(The Guardian) The talks between Alexis Tsipras’s government and its creditors have dragged on for so long that it has become hard to believe there will ever be a decisive, make-or-break juncture. And never has that been harder to believe than now, with the arrival of summer and the entrancing distractions it brings to a country like Greece.
There is a striking disconnection in Athens between the blithe lack of concern that the government evinces, and which it has successfully communicated to much of the public, and the objective seriousness of Greece’s plight.
This week Greece and the eurozone face a week of fresh nail-biting uncertainty as the single currency area’s finance ministers prepare to report on progress towards an agreement with Tsipras’s government. On Tuesday, Greece is due to repay €770m (£560m) to the IMF.
A deal with its creditors – the European commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – on moves to liberalise the economy would give it access to the remaining €7.2bn from a €240bn bailout. But it has refused to budge on two “red-line” demands – for pension cuts and looser rules on hiring and firing – and hopes of reaching an agreement in time for a meeting on Monday of the eurozone’s finance ministers have gradually seeped away.
On Thursday, the finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, promised that the IMF would nevertheless get its money. Armageddon – a Greek default on its borrowings followed in all likelihood by exit from the eurozone – may once again have been postponed. But for how long?
Beyond the IMF deadline loom far bigger repayments the government has to make to the ECB in the summer. Yet it is already so desperately short of funds that it has ordered local authorities and public bodies to turn over their cash reserves to the central bank.
Certainly, the government could do with time to lower the expectations it created and which swept Syriza to power last year: expectations it could renegotiate the terms of Greece’s bailout and convince Angela Merkel to abandon fiscal austerity.
In 2014, the Greek economy started to grow again. But last week the European commission cut its estimate for GDP growth this year to a miserly 0.5%
The evidence of real and painful economic hardship is there in Athens.
As it passes through Dafni, a suburb of the capital, the road to Vouliagmeni becomes a shopping area. About four out of every five shops has closed.
“The owners of the shops think the reason they have no customers is because of a mall that opened up nearby,” said Nikos Servios from the nearby Neos Kosmos district, who went to buy a pair of shoes. “But I’ve been to the other mall and most of the people go there to window-shop, watch a movie – it has a cinema – or drink a coffee. Nobody is buying.”
In the centre of Athens, the executive of a manufacturing company described how his firm was having to pay in advance for imported components because the exporters could not insure their credit risk.
“We are paying up front to companies the firm has dealt with for 20 years. That hurts. And it costs,” said the executive who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on behalf of his employers.
Kostas Panagopoulos of Alco Polls said a survey he carried out last month indicated the public was already resigned to compromise: 52% of respondents said they wanted a deal with Greece’s creditors “even if the prime minister had to step over those ‘red lines’”.
On Friday, when Tsipras reported to parliament on the negotiations, he left a notebook behind. The journalists who seized on it found he had drawn a doodle of a ballot box.
“I believe he did that on purpose,” said Panagopoulos.
In recent days, Tsipras’s ministers have embarked on an apparent drive to push out the time horizon for a solution. Varoufakis suggested Monday’s meeting could be a “platform” for an eventual accord. On Thursday, the deputy prime minister, Yannis Dragasakis, told the Guardian the government no longer wanted an interim deal, but a comprehensive agreement.
The question is whether the time is there to be won. A referendum cannot be arranged overnight. Yet there are doubts about whether – even if the government repays the IMF on Tuesday – it will have enough cash left for pensions and wages come the end of the month.
Pressure is building elsewhere. The ECB has been propping up Greece’s commercial banks with emergency lending that the other eurozone countries, which are the ECB’s shareholders, fear may never be repaid. Last week saw a reportedly “intense” meeting at the central bank’s Frankfurt headquarters as some countries lobbied for the imposition of tougher conditions. That, however, could prompt a loss of confidence in Greece’s financial institutions and a run on its commercial banks’ deposits.
Not everyone views the situation with equanimity. Seating at a nearby table in the restaurant-bar at Vouliagmeni, dressed in ripped denim shorts and a crocheted bikini top, was Rania Mavroyani, who said she lived off property that had been left to her.
“I’m worried, because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said
Might Greece be better off leaving the eurozone and going back to the drachma?
“The drachma?” she repeated, and even through her sunglasses there was no mistaking the alarm in her eyes. “I don’t want it back. We must belong to Europe,” she said.
But was a return to Greece’s pre-euro currency a possibility?
“It [is] a possibility,” said Mavroyani. “And it scares me.”