The Greek Debt Crisis’ Great Divide

When CNBC conducted an Internet poll asking which Oscar-nominated song best described the Greek crisis, 51 percent picked “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” In Greece, we have grown accustomed to tension with our partners in the European Union. But when even a flippant American poll shows impatience with our plight, the magnitude of our isolation is frightening. A Greek television station reported the poll, and my son, who is 16, muttered, “They hate us even when they don’t know us.”

Fatigue with the Greek crisis has taken hold at a crucial time. With state funds expected to run out before the end of the month, the new government needs to persuade its creditors that it will carry out reforms and earn the release of funds tied to a 240-billion-euro bailout agreement it had promised to scrap. The government is trapped between creditors who don’t trust it and hard-line Syriza members who insist on rolling back earlier measures — even at the cost of Greece’s exiting the eurozone, which most Greeks want to remain part of.

When voters elected Syriza on Jan. 25, they were expressing hope for the impossible mission that it promised: loosening austerity and slashing the country’s debt while maintaining the funding from Europe that would allow Greece to stay in the eurozone. Many observers, including prominent economists, hoped to see an alternative to the austerity-for-reform model, which they believe to be a failure. But the past few weeks have been marked by increasing economic instability, with revenues collapsing while a viable deal between Greece and its partners remains elusive.

Even more alarming is the war of words between the two sides, which is testing the European Union’s foundations of equality and solidarity. Since late 2009, when it became clear that overwhelming debt would force Greece to seek its partners’ support, we have seen the end of diplomacy as we knew it in the European Union, when compromises would be hammered out behind closed doors, with just enough ambiguity to allow consensus among nations.

The European Union dithered in early 2010 as Greece gasped for loans, allowing two conflicting narratives to emerge, with lasting consequences: Among the richer countries, citizens were told of the lazy Greeks who needed a bailout; in Greece, people felt humiliated by their country’s collapse and angry at Germany’s preaching. A “neutral” mechanism for dealing with such problems — something along the lines of the International Monetary Fund — would have prevented divisions from emerging between rich and poor, north and south, creditors and debtors.

Now many officials in European Union countries are upset by their Greek colleagues’ brazen demands, while many Greeks see their creditors in Europe, in the European Central Bank and in the I.M.F. as trying to punish Greece into compliance. This anger propelled Syriza from the political fringe to power. The sense of victimhood that it cultivated strengthens it domestically and encourages it to take a hard line with our creditors.

From the start of the crisis, the German popular press depicted Greeks as sponging off Germans’ hard-earned money. In Greece, populist politicians, protesters and several news organizations presented the bailout (and the reforms it demanded) as a loss of sovereignty. Cartoons of German officials in Nazi uniforms appeared, and a campaign for reparations for the occupation during World War II and for repayment of a loan the Nazis forced Greece to provide, took on new life.

Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras chose to bring the issue to Parliament; his justice minister added that he was ready to allow the confiscation of German state assets in Greece. This prompted fury in Berlin, which rejects Athens’s claims. Last month, Mr. Tsipras had to distance himself from a cartoon in a newspaper aligned with his party depicting the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, as a Nazi.

Around the same time, Mr. Schäuble declared, “I feel sorry for the Greeks. They’ve elected a government that’s behaving pretty irresponsibly at the moment.” Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, Bild, staged a campaign to support a “Nein” vote when the country’s Parliament debated (and ratified) a four-month extension of Greece’s bailout, while the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented that “patience and readiness to show solidarity with Greece is coming to an end.”

In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Mr. Tsipras accused the European Central Bank of suffocating Greece. “The E.C.B. has still got a rope round our neck,” he said. The bank says it cannot agree to more short-term loans for Greece until the creditors conclude that Greece is complying with the bailout program. Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis declared, “The country is at war, the government is in a social and class war with the creditors.”

Even Spain and Portugal, which could have been expected to support Greece’s anti-austerity drive, were caught in the line of fire. Mr. Tsipras claimed that “an axis of powers led by Spain and Portugal” tried to undermine a deal between Athens and the European Union. As both countries face elections this year (and leftist forces are on the rise), Mr. Tsipras said that “conservative forces tried to set a trap for us, to drive us into financial asphyxia.” Spain and Portugal lodged formal complaints with the European Commission, while Mr. Schäuble’s spokesman, Martin Jaeger, denounced the Greek charges. “By European standards, this was very unusual foul play,” he said.

Both Athens and its creditors insist that they want Greece to remain in the eurozone. The Greek government argues that its campaign against austerity offers a way toward growth and greater European solidarity; Germany and the E.C.B. point out that Greece has not honored its commitments. Each side accuses the other of “blackmail.” The Greeks say they are being starved of funds, while the others need to enforce rules while still preventing a Greek exit.

Through all the shouting, the two sides are still trying to come to some agreement. However dangerous the insults and the brinkmanship may be, especially as Greece runs out of money, they may offer a valuable lesson: The European Union might actually be strengthened by the realization that even when some countries do not like each other (at least temporarily), it is still in their interest to work together for the common good.

Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.

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