Schäuble's subplot – a Grexit, it seems, no longer worries Germany

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The late news from the make-or-break talks in Brussels was no news at all, really. There were a few encouraging words for the progress Greece is making on its reform plans. Athens also ordered a €750m (£535m) repayment to the International Monetary Fund. But an agreement on releasing €7.2bn of bailout funds? No.

There was, though, one intriguing subplot. Germany, in the form of finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, suddenly seems taken by the idea of Greece holding a referendum.

“If the Greek government thinks it should have a referendum, then it should organise a referendum,” said Schäuble. “Maybe this would be the right measure to let the Greek people decide if it is ready to accept what is necessary or if they want to have the other thing.” By the other thing, he means an exit from the euro.

In one sense, Berlin and Brussels’ sudden conversion to a plebiscite is surprising. When a former Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, suggested holding a referendum in 2011 he was summoned to Brussels and told to drop the idea sharpish. Asking the people to decide was deemed far too dangerous.

So what’s Schäuble’s game? Depressingly for Athens, the moral seems clear: a referendum no longer carries the same fear for Germany. Berlin thinks it holds a winning hand whatever happens.

If Greeks voted to stay in the euro, Berlin could claim democratic legitimacy for a tough reform programme encompassing pensions, tax, wages and privatisations. If Greece said no, then at least there would be resolution. Germany is perhaps being optimistic in believing the market fallout from Grexit would be minimal, but that is what its leading politicians believe. They are happy to take their chances.

Schäuble’s lack of concern about a referendum also sends another message to Athens as the talks enter the final round: he is telling Alexis Tsipras, the current Greek prime minister, that he is desperately short of time and running out of options.

Greece needs €7.2bn to be released from the last bailout and then requires agreement on a fresh funding programme; and it needs it all to happen by the end of next month. In the delay caused by calling a vote, there could be a run on Greek banks, which might bring Grexit closer anyway.

It is ridiculous that three months of talks have been characterised by brinkmanship on both sides. With Greek’s debt-to-GDP ratio now at 180%, it is also absurd that nobody, apart from the IMF, is talking about the possibility of debt relief.

But the cold reality is that brinkmanship always favoured the creditors. Tsipras and his Syriza government now have only a few weeks to agree a deal. There are no guarantees, but it is still odds-on that Greece will capitulate.

Whistl stop

Moya Greene has got her orchard back. The chief executive of Royal Mail has complained bitterly for the past year about the “cherry-picking” activities of Whistl in the door-to-door delivery market. Now Whistl, the odd name for the former TNT in the UK, has decided the door-to-door game isn’t worth playing anyway.

Strictly speaking, Whistl is merely “reviewing” its future in the so-called end-to-end market. But since it has suspended operations during the review, a pull-out looks inevitable. It can stick to the safer strategy of pre-sorting letters and using Royal Mail’s network for delivery to the door.

Whistl’s original plans envisaged serving 42% of UK postal address, which, Greene grumbled, equated to only 8% of the land mass. Her point was that Royal Mail, under its universal service obligation, is not allowed to focus solely on densely populated areas such as London and Manchester but must also labour up hill and down dale.

Regulators at Ofcom never seem impressed by her complaints. So a Whistl withdrawal would be a double boost. It was unexpected until a couple of weeks ago and it will deter other operators from trying their luck in the end-to-end market. No wonder Royal Mail’s share price has risen 10% since Whistl’s difficulties in securing investment to fund growth became apparent.

Royal Mail has bigger headaches, it should be said. The letters market is still in decline and the parcels market looks over-supplied. But a large competitor’s exit from household deliveries is a reminder of how hard an incumbent can be to shift.

Heathrow obsession

Welcome to the job of business secretary, Sajid Javid. Your first task, as big business sees life, is to ensure that a new runway is ordered in the south-east. And, if the Airports Commission says Heathrow is the best place, the business lobby wants you to do your duty.

One slice of the Conservative party is secretly praying that the commission opts for Gatwick in the summer. It seems unlikely. If it’s Heathrow, Javid will be expected to go to war with recalcitrant cabinet colleagues. It’s that simple. Aside from the EU referendum, the boardrooms of big companies are obsessed with Heathrow.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nils Pratley, for The Guardian on Monday 11th May 2015 19.44 Europe/London

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