Compromise Falters Greece, Germany Wrestle Over Euro

As German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble tries to drum up support for a new debt deal for Greece, Greek politicians say they have no appetite for reform.
Wrestling to the end.

Greece's future in the euro currency zone is still not certain.

In an interview this week, Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, likened the European Union’s austerity demands -- which Greece has supposedly agreed to carry out -- to the medieval practice of bloodletting.

That is making life more difficult for Greece's main nemesis, German Finance Minister Wolfang Schäuble, who is trying to persuade his own party to support a four-month extension of Greek aid he brokered earlier this week.

Mr. Schäuble is promising that Greece will only receive more money if the country sticks to austerity measures outlined by its lenders: a deal reached earlier this week that some Greek government ministers are now disavowing.

In an interview with Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that resumed publishing after terrorist attacks killed 11 of its staff and a police guard in January, Mr Varoufakis warned that austerity was ineffective.

''In the Middle Ages, doctors prescribed blood-letting to patients, which often resulted in a worsening of their condition, but they kept doing it,'' he said. ''This is a perfect illustration of the current attitude of the E.U.: The more austerity policies fail, the more they are implemented.''

The comments infuriated Mr. Schäuble, who is trying to win support within Germany for a plan that would give Greece some extra breathing room to refinance its repayment of €240 billion in rescue aid.

The deal would give Greece a four-month extension of the financial lifeline that is keeping the country afloat.

Mr. Schäuble had rejected Greece’s request to be freed from its austerity commitments, and last Friday signed on to a plan to extend financial support after Greece seemed to agree to put in place unpopular austerity cuts.

In Berlin today, Mr. Schauble is trying to persuade German parliamentarians to support the compromise ahead of a vote in the Bundestag on Friday.

Some are skeptical Greece will honor its bargain and worry that too many concessions will encourage other euro nations to renege also. Mr. Varoufakis’s comments to Charlie Hebdo were seen as another sign that Greece is not committed to reforms its lenders say are vital to its future in the euro zone.

Athens has received €240 billion in bailout loans from its international lenders since 2010, and negotiated a writedown of debt held by private creditors in 2012. The biggest remaining lenders are the European Union, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

If you think it is in your interest to shoot down progressive governments like ours, just a few days after our election, then you should fear the worst. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister

The Greek government has to pay €2 billion in interest on the bailout by Saturday, and owes another €1.6 billion to the IMF in March, and €7.5 billion to the ECB in July and August.

Mr. Varoufakis told a Greek radio station Wednesday he believes Greece will struggle to make these payments. In another interview, he said the government “would not sell off the family silver cheaply,” a reference to the privatization program the troika is insisting on.

Greece’s energy minister said earlier this week the government would not proceed with the sale of electric utility PPC and power grid operator ADIME even though Mr. Tsipras had appeared to promise these a day earlier.

Mr. Varoufakis warned that Europe risked pushing Greece into the arms of the far right if lenders insisted on austerity and big debt repayments.

"This is what I tell my counterparts: If you think it is in your interest to shoot down progressive governments like ours just a few days after our election, then you should fear the worst,” he said.

The Greek government, led by the left-wing Syriza party, came to power in January by promising to roll back austerity and cut debt repayments. Its policies are diametrically opposed to conditions laid down by its lenders.

Mr Varoufakis said bringing down the new Greek government would play into the hands of “the fanatics, the racists, nationalists and those who live by fear and hatred.”

The Greek government had promised to raise taxes, but Mr. Varoufakis said two of the wealthiest groups in Greece, the Orthodox Church and its shipping magnates, are not easy to tax.


Greece Greek has time to repay debt repayment schedule maturities loans-01


The Church’s assets are not liquid, and the shipping industry is highly mobile and could evade taxes by relocating, he said.

The four-month extension of Greece's rescue has to be ratified by eurozone countries.

In six, including Germany, Finland and Estonia, national parliaments will also vote on the plan. In Finland, a center-right party is keen to support the German line of insisting on Greece's adherence to austerity cuts.

Estonia is also expected to support the deal. But in Germany, passage is not assured, especially if Greece disavows its ostensible austerity pledge.


Meera Selva is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]