Anneliese Dodds MEP

The South East's Voice in Europe

The stakes are too high for playing poker

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It has become something of a cliché to keep speaking about "last chances" when it comes to the crisis unfolding in Greece.

There have been at least ten occasions described as such this year alone. 

Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that we must now be nearing the final stages of this awful tale.  One way or the other, things will have to change fundamentally once the Greek people have voted in Sunday's referendum.

A lot of the coverage of the negotiations has used the lexicon of gambling to describe the situation:  "Tsipras overplayed his hand", or "Greek debt standoff awaits a decisive move".  To describe the negotiations in this way risks masking the fundamental issue here: that the chips in this game of "Euro Poker" are real people's lives.  1.2 million Greek workers are unemployed.  3.3 million Greek people live below the poverty line.  1.8 million cannot even meet their daily food needs.  These are the people whose lives are caught in the middle of the great standoff between the Greek government and its creditors.

That is what makes the outrageous brinkmanship of both Syriza and the international creditors so hard to swallow.  Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's shock announcement last Friday that he would put the terms of a new deal to a hastily-organised referendum (the legitimacy of which is already being challenged by the Council of Europe) led directly to Tuesday's default on a €1.6bn payment to the IMF and a situation where ordinary Greek people are all but locked out of their own bank accounts.  It was a nakedly populist move, only half thought-through and riding roughshod over any idea of genuine democratic legitimacy, at a time when what was needed was statesmanship and an attempt at compromise.

This was just the latest in a series of arbitrary and unpredictable actions by Syriza that have often taken the Greek people themselves by surprise, let alone the international community.  Those in the UK who seem determined to sing the praises of Syriza would do well to remember that their actions risk plunging their own citizens even further into poverty, and that in order to gain power they put avowedly anti-Semitic politicians into government.  These are no socialist angels. 

Yet if Syriza's behaviour has been erratic and irresponsible, the response from other Euro countries and the IMF has not been angelic either.  German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's petulant comment yesterday that he had not even read the latest Greek attempt at finding a deal was yet another example of the creditors' insistence on the now utterly discredited dogma of austerity at the expense of everything else.  While Mr Schäuble sat atop his increasingly shaky moral high ground, proudly refusing to countenance any kind of compromise, businesses across Athens were forced to close as Greek people hunkered down and waited for the worst.

So where can we go from here?  Both sides are going to have to stop this needless grandstanding and actually talk to one another in good faith.  This is what the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament have been calling for in increasingly impassioned terms over the last few weeks, working through the night to try and get the two sides to sit down with one another. 

There has to be an acceptance from the creditors that austerity has made the situation infinitely worse: under austerity measures, Greek GDP shrank by a quarter in just five years. Some elements of the current deal also remain clearly unfair.  If Greece has a problem with tax evasion and avoidance, then the answer should be to clamp down on those activities - not arbitrarily raise VAT in a way almost designed to hit the poorest people the hardest.

But Syriza must also acknowledge that the three institutions - the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF - have moved considerably in order to present a deal that they hope works.  With debt restructuring seemingly on the table, the Greek government has now secured significant concessions and it should have the good grace to recognise that.

The problem with looking at all of this as a winner-takes-all poker game is that the temptation is to keep raising the stakes in the hope of stripping the shirt off your opponent's back.  That might be the approach to take in a casino, when you're betting with your own money.  But when you are an international leader, gambling with the lives of your constituents and the very future of your continent, it is outrageously irresponsible.

Tsipras, Schäuble and all the rest need to put down their cards and actually talk to one another. 

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