I have about 3.6 billion hours to kill (numeracy was never my strongest suit, either) in a hub airport on my way to Athens. I have just got off the phone with Time Magazine’s woman in Greece who tells me that they expect to have a new prime minister named in the next few hours. Which should, according to most people’s thinking, bring the last week of unseemly jostling for political office and name calling to an end.
I’m not so sure that substituting a bloodless technocrat for G-Pap in Greece and anybody on earth for Berlusconi in Italy is going to change much. Though the markets rallying on the merest whiff of rumours that Silvio was going to go was a necessary bit of light relief.
Why, you would have to wonder, would a man with no mandate whatsoever be able to achieve anything that Papandreou and PASOK weren’t? The Greek people’s feelings about the changes being forced on their society are not likely to change just because the Prime Minister does.
Both Papandreou’s party and that of his arch rival (and I think former college flat mate) Antonis Samaras are embedded in Greek society in the way that Fianna Fail was, and probably still is in Irish society. The loyalty they inspire is the very thing which undid them. They are so closely connected to their support base they were never going to be able to impose the kind of austerity that either country needed to get the books in order.
That is why, in my opinion, Papandreou dreamed up his disastrous referendum notion. He knew exactly how well it would go down in Paris and Berlin and thought that it was the best way possible to avoid punishing the Greek people even further. He calculated that he could leverage his country’s economic weakness into a bit of political clout. Nobody seriously believes that Greece can ever hope to repay this debt without banjaxing itself permanently so why not try and intertwine the fate of your country with that of the future existence of the Euro. It was cack handed and poorly executed but does anybody believe that Sarkozy and Merkel were acting in any less self interest.
Even if history proves me completely wrong on that what isn’t going to change is the Greek people’s feelings about austerity. Lucas Papademos, or whoever, is going to make the right noises about implementing programmes, meeting targets etc etc and the cracks will be papered over. But they are going to have an election in February and on the basis of the naked and ugly self interest shown by politicians of all persuasions so far it will inevitably descend into a referendum on further austerity. That campaigning will begin …. oh … about now I would have thought and the markets, and the IMF ill be listening and watching closely. Greece will remain as far away as it is today from ever repaying everything it owes, the markets know as much and ….. you don’t need me to spell it out.
That is why, I would have thought, that Papandreou’s resignation ends nothing. The threat of a Greek default has not receeded one inch, it is merely overshadowed by more attention grabbing drama in Italy. So now in the 150billion hours I have still to wait here in Terminal 2 of Gharles De Gaulle before boarding I’m going to have a good long think about what I’d do if I was a Greek voter.