Frustration spotlighted by referendum poses bigger threat to EU


The Greek people have now raised the stakes, and it’s time for a broader look at the threat to the European project.

There are so many high-profile multinational negotiations ongoing at the moment. Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are haggling their way toward a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia, the EU and the US are battling over the future of Ukraine. Pacific Rim governments are facing down criticism from domestic critics to forge an enormous trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

For all these fights, it’s easy to cast one side in the role of rogue, thief, or unruly child. But if we want to understand these contests and forecast where they’re headed, we must consider them from all points of view. There is no better illustration than the continuing tug of war between Greece and its creditors.

It’s easy for many Europeans to condemn Greece’s SYRIZA-led government. Greece has amassed enormous debt and must pay. If the country resists change, it will need more bailouts in future. But look beyond Greece’s often amateurish government toward the genuine suffering of its people.

Spain, Portugal and Ireland have lost less than 7 percent of GDP since the eurozone crisis began. Greece has lost 26 percent. Wages are down 14 percent. Greece is the only country in the EU where the minimum wage has fallen. Unemployment stands at 26 percent, and more than 75 percent of these people haven’t worked in more than a year. Youth unemployment tops 50 percent. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, nearly one in five Greeks can’t afford a full meal. Homelessness is surging. The child poverty rate has climbed to 40.5 percent. The British Medical Journal finds a “significant, sharp, and sustained increase” in suicides.

Over the past five years, Greece has cut spending and raised taxes on a scale equivalent to 30 percent of GDP. No other eurozone government has done nearly so much. Reform has cut pension benefits. The retirement age is now 67 for both men and women. And for every euro in bailout funds, the Greek government receives less than 20 percent. The rest goes to bankers and bondholders.

The abrasive antics of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ministers have hardened European attitudes toward their country. It’s foolish to demand that Germany pay more reparations for World War II and to accuse the IMF of “looting” the country. The Greeks look silly when SYRIZA offers its creditors a new proposal and then claims to have sent the wrong documents. European backs are sure to stiffen as Tsipras courts Vladimir Putin.

But look at the challenge from Tsipras’s point of view. Austerity has imposed suffering on millions of people who have no role in Greek policymaking. It’s little wonder then that Greek voters turned to a party that promised to ease the pain, and Tsipras wants to keep as many of his promises as he can. His room for maneuver is limited by polls showing that 70 percent of Greeks want to keep the euro even if it means more turmoil, a united front among Greece’s creditors, and charges of betrayal from the left following every concession. Blame him for his clumsiness, but don’t fault him for fighting for the best deal he can get. That’s what the Greek people elected him to do.

Some will argue that if Germany and others offer Greece more room to breathe that Spain, Portugal, and perhaps Italy will want “concessions” too. But Greece is a unique case. These other countries stand on much firmer economic footing, and it’s not as if Greece can expect debt forgiveness and an end to austerity. This country won’t look like a model of anything worth imitating for years to come. The creditors are right: Greece must pay its debt. But it can only meet this challenge if its economy begins to grow, and if the medicine used to cure this country’s ills leaves a generation of young people flat on their backs, how can Greeks learn their lessons and return to work?

It’s time to take a broader view. The biggest risk for Europe is not that Greece will escape its responsibilities, encouraging other countries to try the same trick. It’s that this fight, and the anger it generates on all sides, will further fuel the sort of anti-EU sentiment that has created so many protest parties across the continent of both the left and right. It is frustration with the inability of European institutions to respond to the needs of EU citizens that has put a referendum on continued EU membership on the ballot in Britain and has pushed France’s hard-right Front National into the top spot in that country’s opinion polls.

It is these frustrations, not details of the next Greek bailout, that threaten Europe’s future.

* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.” You can find him on Twitter @ianbremmer.