5 Jul 2015

Is Greece about to call the EU’s bluff?

A NO graffiti is seen next to a Japanese tourist siting at the entrance of the Athens Academy

NO graffiti at the entrance to the Athens Academy (Reuters)

Sunday,  3am. Athens is quiet. People have gone “home” to vote: to islands, to Thessaloniki, to far suburbs beyond the public transport network. But quiet Athens is like Blackpool during the illuminations.

At dawn, the voting will start. But in the hot night there is more than just revelry going on. In a small room, over roll-ups, a team from the No campaign is poring over a spreadsheet. I have it too, screen captured and texted, by someone who cannot be named. It is a comprehensive breakdown of all known polls, public and private.

You can’t report opinion polls on the day of a vote here, so I will only say that it shows last week the momentum shifted: towards Yes early in the week and towards No later.

Polls can, of course, be rubbish, and neither side is sure of victory. But they show a Yes victory is far from certain. If they’re borne out in the results from 1800GMT it is a disaster for the European Union’s political leadership.

Here’s why. The entire who’s who of Europe lined up at the start of the week to warn Greeks that a No vote means a vote to leave the Euro.

Syriza and its coalition partner ANEL said, by contrast, that they wanted a No vote just to strengthen their hand in negotiations with the EC, which were already strengthened by the IMF’s acknowledgement of the need for debt restructuring.

If it’s No, then despite numerous Euro leaders, celebrities and every private news channel in the country trying to stoke up panic and a Yes vote, Greeks have refused to be panicked.

So what then?

One school of thought, prevalent among financial journalists, is that the ECB will cut off funding to the banks, the EC will organise regime change, and Alexis Tsipras will be forced out amid food riots and medicine shortages. Emergency Lending Assistance – which here is pronounced “ella”, the same as the word for “come on!” – would be not just capped but stopped.

To be clear: among sections of the right-wing Athenian middle class this is not a fear – it is a project. To be equally clear: there are cadres within the activist base  of Syriza, and in anarchist movement, who would welcome that scenario like an early Christmas present.

However, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis made clear on Friday, in a combative interview with me, that he expects something different. He expects a deal being discussed in background with the EC to be activated in the event of a narrow No, and for Syriza to do that deal. ELA would have to be quickly boosted, allowing the Greek banks to open.

All week – despite the rhetoric – the Greeks have remained in contact with the ECB over the required ELA limits; they believed more ELA was possible midweek. I have to say, therefore, any analysis you read that says: “No means the Greek banks will collapse – and the Greeks have voted to leave the Euro” is a one-sided reading of the situation, and because it’s Sunday I am putting it politely.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras licks ballot envelope before voting in national referendum at a polling station in Athens

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras licks his ballot paper as he votes in the bailout referendum (Reuters)

One obstacle to a deal with Syriza has already been removed by the IMF putting s insistence: no deal without debt relief in future, looks enough to frame a narrower fiscal deal as acceptable to Syriza and ANEL.

Whatever happens, I think we are seeing a crisis of conservatism in Greece. While those on the Yes demos have been mainly drawn from conservative business circles, most of the running has been made by activists from the Potami party – a kind of Blairite centre party run by hipsters and doctom types, which polled just 6 per cent last time.

By openly siding with the right, it could put itself in position to become, like Cuidadanos in Spain, a potential modernising force.

Meanwhile, ANEL, the hard-right nationalist part that is a minor coalition partner with Syriza, is looking stronger than ever before: its burly leader, Panos Kammenos went through an interesting moment on Friday night’s rally – popping up to take a brief hug and salute from Tsipras in front of an ecstatic crowd of left-wingers.

He won’t get any votes from that crowd – but ANEL is certain to profit from the stance it’s taken, and the profile Kammenos has carved out.

There are, maybe, people crazy enought to say to the pro-euro right-wing business class in Greece: because you’ve lost a referendum by a few percentage points, your country must be thrown out catastrophically from the Eurozone it wants to stay in. But I cannot belive that reflex is guiding the chancelleries of Europe. Indeed, President Hollande has said just now he will push for Greece to be in the Euro “whether it votes yes or no”.

So if it’s OXI by Sunday night, the European Union has a big problem. The entire EU leadership told Greeks a No meant exit from the Eurozone. The Greek government said: “They’re bluffing.” We will find out who is right within 24 hours of the polls closing.

Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter