Europe’s Moment of Truth

By PAUL KRUGMAN
published originally at New York Times JUNE 27, 2015
Until now, every warning about an imminent breakup of the euro has proved wrong. Governments, whatever they said during the election, give in to the demands of the troika; meanwhile, the ECB steps in to calm the markets. This process has held the currency together, but it has also perpetuated deeply destructive austerity — don’t let a few quarters of modest growth in some debtors obscure the immense cost of five years of mass unemployment.

As a political matter, the big losers from this process have been the parties of the center-left, whose acquiescence in harsh austerity — and hence abandonment of whatever they supposedly stood for — does them far more damage than similar policies do to the center-right.

It seems to me that the troika — I think it’s time to stop the pretense that anything changed, and go back to the old name — expected, or at least hoped, that Greece would be a repeat of this story. Either Tsipras would do the usual thing, abandoning much of his coalition and probably being forced into alliance with the center-right, or the Syriza government would fall. And it might yet happen.

But at least as of right now Tsipras seems unwilling to fall on his sword. Instead, faced with a troika ultimatum, he has scheduled a referendum on whether to accept. This is leading to much hand-wringing and declarations that he’s being irresponsible, but he is, in fact, doing the right thing, for two reasons.

First, if it wins the referendum, the Greek government will be empowered by democratic legitimacy, which still, I think, matters in Europe. (And if it doesn’t, we need to know that, too.)

Second, until now Syriza has been in an awkward place politically, with voters both furious at ever-greater demands for austerity and unwilling to leave the euro. It has always been hard to see how these desires could be reconciled; it’s even harder now. The referendum will, in effect, ask voters to choose their priority, and give Tsipras a mandate to do what he must if the troika pushes it all the way.

If you ask me, it has been an act of monstrous folly on the part of the creditor governments and institutions to push it to this point. But they have, and I can’t at all blame Tsipras for turning to the voters, instead of turning on them.

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