money in the first place.

Tsipras calls Greece a “victim” of “extreme neoliberalism” imposed by a “core” of European countries — presumably meaning Germany.

But if Greece is a victim of anything, those “core” European countries would say it is its own incompetence and spendthrift.

In the years leading up to the crisis, Greece expanded its public sector by an estimated 150,000 workers to over one million, or 21 percent of the workforce. Yet Tsipras wants to hire more government workers now.

In the same period, public spending on pensions rose from 12 to 17 percent of annual economic output, reaching the highest rate in the eurozone. Last year, the Finance Ministry revealed that three out of four Greek workers benefit from early retirement rules that allow them to stop working before they reach the age of 61. Yet Syriza says any cuts in pensions would be “recessionary.” Instead, it proposes €600 million in extra spending to finance a thirteenth month of pensions.

In Le Monde, Tsipras brags of raising taxes and attacking an oligarchy that does have disproportionate influence in Greece. But he only pays lip services to labor market and pension reforms that Greece’s creditors insist are needed to make the country more competitive.

Tsipras reiterates a long-standing Greek promise to improve tax collection but it previously turned down offers from other European countries to help it set up an independent tax commission

Among the government’s latest reform proposals are €6 billion in new taxes to pay for food stamps, rent subsidies and electricity for households that are unable to pay their bills — just the sort of generous welfare spending that plunged Greece into debt.

Tsipras has not helped his case by demanding war reparations from Germany and accusing Portugal and Spain of taking a hard line in negotiations in order to bring down his government. Members of his cabinet have also threatened to flood Europe with immigrants, including militants who might have been fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, if Greece doesn’t get its way or to seek help from Russia instead.

This combination of threats and demands for more financial support with no strings attached is exhausting the rest of Europe’s patience. Tsipras’ laments in Le Monde are unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

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