5th Mar 2024


On falling out of the eurozone by accident

  • Careless words reverberate around the EU (Photo: Ed Yourdon)

If there’s one good thing to say about these insult-laden times, it’s that we're seeing the birth of a European public space.

Sure, with all the high-blown rhetoric, jibes (intended or otherwise), bad jokes, or simply talking (where silence would have been better), you might wish otherwise.

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But the new debate is here to stay. At least so long as the eurozone’s architecture remains wobbly. So, for quite some time.

It’s been developing in slow, awkward lurches.

Like when people in other corners of the EU realised that Slovakia was actually a member state and that it didn’t want to contribute to the 2010 Greek bailout.

Or that Finland had a party called the True Finns who weren’t (and still aren’t) keen on helping Greece either.

The voices of politicians from these parties echoed across the euro-area.

But chest-thumping statements aimed at home constituencies don’t always look so funny when splashed on the pages of newspapers in the rest of Europe.

What we are seeing is both the limits and the elasticity of eurozone “solidarity”.

Fast forward from 2010 to 2015: Our political space is seething.

Greek politicians can no longer address their own people only, they are de-facto speaking to the whole of Europe and beyond.

If only the thoroughly loquacious finance minister - Yanis Varoufakis - could see that one interview a week on Greece’s debt plight, not 10, is enough already.

The same applies to German politicians.

’He should read it’

Two events illustrate this nicely.

On the eve of the Bundestag's vote on extending the existing Greek bailout by four months, Varoufakis gave a strong interview on Greek radio in which he said debt reduction isn’t off the table.

As usual, his words reverberated around all of the EU.

His German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble - who personally intervened to ask centre-right MPs to vote in favour of the extension - said he was "stunned" by Varoufakis’ timing.

But Schaeuble is equally naive in thinking his cozy chats with German press will stay by the fireside.

Speaking after the last meeting of eurozone finance ministers, he allowed himself several jokes at Varoufakis' expense.

Relating how the Greek minister had complained about how the media portrays him, Schaeuble said he’d told Varoufakis that he’d made a "stronger impression" on Berlin for the way he talks than on the "substance" of what he says.

Schaueble also offered "if necessary" to send Varoufakis a copy of a 20 February declaration that the Greek man had signed. "He should read it”, Schaueble said.

The throwaway statement came across as patronising.

His words were translated into Greek and Athens has issued a formal complaint to Berlin.

The European public space space is more or less here. But politicians are being careless with it.


Take Monday's eurogroup. Ahead of the meeting, finance ministers lined up to say their bit on Greece. The cumulative effect was deafening. The impression was of all against one. It felt like the EU27 were dishing up moral lectures to Greek people.

Or take semantics. Athens has won few real battles since the new government came to power. But it did succeed in getting “the troika” renamed to “the institutions” and now “the Brussels group”. It's small and arguably meaningless on substance.

But were the others generous - giving Greece its little, badly needed victory? No. Not particularly.

References to “the troika” continued for serveral weeks, often accompanied by smirks and snarky comments.

Words matter. And these days they matter more than ever. Schaueble most recently coined the phrase “grexident” meaning that Greece might leave the eurozone by accident.

Saying such things makes them more likely to happen.

It’s surely a pity that our new European space could see either Greece or Germany insult or joke Greece out of the euro, with all the serious chaos it would bring.

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