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David StewartJuly 06, 2015
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, right, talks with Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis at the Greek Parliament, Feb. 18.

The Greek referendum result, much more decisive that anyone dared to predict, is a dramatic watershed moment in European political history and in the history of the European project. Sixty-two percent of voters sided with the Syriza government in opposing the harsh austerity program demanded by the “Troika” of creditors. This means that Europe is now deeply in crisis. The European elite wanted to ensure the end of the anti-austerity movement but they may have failed. People-power, for better or for worse, has prevailed in the EU. It’s a stunning result as the people re-asserted their democratic power, refusing to go along with what the powerful economic and political elites demanded. It’s worth noting that the last time the Greeks held a referendum, 40 years ago, they voted to rid themselves of the monarchy.

The Greeks have a word for it. It’s a crisis. But the word, properly understood, does not necessarily mean catastrophe or calamity; it means a turning-point, it’s the moment in a drama in which a conflict reaches a peak and is then resolved. That’s what they’ve got, in Athens, in European capitals and in the financial markets as the conference-calls are made and as heads of governments head for the airports for a series of crunch meetings.

This continues to be a story full of unexpected twists and turns. The dramatic resignation, at breakfast-time on Monday morning, of the fiery Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is just the latest and certainly not the last. Despite the decisive victory, he chose to go, saying that he felt his departure would help the search for a solution. This may be either shrewd political manoeuvring by Prime Minister Tsipras, sacrificing his outspoken sidekick in the hope of mollifying the people who now must speak to him on more equal terms. Yet at the same time the Tsipras appeal to the people asserted that a substantial "no" vote would strengthen his hand in the negotiations that now must continue, even more intensely. At no time in the short, sharp campaign was it ever suggested that Varoufakis should go. It was thought that the creditors wanted the complete removal of Syriza government so perhaps this unexpected resignation is an olive branch, an eirenic gesture, even an honourable move. Even so, he left with a typical flourish: "I shall wear the creditors' loathing with pride,” he proclaimed.

Tsipras, claiming this victory as a popular mandate to negotiate a solution that will not increase austerity, insists that his compatriots had given him "not a mandate against Europe, but a mandate to find a sustainable solution that will take us out of this vicious circle of austerity." But is Greece going to be devastated now for having the bravery to stand up to the international elite? The crisis, rooted in overspending and over-borrowing, was precipitated by IMF and ECB because the Greeks refused to accept austerity conditions as the only possible alternative. The creditors have to face the fact that austerity has failed and will not deliver a solution that is acceptable and just to the ordinary people of Greece. Debt-relief is now beginning to be mentioned as a possibility and there are signs that the IMF accepts this as a plausible way forward. The massive post-crash bailouts given to international banks, only quite recently, dwarf what Greece now needs.

Behind closed doors in London, there will be glee among at least some of Prime Minister Cameron’s closest aides as they prepare to deliver their election manifesto commitment to an in/out referendum on Europe. Although Cameron has declared, since his own narrow election victory, that he does not want Britain to leave the EU but to stay, only under massively renegotiated terms, the so-called “Eurosceptics” in his Conservative party will draw strength and motivation from developments in Greece. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows something of this too; she is under strong pressure from her government colleagues, and a significant proportion of the German electorate, to maintain a strong line against Tsipras. Vanoufakis’s surprise resignation may go some way to attenuating that; it is known that the sizzling Greek repeatedly clashed with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble and that it got personal. The French government is so far taking a notably softer line. The spectre of “Grexit” looms even larger behind them all, as richer states, and the banks, fear that a precedent might be set for other weaker nations to reject austerity demands or even to leave the single currency mechanism.

One of Pope Francis’s prayer intentions for this month, entrusted to the Jesuit-run Apostleship of Prayer, is that “political responsibility may be lived at all levels as a high form of charity.” In "Evangelii Gaudium," Francis wrote that “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.” The Gospel story of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people placed him in opposition to the economic arguments advanced by the Chorus of his own circle, pointing out the impracticality of what he proposed to do for them; he had taken pity on them when he saw their situation. He was advised that nothing could be done, the economics of what he proposed would not work; they had to be sent away. But he, concerned with the common good, dismissed those arguments. All got fed. There was even stuff left over.

David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.

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