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Greece's alliances fade in debate about its debt crisis

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If Europe is finally coming to a moment of reckoning in the Greek debt crisis — a standoff now rattling financial markets and threatening European unity — then the critical meeting apparently occurred late Monday night, when Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany summoned critical players to an emergency summit meeting in Berlin. Everyone was invited, except Greece.

This was not a big surprise, since those invited were Greece's creditors, who were in effect trying to form a united front against Athens and speed up the debt talks before a payment due on Friday. But the list of attendees symbolized how Greece's far-left government had become very much alone politically, analysts said, and how its promise to roll back the German-led policies of economic austerity had encountered an unexpectedly unified European opposition.

"There was a window of opportunity to change course," said Paul De Grauwe, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science who is a critic of austerity. "But somehow the northern view — of Germany, Holland and Finland — has prevailed. Why was this? That is where the power is. The power of the purse."

After months of slogging negotiations, some sort of deal must be struck by the end of June — the bailout program for Greece ends on the 30th — but how it will end remains unclear. The impasse is rooted in the refusal of Greece's creditors — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — to release a final installment of bailout funds — 7.2 billion euros, or about $8 billion — without an agreement from Athens on budget cuts and economic changes.

The Greek government has warned that it could run out of money this month and fail to make loan payments to creditors, thereby plunging into default. Many analysts say that Greece might be forced to abandon the euro.

Monday's meeting in Berlin spurred speculation that a deal could be near. By Tuesday, the Berlin group of creditors was reportedly completing a proposal to present to Athens, possibly offering some budgetary flexibility, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece told reporters that his government had forwarded a list of "realistic" reforms to creditors.

"We are really running out of time," said Julian Rappold, a program officer at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "This is one of the very last attempts to reconcile between sides and reach an agreement. I think European leaders have pretty much lost their patience."

What has surprised many analysts is how, in coalescing behind the German position and against Greece, European leaders have effectively taken a stance that supports the same austerity policies some believe to be responsible for the collapse of the Greek economy since 2010.

Europe seemed at a watershed moment when Greek voters elected Mr. Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party in late January, the first time an anti-austerity government had taken power in a European nation. Mr. Tsipras demanded that creditors write off large portions of Greek debt and promised to negotiate a new deal that would restore growth.

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Mr. Tsipras and his high-profile finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, toured European capitals in February to appeal for support and initially received somewhat sympathetic hearings in France and Italy. Some analysts said Greece might win good will from other southern European countries that also have struggling economies and that have chafed at policy-making shaped in Brussels and Berlin.

But many European leaders instead began to accuse their Greek counterparts of using confrontational tactics, and to complain that negotiations had stalled because Greek leaders refused to propose specific steps that they would take in exchange for the final bailout funds. Italian officials were outraged after Mr. Varoufakis described Italy's debt as "unsustainable." Baltic nations were angered when Mr. Tsipras criticized sanctions against Russia.

"The really shocking thing is they've lost all their friends," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London.

As recently as 2012, it seemed that France might ally with southern European countries to unite against Germany. But it never happened, and President François Hollande of France was among the leaders who joined Ms. Merkel at the Berlin meeting.

Daniela Schwarzer, senior director of research for the German Marshall Fund, cautioned that the current European solidarity should not be interpreted as a broad endorsement of austerity economics.

Instead, she noted, various governments have different reasons for now supporting the German position. The Spanish and Portuguese governments have already begun tough reforms and budget cuts, and as they contend with populist political movements in their own countries, they do not want to support the populist Greek government.

"They don't want to showcase that a populist vote can lead to a dramatic policy change," Ms. Schwarzer said.

Analysts note that populist threats remain potent in several European countries, whether from the left-leaning Podemos party in Spain or the far-right National Front in France. During the Greek elections, the Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, campaigned with Mr. Tsipras in Athens, the two men calling for "the liberation of the peoples of the south."

Podemos fared well in recent Spanish regional elections, but analysts say the party is now distancing itself from Syriza.

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"Greece is such a mess that Podemos in Spain has stopped talking about it," José Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email. "People in Spain don't share the anti-German and nationalistic tone of Tsipras. People in Spain know that whether austerity may be the wrong remedy, the crisis was not caused by Germany or the I.M.F., but by local politicians."

In Athens, Greek officials have criticized creditors for making unrealistic demands to continue austerity policies that will prevent economic recovery in Greece. Mr. Tsipras is facing a rebellion inside his party from those who have vowed to reject any deal that continues austerity.

Analysts say this tension explains why the Greek government has struggled to take a consistent public stance during the negotiations; Mr. Tsipras has veered between a conciliatory tone and defiance. And it is still possible that a deal may finally emerge from what has become a high-stakes game of chicken.

Despite how much has changed since the European economic crisis began more than five years ago, the current standoff is seen by some as a reminder that the debate has, in some ways, remained almost the same.

"The striking thing to me is that we are having roughly the same debate that we were having five years ago," said Hans Kundnani, a Berlin-based analyst of European affairs. "We're just talking about a little bit more flexibility for Greece, a little more money. We're going to be having a similar discussion in six months' time."