The Euro-Crisis: A Lesson in Four Words

I happened to be in Germany two weeks ago, and one of the things that struck me in the Franken region where I was working, was the way they said "No." They rarely used the stricter-sounding German "Nein," opting instead for a more casual- and informal-sounding "Nay."

I also happened to be in Greece last week, just when the new crisis erupted. Curiously enough, the way you say "Yes" in Greek is... "Nay." That was the way Socrates said it, and that has been the Greek way to say "Yes," ever since.

With some justification, the current Euro-crisis, and what now appear to be never-ending debates about new austerity requirements, new bailout payments, and servicing the Greek debt have all been couched as a fight between Germany and Greece, with everyone else serving largely as bewildered onlookers. It is more than that, of course, but this conflict does play a powerful role in what has been happening (or not happening) in the past several months.

The reason this is important is that things often do not appear to translate very well across the cultural divide separating the European north from the Mediterranean south. One country's "Yes" is another country's "No," after all.

The fight comes down to the proper relation between the new Austerity programs to be imposed upon Greece and the Bailout payments the country needs to keep going. The Germans want more draconian Austerity; they seem to represent the party of NO. The Greeks want the cash; they are clearly waiting on a very big YES.

The Greek word for Austerity is "Lee-TOW-tees," another word Socrates would have understood. It comes from ancient Greek rhetoric, referring to a double negative that is used to make a positive. You can see the irony here; it's largely a crisis driven by multiplying No's. And the question for the Austerity regime imposed by the "Troika" (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) is how many negatives can possibly be piled on in order to provide a more positive outcome for Greece and her people.

Two "Neins" do not make a "Nay." The IMF has admitted as much, and has gone further in admitting that without the significant debt relief promised to Greece several years ago, the Austerity program amounts to a never-ending cycle of economic derailment.

There is another word you hear a great deal in Greece. It is a verb, and I know of no other language that has a specific verb dedicated to the idea. The verb is "pro-la-VEN-een," and it means "to have time." You hear it almost exclusively in the negative: "I don't have time," or "I didn't have time," or "we didn't have time."

I recognize that I've just said "I don't have time" in English; we certainly do have the concept. But we don't have a verb; the way we conceptualize the idea is profoundly different, I think. To express the idea, we put together a subject (I), a verb (Have), and an object (Time). In other words, we think of time as the object, as something to have or not to have. Greeks think of time as verbal, as motion.

You could say that this fascination with time, with not having it, contributes to a crazy-seeming culture of the last minute. There's something to that idea, too. And it can indeed be maddening when you need to get things done, or when you need to be sure of an important outcome--like a train or bus departure, or a debt payment.

[I recall my first trip to Germany. I'd come there directly from Greece and was amazed by the way buses arrived at precisely the minute listed on the station signs. There was nothing like that in Greece. On my last day there, I asked a bus driver about it, about how they managed it. "Es steht in Program," he told me; "It's in the program." I understood that, I admitted, but I wondered about traffic, about accidents and thelike. He looked at me incredulously. "Alles steht in Progam"; "everything is in the program." I'm not sure what scared me more: the idea that such a program exists, or the fact that he so clearly believed it did.

A world without chaos--that was the dream. No last minutes there.]

The thing is, not having time can be a blessing too, especially on vacation... on a Greek island, let's say. It's like the unexpected freedom that comes with forgetting your smartphone or computer for a day. Blessed relief, and no time.

Not having time is both a blessing and curse, at once. It's not a Yes or No thing.

As Greece came to the literal last minute in which to make a large payment to the IMF (by Tuesday, June 30th, at midnight), negotiators were furiously trying to cut a deal--releasing more money to keep the Greek banking system afloat even as it appeared to be hopelessly underwater.

The relatively new Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, felt that he was being blackmailed: new and more draconian cuts to Greek pensions and more new taxes on the tottering tourist industry were to be the necessary condition for the next Euro-payment. And no debt relief in sight.

That's when Mr. Tsipras did the unexpected. Last minute or not, he called for a national referendum on the matter, and at 3:30am on Friday/Saturday June 26/27, the Greek Parliament agreed. Mr. Tsipras's idea was that he could not impose this burden on the Greek people without their accepting it; you need public "Buy-In" for cuts this deep and this painful. The referendum was scheduled for one week later, on Sunday, July 5th.

Needless to say, that created the continuing flurry of discussions we've witnessed all week. President Obama was on the phone with Chancellor Merkel over the weekend. Everyone in the European Union seemed to be in confusion, or disagreement, about who was, and who was not, still seated at the negotiating table. Anyone you asked pointedly about this said that they were still committed to talking these issues through. And not only up to the last minute, but well after it. When the midnight deadline passed on Tuesday, and Greece failed to make its payment, they were still talking. They still are.

Technically, Greece offered a new counter-proposal that her Euro-zone partners needed to look over; there were serious questions as to whether there is anything new in the Greek proposal other than the timing. Clearly, however, protecting Greek pensioners is a top priority for Mr. Tsipras, as well it should be; significant debt relief is also the only way out of the death-spiral Greece is currently in, as Mr. Tsipras's team has repeatedly said this week. Recent articles by Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have made the economic argument here; both advised the Greek people to vote No on Sunday. Mr. Tsipras has been making the accompanying moral argument.

Mr. Tsipras was especially deft in refusing to reduce this to an argument about numbers--though the numbers clearly matter, and the Greek numbers certainly do not add up--and he has refused to be a prisoner of time. Instead, he opted to use a single word to powerful rhetorical effect: democracy.

This, too, is a Greek word, another word Socrates knew well. And while the current crisis facing this novel twelve-year experiment with an international economic union has revealed just how little all "Europeans" have in common, Greece is reminding its partner nations that one thing for which Europe clearly must stand is democracy, the role of the people who have been invested, not just with political voice and political power symbolized by the ballot, but with inviolable rights and value as well.

Democracy, like freedom, is virtually a religious word in Greek.

Mr. Tsipras has argued not just that the proposed austerity measures will further damage the Greek economy; he has argued that they are anti-democratic measures, symbolic of an increasingly dominating Troika that has placed Greece in the virtual role of the economically enslaved. The map of the Euro-zone now appears to contain a dangerously fractious fault-line, separating the dominating economic powers to the North (Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden), from the disempowered Mediterranean countries to the South (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece). Refusing such a slavish position within the Union, Mr. Tsipras reminded his European partners that the citizens he represents have rights, and that the right to vote is inviolable, especially as to whether they will accept this new Austerity regime or not.

And that's precisely what they did on Sunday, voting against the Austerity proposal with a majority of more than 60%. Or so we hope.

The problem is (no surprise here) the distorting and often stupefying form of contemporary politics. The center right coalition that was ousted by Mr. Tsipras's Syriza Party in the last elections has been crying foul about the whole affair. Like most conservative parties in our Neoliberal moment, the conservative New Democracy Party was far more comfortable with "starve-the-beast" kinds of budget cuts, no matter the pain they may cause. The major European players on the other side of this issue, especially Germany, would doubtless find a conservative Greek government more amenable and easier to work with; they appear to be angling now to make this crisis the end of Mr. Tsipras's brief tenure, if not of the contr he represents. And the leader of New Democracy, Adonis Samaras (who served as Greek Prime Minister before being replaced by Mr. Tsipras) has been doing everything in his power to stymie Mr. Tsipras's surprising move toward People Power.

The main strategy appears to be to confuse the issue of the upcoming Referendum. It couldn't sound simpler. The Greek people are being offered a straightforward Yes-or-No vote.

But Yes or No to what? Mr. Tsipras has been crystal clear about this; this is an up-or-down vote on the latest Austerity proposal to be imposed on Greece by the Troika as a condition for continued bailout funding. Mr. Tsipras himself lobbied hard for a No vote, and staked his political future on the outcome. But Mr. Samaras, like many others outside of Greece, translated the referendum into very different and more ominous terms: it was, he insisted, effectively a vote for sticking with the Euro (Yes) or returning to the Greek drachma (No)... and so, by cruel implication, it put the question of whether Greece will remain in the European Union or not.

That was not really what was on the table, not yesterday and not now. Greece will not abandon the Euro unless it chooses to do so, and it cannot be forced out of the Union. We may recall that several European Union member nations (the United Kingdom, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia) are in the Union but not on the Euro. This was solely a democratic vote on the proposed new Austerity regime. Period.

So we appear to be facing yet another profound and lingering confusion about Yes and No--how you say them, what they mean.

Now the Greek electorate has spoken, and with an unexpected majority. It has said "No" in its own way: "O-chee," not "Nay." And now a new translational challenge has appeared: how to interpret this vote, how to understand what it meant for the Greeks who voted No, and what it will mean for the European Union which must now interpret and respond to this vote.

New dangers and new temptations now complicate an already crowded negotiating environment. If Mr. Tsipras interprets the Referendum as a mandate of any sort on his own leadership or on the Syriza Party he represents, then he will snatch defeat from the jaws of a surprising victory. He must return to the negotiating table intent on re-assuring his nervous European partners that Greece intends to pay its debts, but to do in a humane and sustainable way. He is well positioned now to make the case that the promised debt relief is long overdue, and an imperative part of a genuine long-term solution.

So much for his foreign policy. Domestically, Mr. Tsipras must resist the chief temptation of every revolutionary and moral zealot in the first flush of a victory. He must heed his own call for democracy and not impose stopgap measures in an autocratic way that will give the lie to his pre-Referendum promises. Banks will continue to limit what Greeks can withdraw from Greek banks. Aggressive capital control is the only a to keep money from fleeing the country in this delicate period. Greek banks will no doubt remain closed for a few days, but they must re-open in relatively short order, and Greeks living or traveling outside of Greece must have access to their funds as well (currently they do not). The people must have access to their safety deposit boxes; there have been unsettling reports that they will not. Anything that suggests government appropriation of private property, or seizure of assets, will undo his public support in a heartbeat. Mr. Tsipras's coalition must walk a very delicate tightrope now; the time for selling his ideas is past. Now he must listen, and he must be very, very creative in pursuing democratic means of weathering the storm at home until a new deal can be reached.

For Germany, the task is clearer. It cannot simply repeat its emphatic No. The first comments from German officials suggested that they wished to punish Greece anew, by interpreting the referendum result as the end of Greece's access to the Euro. No to the Euro, and No to Europe.

It is clear that Germany's Euro-partners (and th IMF) will not consent to such punitive measures, and Germany must recognize that while it is the dominant power in the economic bloc, it cannot run things alone. The anti-democratic temptation toward autocracy is as much Germany's problem as it is Mr. Tsipras's.

Within a week, the outline of a new deal should be visible, in however vague an outline. It is not the case that Greece does not have any more time; rather, Greece is in time. But then, so are we all.

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.
Georgia State University