In Berlin, as in capitals across Europe, politicians and policy makers have started thinking about the day after. Maybe that should be the week, month and year after. Step one is to prepare for the blame game if the Greek government decides to default. Step two asks what happens next. Exit from the euro and, possibly, from the EU? A failing state collapsing into a failed one? A Balkan foothold for Russia’s Vladimir Putin?
Amid this swirl, I have heard half a dozen good reasons why German chancellor Angela Merkel and her fellow eurozone leaders — Madrid, Lisbon and Dublin to name but three take, if anything, a tougher line towards Athens — should call Greece’s bluff. Not from any sense of self-righteousness, nor in a spirit of punishment or retribution, but because negotiations have not thrown up a better alternative.
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras had not a bad story to tell after his election victory in January. Greece needed debt relief; and the Syriza-led government had promised voters it would smash the clientelism that poisons the nation’s politics and economics. An objective observer would have spotted a deal: radical reform of state institutions, the taming of the oligarchs and rolling back of the cartels and closed shops that impoverish the Greek people, and a sustained attack on corruption in return for the promise of debt writedowns.
The goodwill has been squandered. Syriza’s promises have come to nought. The cliques, cartels and oligarchs flourish as before. And in talks with its eurozone creditors Athens has displayed a toxic mix of arrogance, amateurism and blatant venality.
Forget nitpicking arguments among technicians about the precise size of Greece’s primary surplus or the cuts required to create a sustainable pensions system. In conversations with other leaders Mr Tsipras has taken a fundamentalist line. He wants debt relief sufficient to free Greece of all the obligations in its present programme with creditors. And he wants to get out of the programme because Syriza repudiates liberal market principles.
It is unsurprising, then, that to walk the corridors in Berlin these days is to sense a hardening frustration. From the chancellery to the finance and foreign ministries, the message is that Greece’s fate rests with its government. If the loudest voices are heard among Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the chancellor’s Social Democrat coalition partners have also shed their earlier sympathy for Syriza.
People close to the chancellor say she is absolutely prepared to see Athens tumble out of the euro. Sure there are differences with the finance ministry, whose boss Wolfgang Schäuble insists Germany’s first duty is to secure the long-term future of the eurozone by enforcing the rules. Ms Merkel takes a broader, political perspective. On the other hand, she is looking over her shoulder at a potential mutiny within her party if she strays too far from the finance minister’s line. The chancellor, it is sometimes forgotten, is a leader well practised in the art of self-preservation.
And yet. For all that Syriza seems determined to march off the edge of the cliff and its partners are confident that the eurozone would weather the shock of its fall, the one good reason for holding on to Greece is felt more acutely by Ms Merkel than by any other leader.
There are plenty of reasons beyond economics that might sway her. Greek exit from the euro would pile more insecurity on to the continent’s most combustible of regions. Mr Putin, already promoting instability and subversion in the Balkans, would seize the moment. Europe’s stand against Russian revanchism could be gravely weakened. It would be harder still to control migration across the Mediterranean; efforts at reconciliation in Cyprus would stall. All this, even before the impact on market confidence in the long-term future of the eurozone.
My own guess, though, is that the thing that keeps Ms Merkel awake at night is at once far less tangible and immeasurably more powerful than any such hard-headed calculation. More likely she is torn between her own firm belief in the importance of preserving the rules — Mr Putin’s trampling on the rules explains her tough response to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine — and her acute and closely-held sense of Germany’s European mission.
Ms Merkel sees herself as the guardian of European unity, the more so since François Hollande’s French government has retreated from the shared leadership role that once conjured up the metaphor of the Franco-German motor. Greece’s departure would be a historic failure; an admission of the fragility of the European enterprise and a signal to the world that the process of integrations could yet unravel.
None of this means much to Anglo-Saxons of a eurosceptic bent. But the new, reunited Germany was founded on the assumption that its future was rooted in ever closer European unity. This, visitors to Berlin are reminded, was Helmut Kohl’s great legacy.
An Italian friend suggested the other day that Europe might look at Greece as many in Italy have long seen that country’s Mezzogiorno region: irredeemable, hugely expensive, but ultimately worth paying for. Ms Merkel, I am sure, would not go that far, but nor will she lightly let go of Greece. Here though is the irony. Whatever the outcome — Grexit or another bailout fudge — the German chancellor may well be the big loser.