The Greek situation - having perhaps outlived the term "crisis," now that it has taken so long to unfold - appears to have finally reached its terminal point. This is, of course, an illusion: It has been at its terminal point for a long time.
The terminal point is the juncture where neither the Greeks nor the Germans can make any more concessions. In Greece itself, the terminal point is long past. Unemployment is at 26 percent, and more than 50 percent of youths under 25 are unemployed. Slashed wages, particularly in the state sector, affecting professions including physicians and engineers, have led to massive underemployment. Meanwhile, most new economic activity is occurring in the untaxable illegal markets. The Greeks owe money to EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund, all of which acquired bad Greek debts from banks that initially lent funds to Greece in order to stabilize its banking sector. No one ever really thought the Greeks could pay back these loans.
The European creditors - specifically, the Germans, who have really been the ones controlling European negotiations with the Greeks - reached their own terminal point more recently. The Germans are powerful but fragile. They export about a quarter of their gross domestic product to the European free trade zone, and anything that threatens this trade threatens Germany's economy and social stability. Their goal has been to keep intact not only the euro, but also the free trade zone and Brussels' power over the European economy.
Germany has so far avoided an extreme crisis point by coming to an endless series of agreements with Greece that the Greeks couldn't keep and that no one expected them to keep, but which allowed Berlin to claim that the Greeks were capitulating to German demands for austerity. This alleged capitulation helped Germany keep other indebted European countries in line, as financially vulnerable nations witnessed the apparent folly of contemplating default, demanding debt restructuring and confronting rather than accommodating the European Union.
Greece and the Cypriot Situation
For the Germans, Greece represented a dam. What was behind the dam was unknown, and the Germans couldn't tolerate the risk of it breaking. A Greek default would come with capital controls such as those seen in Cyprus, probably trade barriers designed to protect the Greek economy, and a radical reorientation of Greece in a new strategic direction. If that didn't lead to economic and social catastrophe, then other European countries might also choose to exercise the Greek option. Germany's first choice to avoid the default was to create the illusion of Greek compliance. Its second option was to demonstrate the painful consequences of Greece's refusal to keep playing the first game.
This was the point of the Cyprus affair. Cyprus had reached the point that it simply could not live up to the terms of its debt repayment agreements. The pro-EU government agreed under pressure to seize money in bank accounts holding more than 100,000 euros (around $112,000) and use that money to make good on at least some of the payments due. But assigning a minimum account balance hardly served to lessen the blow or insulate ordinary Cypriots. A retiree, after all, may easily have more than 100,000 euros in savings. And hotels or energy service companies (which are critical to the Cypriot economy) certainly have that much in their accounts. The Germans may have claimed the Cypriot banking system contained primarily Russian money, but - although it undoubtedly contained plenty of Russian funds - most of the money in the system actually represented wealth saved and used by Cypriots in the course of their lives and business. The result of raiding those accounts was chaos. Cypriot companies couldn't pay wages or rent, and the economy basically froze until the regulations were eventually eased - though they have never been fully repealed.
The Germans were walking a fine line in advocating this solution. Rather than play the pretend game they had played in Greece, they chose to show a European audience the consequences of genuine default. But those consequences rested on a dubious political foundation. Obviously the Cypriot public was devastated and appalled by their political leaders' decision to comply with Germany's demands. But even more significant, the message received by the rest of Europe was that the consequences of resistance would be catastrophic only if a country's political leadership capitulated to EU demands. Seizing a large portion of Cypriot private assets to pay public debts set an example, but not the example the Germans wanted. It showed that compliance with debt repayments could be disastrous in the short run, but only if the indebted country's politicians let it happen. And with that came another, unambiguous lesson: The punishment for non-compliance, however painful, was also survivable - and far preferable to the alternatives.