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Germany Signals It’s Open to a Greek Referendum on Bailout Program / Wall Street Journal
Germany Signals It’s Open to a Greek Referendum on Bailout Program
Calling a referendum could be a risky move for both the Athens government and the rest of the eurozone
By GABRIELE STEINHAUSER and MATTHEW DALTON
Updated May 11, 2015 11:27 a.m. ET / http://www.wsj.com/articles/germany-shows-openness-toward-greek-referendum-on-bailout-program-1431347202
BRUSSELS—A referendum on its international bailout program may be a good idea for Greece, Germany’s finance minister said Monday, underlining doubts among Greece’s creditors about the government’s ability to agree on divisive overhauls without endorsement by voters.
Calling a referendum on the bailout—something that eurozone politicians have until now been loath to discuss—would be a risky move for both the government in Athens and the rest of the eurozone, adding further unpredictability to a tense situation. A negative vote would likely herald Greece’s exit from the eurozone.
WSJ’s Matthew Dalton joins MoneyBeat and reports Germany’s finance minister has indicated there may be support for a referendum on a bailout program for Greece. Photo: Getty
“If the Greek government feels it should hold a referendum, then it should hold a referendum. That may even be a right measure to ask the Greek people to decide whether they are ready to accept what is necessary or whether they want the alternative,” Wolfgang Schäuble said as he arrived for a meeting with his eurozone counterparts in Brussels.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said after the meeting that the Greek government isn’t currently planning to hold a referendum on its international bailout. “At the moment that is not something that is on the radar screen as far as we are concerned,” Mr. Varoufakis said. However, he said a referendum could be a possible measure for the Greek government win democratic support for such a plan.
Several of the overhaul measures demanded by Greece’s international creditors—including pension cuts and new laws that make it easier to lay off workers—clash with the promises the new left-wing government made when it was elected in January. A referendum could give Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras an opening to move ahead with austerity measures that are opposed by many of his more hard-line lawmakers.
It would also carry risks. Around three quarters of Greeks consistently tell pollsters they want to keep the euro, but it is less clear how they would vote in a referendum that required them to choose austerity as the price of the euro.
A survey by Greek polling company Marc, published April 29, found that only 54% of Greeks would vote “yes” in a referendum on a deal with creditors that involved further austerity, whereas 37% would vote “no.”
Other ministers on Monday stopped short of endorsing a popular vote. “That’s absolutely up to national politicians,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who presides over the meetings with his eurozone counterparts.
Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, made no mention of a referendum when he arrived in Brussels. An agreement with the country’s creditors will be reached in “the next few days,” Mr. Varoufakis said, repeating a line he has been toeing for week.
Mr. Tsipras has favored holding a referendum, particularly on reforms that his government had previously set out as red lines. A popular vote could help him quash talk of the country being forced into early elections and silence party opponents accusing him of going back on promises made to voters before January’s election.
In Athens on Monday, officials from the leftist Syriza party were trying to figure out whether the comments from Mr. Schäuble reflect his personal views or those of the German government.
German officials said Mr. Schäuble spoke for the government.
The last time a Greek government proposed a referendum on its bailout—in the fall of 2011—the idea was vehemently opposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
At the time, Ms. Merkel and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Athens that any referendum on measures attached to its aid program would automatically be a vote on Greece’s euro membership. That condition pushed the then-government to quickly scrap the plan.
If the government in Athens decides to call a referendum, much scrutiny will go into the exact question that will be put to voters. Eurozone policy makers will likely push against going into too much detail on austerity measures and instead make it clear that the poll was about Greece’s future in the currency union.
Organizing such a vote would also take time—a resource that is in short supply. Greek officials have warned that they will soon run out of money, raising doubts over several big debt repayments looming in the coming weeks.
“Every week that talks continue we have less time for implementation and disbursement,” said Mr. Dijsselbloem.
Talks between Greece and its creditors have been making some progress in recent weeks, but the two sides are far from a deal. “We know that there are remaining gaps that are also important,” said Pierre Moscovici, the European Union’s economics commissioner.
—Bertrand Benoit in Berlin and Marcus Walker in Athens contributed to this article.
Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at firstname.lastname@example.org and Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com