Chaos, drama and crisis are all Greek words. So is catharsis. Europe is perched between chaos and catharsis, as the political dramas in Athens and Rome reach crisis point. One path leads to destruction; the other rebirth. Though there are signs of hope, a few more missteps will lead down into the chasm.
The dramas in the two cradles of European civilization are similar and, in bizarre ways, linked. Last week’s decision by George Papandreou to call a referendum on whether the Greeks were in favor of the country’s latest bailout program set off a chain reaction that is bringing down not only his government but probably that of Silvio Berlusconi too.
The mad referendum plan, which has now been rescinded, shocked Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy so much that they threatened to cut off funding to Greece unless it got its act together — a move that would drive it out of the euro. But this is probably an empty threat, at least in the short term, because of the way that Athens is roped to Rome. If Greece is pushed over the edge, Italy could be dragged over too and then the whole single currency would collapse. So, ironically, Athens is being saved from the immediate consequences of its delinquency by the fear of a much bigger disaster across the Ionian Sea.
Italian bond yields, which were already uncomfortably high, shot up after the Greek referendum fiasco. Berlusconi was forced to pacify Merkel and Sarkozy at the G20 meeting in Cannes by agreeing to a parliamentary confidence vote on his government’s lackluster reform program as well as to monitoring by the International Monetary Fund. The humiliation in Cannes, where Berlusconi’s finance minister pointedly failed to back him, could be the final nail in the PM’s coffin.
The end of the Berlusconi and Papandreou eras should, in theory, be a cause for celebration. Although the Italian PM’s behavior has been scandalous, whereas the Greek PM’s has not been, they have both led their countries deeper into debt. They are also both members of political castes that have enfeebled their nations for many years. Getting rid of them could be the start of a renewal process.