Why Germany Wants Rid of Greece


Greece Solidarity protest at British Museum

by Simon Wren-Lewis

When I recently visited Berlin, it quickly became clear the extent to which Germany had created a fantasy story about Greece. It was an image of Greeks as a privileged and lazy people, who kept on taking ‘bailouts’ while refusing to do anything to correct their situation. I heard this fantasy from talking to people who were otherwise well informed and knowledgeable about economics.

So powerful has this fantasy become, it is now driving German policy (and policy in a few other countries as well) in totally irrational ways. In particular, Germany refuses to discuss debt relief with Greece, yet seems quite happy to see Greece leave the Eurozone, the inevitable consequence of which would be that Greece would obtain much greater debt relief through default. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. What is driving Germany’s desperate need to rid itself of the Greek problem?

One possible answer is that Germany finds the truth about Greece too upsetting, too challenging. This is because since 2010 Greece has done most of what the Troika asked of it. In particular, changes in its government’s underlying primary budget balance (i.e. the degree of austerity enacted) have been greater, by a long distance, than any other European economy. For many outside Germany what has happened to Greece as a result is hardly surprising: austerity is contractionary, and austerity on steroids is ruinous. Yet Germany is a country where the ideas of Keynes, and therefore mainstream macroeconomics in the rest of the world, are considered profoundly wrong and are described as ‘Anglo-Saxon economics’. Greece then becomes a kind of experiment to see which is right: the German view, or ‘Anglo-Saxon economics’.

The results of the experiment are not to Germany’s liking. Just as ‘Anglo-Saxon economics’ would have predicted, the results for Greece under the Troika have been a disaster. After dutifully taking the medicine for years, and seeing the collapse of their economy, finally the Greek people could take no more. Confronting this reality has been too much for Germany. So instead it has created its fantasy, a fantasy that allows it to cast its failed experiment to one side, blaming the character of the patient.

The only thing particularly German about this process is the minority status of Keynesian economics within German economic policy advice. In the past I have drawn parallels between what is going on here and the much more universal tendency for poverty to be explained in terms of the personal failings of the poor. These attempts to deflect criticism of economic systems are encouraged by political interests and a media that supports them, as we are currently seeing in the UK. So much easier to pretend that the problems of Greece lie with its people, or culture, or politicians, or its resistance to particular ‘structural reforms’, than to admit that Greece’s real problem is of your making.

After Oxi, what next?

A lot of the commentary on Greece fails to see why the Greek No vote changes anything. This view tends to see the stance of the Eurozone group as simply expressing their own voters’ preferences which will not be changed by what happened yesterday. Here is an alternative reading.

It starts from a simple observation. The Troika will get far less of its money back (if any!) if Greece is forced out of the Eurozone. (I say forced out because Greece does not want to leave, so Greek exit is first and foremost an ECB decision: if you think otherwise read Karl Whelan and Matthew Klein andPaul De Grauwe. [1]) That is why creditors are generally weak in negotiations of this kind. Things are different in this case only because the creditors include the ECB, and Greece wants to stay in the Eurozone. The Troika has played this for all it is worth. They were relying (you could say gambling) on the Greek people, one way or another, deciding that they would agree to the Troika’s demands because they feared Greek exit more.

So far this strategy has failed. First they pushed Tsipras further than he could possibly go, hoping perhaps that Syriza would collapse in recriminations. Tsipras’s response was a unifying referendum. They then gambled that Greece would say no, and they lost that too. Tsipras continues to offer the Troika the chance to be more reasonable. He followed the referendum not with triumphalism but by removing his finance minister. This was both a signal – I really want a deal, even though it will in all probability inflict further (unnecessary) pain on Greece – and a lifeline, because the Troika can now say that an important obstacle to a deal has been removed. (An obstacle, because Varoufakis was too open – something politicians and much of the press hate – and too honest about the other side’s lack of economics.)

Now the Troika seem to face a simple choice. Agree a deal and get a little more heat from your political opponents at home for ‘giving in’, or force Greek exit with the risk that you will get a lot more heat when Greece defaults and people realise you have lost all their money. If they are really just interested in getting as much of their money back as possible, it would seem crazy to throw away their best card by forcing Greece out of the Eurozone.

Of course rationality may not prevail, or interests may be rather different. The IMF may continue to be an unhelpful nuisance. (If you think my criticism of their role was harsh, read this from Peter Doyle.) Some within the Troika will be happy to go for Greek exit because they think nationalist sentiment can overcome any kickback from the subsequent Greek default. Others may fear a deal may encourage anti-austerity sentiment in their own indebted countries.

Unfortunately there is a third possibility, which is probably the worst possible outcome. To prevent any loss of face, the Troika may continue to gamble, waiting for days or even weeks, and watch ECB pressure, together with reluctance by Tsipras to introduce a new currency, gradually bring chaos to the Greek economy. Only then will it negotiate, allowing any deal to be portrayed as the result of desperation by the Greek government. In which case, recent European politics will have reached a new all time low.

Crossposted with Mainly Macro


[1] Martin Sandbu provides a very clear account.