Europe News

Europe leaders to Greece: Stick to your commitments

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party
Kostas Tsironis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In Paris and Rome, it was sugar coated; in Berlin and Frankfurt unequivocal. But the message from European capitals to Greece's new leaders was the same at every stop on last week's tour - stick to your commitments.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will head to his first European summit on Thursday duly warned that it will be near impossible, as Athens wants, to rip up pledges made during the country's four-year international bailout. Tsipras and his aides were also advised to learn the ways of diplomatic custom.

"Friendship requires telling things as they are," French Finance Minister Michel Sapin told Reuters after meeting his Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis last Sunday. "We must avoid misunderstandings and make sure all, and especially the Greek side, understand how things are."

The positions taken this past week raise pressure on Tsipras to abandon the rhetoric that got him elected. Other European capitals must decide how much they are willing to compromise to keep Greece in the euro. France and Italy, widely perceived as Greece's natural allies, will have to think how far they want to go to facilitate a deal.

"I hope that this European tour has helped them see what others are prepared to do - and not do," said one European official in Brussels.

Tsipras and Varoufakis declined to comment for this article.

There isn't much time. Greece's bailout ends on February 28. Athens says it doesn't want an extension, rather a bridge loan from Europe while it comes up with a new plan for the country. So far, the answer has been no.

Yet without new aid, the Greek state will be starved of funds. Nine billion euros were slated to arrive this year, largely from the International Monetary Fund. Tax revenues are shrinking, and privatizations have been halted. Analysts at Unicredit say the state could run out of money by March.

Diplomatic balancing act

The clearest message to Greece this past week came, as expected, from Germany.

During a news conference with Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in Berlin, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble dismissed Greece's request for any bridge funding and insisted that Athens implement existing bailout agreements.

The news conference was marked by the absence of cordial chit chat or eye contact between the 73-year-old brown-suited German and his 53-year-old open-shirted Greek guest.

In Paris and Rome, the message was more nuanced.

Within southern Europe, France and Italy would appear to be Greece's natural allies. They are run by centre-left governments and that have been pushing their European partners to adopt a more growth-oriented policy for the region.

Both have applauded Tsipras' victory as a triumph of the people's will over suffocating austerity.

French President Francois Hollande's administration has taken on the role of early facilitator for Tsipras: In Paris last Sunday, Finance Minister Michel Sapin, after meeting Varoufakis, sent a text message to Schaeuble asking him to meet the Greek finance minister, according to a French official.

The week ahead: Greece on EU's docket
The week ahead: Greece on EU's docket

During a lengthy news conference after they met in Rome on Tuesday, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi hailed Tsipras for bringing a "message of hope, not just fear" to Europe.

The news conference brimmed with mutual compliments and references to cultural similarities. Renzi referred to his high school ancient Greek classes and gifted Tsipras a tie. The two joked that the Greek leader would start wearing one once Greek's debt woes are over.

Both men are 40. They have taken their countries' political establishment by storm. They govern countries that have Europe's biggest and second-biggest debt as a percentage of output.

Crucially, both see themselves as champions of a lost generation. Italians born in 1970 will pay 50 percent more in taxes as a percentage of their lifetime income than those born in 1952, according to Bank of Italy research. They will receive half the pension benefits that current 60-somethings do now.

"We are the same age, and our generation has been the buffer of bad political choices," Tsipras said.

Yet for Italy and France, Syriza also poses a risk. Hollande and Renzi are centre-left leaders who, under pressure from Europe and economic downturns, are trying to embark on market-friendly reforms. The success of Syriza, with its far-left, anti-market rhetoric, could undermine their efforts.

"If Tsipras manages to push his programs against privileges, pressure on Renzi to pivot to the left may grow, shifting the focus to Italy's wealthier households and leaving his labour reforms in limbo," Francesco Galietti, chief executive of public policy analysis firm Policy Sonar, said in a research note.

The risks explain why Hollande and Renzi were guarded in their support for Tsipras. "We want to give Greece a hand, which doesn't mean we'll always agree with them," Renzi said.


Ahead of Thursday's EU summit, Greece's new leaders also got no shortage of diplomatic education.

Several officials who attended the meetings commented on the lack of experience of international affairs exhibited by Greece's new ministers, and their entourages. Two said they were struck by the lack of knowledge of EU institutions and recent decisions.

"You have the impression that [the Greek delegations] are on quite a steep learning curve," said one top European official.

Tsipras and other Greek officials say they carry the democratic legitimacy of a resounding electoral victory. A government official said sometimes it was an advantage to be inexperienced.

Several European policymakers told the Greeks it was important to understand the views of populations in other European countries.

In Rome on Tuesday, Economy Minister Padoan lunched with Varoufakis. Over a meal of marinated anchovies and ring pasta with clams, the 65-year-old minister engaged his tablemate over the concept of trust and how trust can be gained, in part by communication, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

"We talked less about technical solutions and more about language and common values, and how to use European institutions to find a common solution," Padoan said in the interview with Italian daily L'Avvenire on Friday.

In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was affectionate towards Tsipras, kissing him on the cheek and taking the new Greek leader by hand.

Behind the cameras, the 60-year-old Juncker offered the younger Tsipras a tutorial on the ins and outs of the European Union, according to one European official.

"Tsipras was very receptive," the official said.