Greece: flying too high?

THERE is a story in ancient Greek mythology which explains the present Greek crisis beautifully.

The Athenian architect Daedalos was imprisoned with his son, Icarus, in the same labyrinth that he had designed for King Minos of Crete. But Daedalos fashioned two pairs of wings out of feathers and wax, and away the pair flew back to the Greek mainland.

Daedalos warned his son not to fly too high or too low, but to keep to his own, even path. But the headstrong Icarus didn’t listen. He soared up into the sky and got too near the sun, which melted the wax – and lo and behold, Icarus crashed into the sea and drowned tragically.

Even in antiquity, this was more than a nice story to be told around the fireplace. It was a warning against what the Greeks called hubris – arrogance of the kind where a mere human thinks himself equal (or even superior to) the gods.

In Greek culture, hubris was the ultimate sin the gods would never forgive. Your end, like that of Icarus, would be tragic.

The modern Greek Icarus’ name is Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister. Without going into particulars, he confronted his peers in the European Union and the eurozone with such hubris that he is about to crash into the sea.

The real tragedy is that he is taking his entire country and its 12 million people down with him. It will take a “small miracle”, as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte put it this week, to keep Greece in the eurozone and in the air.

The substantial support Tsipras received from the Greek voters in Sunday’s referendum (more than 61% voted “no” to the EU-prescribed austerity measures) made him think that his position in negotiations was strengthened. This was not the case.

In fact, the Greeks walked away from negotiations at a time when consensus was within reach. This irritated the other European leaders no end – especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spent endless hours patiently sitting down with Tsipras and explaining the realities of life to him.

In vain - Tsipras’ rigid Marxist outlook on life made him deaf and blind. And so Merkel, especially, felt betrayed.

Nevertheless, on Tuesday the Greeks were afforded a chance to explain to the others how they felt they could reconcile the referendum outcome with their catastrophic economic position. But beware of Greeks (not) bearing gifts: Tsipras and his new Minister of Finance, Euclid Tskakalotos, came empty-handed; no document, only a few empty words. And then they also had the audacity to demand a further €30bn in aid.

Hitting the desk in frustration

This was the final straw. Both were mercilessly lashed by their peers for wasting their time.

Afterwards, a visibly emotional and frustrated president of the European Commission (“cabinet” of the EU) Jean-Claude Juncker repeatedly hit the desk in front of him during a press conference as he aired his anger at the mercurial Greeks.

Nevertheless, they gave Tsipras an ultimatum. He has to come up with a wide-ranging plan by Sunday. If he does, the eurozone’s 19 ministers of finance will gather on Saturday and all 28 EU heads of government on Sunday to deliberate.

This week, the general view was pessimistic. Chances were overwhelmingly that Greece would be cut loose.

Juncker explicitly said that the European Commission had a detailed plan ready for Greece leaving the euro. An anonymous, highly-placed EU official reportedly told reporters: “The guillotine has been prepared.”

All of this means that an economic and human catastrophe is about to descend on Greece. The banks are running out of cash and are on the verge of crashing. People have no money to spend on anything other than the barest necessities of life, and the whole economy is coming to a standstill.

In fact, the EU is planning huge humanitarian help in the form of food, medication, blankets, etc, just as if a giant tsunami or earthquake had hit the country.

Ideological blindness of a prime minister and his party

And all of this because of the ideological blindness of a prime minister and his party, who think that being ideologically correct will miraculously solve all problems.

What now? There are two possible scenarios for Europe. Both are being ventilated by authoritative analysts in the European media.

In the first, a 'Grexit' will not have much of a direct disadvantage for the European economy (Greece’s economy amounts to 2% of that of the EU), but the political and symbolic fallout will be dramatic. For the first time, a tear will appear in European unity, showing that “ever closer union”, as the EU’s founding Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 put it, can be reversed.

This would give succour not only to Eurocritical parties like Marie le Pen’s Front National in France, Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos in Spain and Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands, but will also influence the British public to vote against continued British membership of the EU in that country’s planned referendum next year.

And make no mistake, while a Grexit can in principle be weathered, a Brexit would really put the cat among the pigeons. It is difficult to see the EU surviving that.

There is, however, also another scenario. The fact is that, differences in nuance notwithstanding, the Greek drama has not split the present European leadership. On the contrary, in the main they have stood together like seldom before.

Also, if people see the chaos with which the Grexit is developing, they might think twice before deciding to leave either the eurozone or the EU as such. And then the EU might even come out of the present crisis strengthened.

It is, of course, far too early to say what direction history will take. What is certain however is that Europe is standing before the most important fork in its road since 1945: will it, like Daedalos, stay on an even course, or will it, like Icarus, soar too near to the sun and crash?

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.

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