Democracy and the Euro or “The Greek Stand-off”

Hold on folks, it looks like Greece may turn out to be the Lehman Bros. of public debt. Moral hazard on a national scale. No wonder markets are nervous.

Greeks have to face the consequences of their own political choices.

One way to look at this week’s events in Greece is as George Papandreou’s revenge. As Prime Minister last November, he proposed that Greeks vote on whether they could live with the conditions the EU and IMF were imposing in return for a bailout. The idea sent markets into a tizzy, Mr. Papandreou lost his job, and the referendum never occurred.

But Greek voters are having their say anyway. On Tuesday Greek President Karolos Papoulias called a new election for next month, after no party could put together a majority following this month’s splintered election.

The far-left Syriza coalition, which finished second in the voting, is rejecting the bailout terms and demanding an end to fiscal restraint and economic reform. Presumably the Greeks will now have a no-holds-barred debate about the consequences of their policy choices, including possible ouster from the euro zone.

The rest of Europe may find this inconvenient, but this strikes us as progress and in any event was inevitable. That was the wisdom behind Mr. Papandreou’s stillborn idea. Like every other country in the EU, Greece is still a democracy. Greek voters reserve the right to say no to Brussels, or even to elect those willing to abrogate agreements made in their names by former governments.

For decades, the European conceit has been that voters would gladly cede their national right to democratic accountability in return for Continental peace and prosperity. This worked as long as there was prosperity. But now that pan-European governance includes painful policy choices imposed from afar, the national publics want their franchise to mean something.

Angela Merkel may want to enshrine fiscal rectitude for all time in a fiscal pact. The German Chancellor may even be right as a policy matter to want to do that given that her taxpayers will otherwise have to pay. But the fatal flaw in her vision is that she can’t control the course of democratic events outside Germany’s borders. All the more so when she has become arguably the main issue in Greek politics, complete with demagogic posters of her in Nazi garb.

In a sense the Greeks are using their elections as a way to renegotiate the terms of their most recent €130 billion bailout by the rest of Europe. They assume that if they refuse to go along, the Germans and the European Central Bank will give in and ease the terms of fiscal retrenchment and reform.

The belief, at least on the Greek left, is that the country will be able both to stay in the euro and keep its generous welfare state, albeit with some mild adjustment. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras is even proposing to hire 100,000 more public employees.

European leaders will be doing everyone a favor if they make clear that there is no such easy way out. If Greeks want to continue being rescued by the rest of Europe, they must meet European terms. If Greeks can’t manage that, then Athens will get no more bailout cash and will have to find the money to pay its own bills.

And if Athens fails to do so, then default and ouster from the euro zone are likely, with all of the predictably terrible consequences for Greek living standards following the return of the drachma and devaluation. Instead of staying as part of modern Europe, Greece will slide toward a Third World future.

European leaders need to deliver this message not as a threat, but as the reality of what Greeks are risking if they reject reform. At least this is a choice Greeks will be making for themselves. The lesson will not be lost on voters elsewhere in the euro zone.

Europe’s leaders can’t repeal democracy on the Continent, and therefore they can’t ask countries in the euro zone for more than their politicians can deliver or their populations can take. This means admitting that the bailout model that Europe adopted for Greece two years ago has failed and is increasing political polarization across Europe, and not only in Greece.

The euro zone was conceived as a currency union among countries adhering to certain basic fiscal rules. Had it stuck to that vision in this crisis—rather than turn it into a fiscal or debt union—and let Greece face the consequences of its economic mismanagement from the beginning, Greece might have defaulted and stayed within the euro.

Now so much damage has been done that it’s hard to see such an outcome. Trying to turn the euro into a larger political union has put the entire euro zone in jeopardy.

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