Greece’s date with destiny started with its upstart prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, being slapped on the face.
It is the customary gesture of endearment from Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European commission. It means the two men are friends, despite Juncker saying at the weekend he no longer trusted Tsipras.
And the day that was supposed to arrest Greece’s collapse into bankruptcy, and prevent the euro’s diminution, ended more than 12 hours later on Monday evening with the bizarre spectacle of a phantom summit.
Monday’s hotly awaited emergency gathering of eurozone leaders, called last Thursday evening to fix the Greek crisis or at least to attach sticking plasters to Greece’s bleeding wounds, had nothing to decide and no real agenda to discuss.
For that to happen, the finance ministers of the single currency bloc who gathered earlier in the afternoon had to assess the chances of a deal and make their recommendations to the leaders. They could not do that, said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chaired the session, because they did not have enough time to study what Athens was proposing. Their minions would have to negotiate hard and come back later in the week.
So why did the Eurogroup finance ministers come to Brussels? They had to, Dijsselbloem said, because they were obliged to prepare the emergency summit. They did not manage that. So what was the point of the summit?
“The leaders are always free to have a different opinion,” the Dutchman smiled.
Despite all the hallmarks of a non-event or perhaps because of that, the summit went well. Over a supper of brill, roast beef, and lemon parfait, the leaders, not having to take a quick decision, seemed to chill a bit, taking the heat out of the increasingly intemperate exchanges that have marked the past few weeks.
They might as well have booked in for the week. The finance ministers of the eurozone, plus the big shots from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank will reassemble here on Wednesday evening to try to clinch the deal, 24 hours before the leaders return to Brussels to declare a victory snatched from the jaws of disaster.
Tsipras caved and there may well be hell to pay back in Athens. But the Greeks were nonetheless said to be impersonating cats and too much cream. Tsipras wanted a favourable summit declaration to take home with him, but the meeting ended late on Monday night without granting him that. The aim was quite the contrary, said a senior EU official. The idea was “to remove from Tsipras the illusion he can get a better deal at the summit, or that a decision can be taken at the summit level. The point is to have Tsipras learn the position of the other leaders. No negotiation”.
It was Tsipras who wanted a summit in the first place, insisting that Greece’s pain and the eurozone’s troubles could only be sorted out at the highest political level. The answer he heard from the chancellors, presidents and prime ministers was an ultimatum: “You can have your summit, but you’re not getting a negotiation.”
Behind the confusion and the last-minute improvisation lay a weekend of frantic communication and crossed signals over a Greek proposal that was not really a proposal. Or was it?
Negotiations collapsed in Luxembourg last Thursday with Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, memorably complaining there was no point in engaging in dialogue with the Greeks unless there were “adults in the room”.
Tsipras, a neophyte prime minister, then spent much of Sunday on the phone to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, President Hollande of France, and Juncker, trying to prove he was an adult. Following a long list of rejected economic reform offers aimed at securing bailout cash, he promised new proposals.
The number crunchers from the creditors – the commission, the IMF, and the European Central Bank – assembled in the Berlaymont building in Brussels at 5pm on Sunday to receive the Greek offer.
They waited. And waited. At midnight the lights were still burning on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont. It was already Monday when the Greek paper arrived just after midnight. The technocrats got to work on the arithmetic that would determine whether a deal was doable: VAT rates, pension costs to GDP ratios, fiscal targets and primary budget surpluses.
Martin Selmayr, the German christian democrat and Juncker’s powerful chief of staff, tweeted that it might be tricky, but for the first time an agreement could be discerned. “Eine Zangengeburt,” he predicted – a forceps birth.
The commissioner for the euro, France’s Pierre Moscovici, instantly took to the French airwaves to talk up the chances of a deal. But as he slapped Tsipras playfully on the cheek, Juncker started sounding worried.
The weekend before last, the Greeks showed up in Brussels for negotiations without any proposals. They were asked to document their intentions and came back 24 hours later with nothing new.
The “wrong paper” fiasco on Monday morning allowed eurozone finance ministers to dismiss the chances of any breakthrough on the grounds that Tsipras was stalling, seeking to avoid detailed negotiations.
The German, Finnish, Irish and Austrian finance ministers voiced contempt. The Greeks maintained their habit of tardiness when Yanis Varoufakis, the outspoken finance minister, turned up 45 minutes late for the session. Dijsselbloem said the meeting could not decide anything because they did not have enough time for their aides to check whether the Greek sums added up.
But commission sources, keen to strike a deal, believed the hawks on the creditor side were dissembling, trying to spoil a breakthrough.
Juncker’s spokesman said they had received the Greek proposals just after midnight, signed by Tsipras (a first), and that the Greek plan had been passed to the ECB and IMF.
The “new” version on Monday morning contained only cosmetic changes. Dijsselbloem admitted as much, while officials were impressed at the first “detailed and credible” proposals they had seen from Tsipras in his five months in office.
Merkel, as usual, hedged her bets and noted that there were several days in a week – a week being the time remaining until Greece’s bailout lapses, the disaster deadline.
The number-crunchers got to work. They have a hard 48 hours ahead of them.
The ministers will be back in Brussels on Wednesday, the leaders on Thursday. And there will be no phantoms in the room this time.
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