With talks ongoing about resolving the Greek debt crisis, it is clear that there is no agreement that will satisfy both sides – the Greek government and the troika of lenders (the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission). Their current negotiating positions are irreconcilable. What is needed is something more fundamental to provide a long-term solution. What is needed is a ‘deus ex machina‘.
A deus ex machina, which is Latin for ‘god from a machine’, was a device used in Greek tragedy to solve an impossible situation. A god would appear from above, lowered by a crane, or from below through a trap door, and would put everything right. The tragedy would then be given a happy ending.
So what possible happy ending could be brought to the current Greek tragedy and who could be the deus ex machina?
The negotiations between Greece and the troika currently centre on extending credit by €7.2bn when existing debts come up for repayment. There are repayments currently due to the IMF, or by the end of June, of €1.5bn and more in July, September and December (another €3.2bn). There are also €6.7bn of Greek bonds held by the ECB, as part of the 2010 bailout programme, that are due for repayment in July and August. Without the €7.2 billion bailout, Greece will be unable to meet these debt repayments, which also include Treasury bills.
But the troika will only release the funds in return for harsh austerity measures, which involve further cuts to pensions and public expenditure. Greece would be required to run a substantial budget surplus for many years.
Greece could refuse, but then it would end up defaulting on debt and be forced out of the euro. The result would probably be a substantial depreciation of a newly restored drachma, rising inflation and many Greeks suffering even greater hardship – at least for a period of time.
So what is the possible deus ex machina? If you’re looking for a ‘god’ then it is best, perhaps, to look beyond the current actors. Perhaps the Americans could play the role in finding a solution to the impasse. Perhaps a small group of independent experts or politicians, or both, could find one. In either case, the politics of the situation would have to be addressed as well as the economics and finance.
And what would be the ‘fix’ to satisfy both sides? Ultimately, this has to allow Greek debt to be sustainable without further depressing demand and undermining the fabric of Greek society. This would almost certainly have to involve a large measure of debt forgiveness (i.e. debts being written off). It also has to avoid creating a moral hazard, whereby if the Greeks are seen as being ‘let off lightly’, this might encourage other indebted eurozone countries to be less willing to reduce their debts and make demands for forgiveness too.
Ultimately, the issue is a political one, not an economic one. This will require clever negotiation and, if there is a deus ex machina, clever mediation too.
Greek PM Tsipras warns lenders bailout plans ‘not realistic’ BBC News, Jim Reynolds (5/6/25)
Greece defers IMF payment until end of June BBC News, Chris Morris (5/6/15)
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies BBC News, Chris Morris (10/6/15)
Potential Grexit effects Deutsche Welle (13/6/15)
It’s time to end the pretence: Greece will never fully repay its bailout loan The Guardian, Andrew Farlow (9/6/15)
Greek exit would trigger eurozone collapse, says Alexis Tsipras The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Helena Smith and Graeme Wearden (9/6/15)
The eurozone was a dream of unity. Now Europe has turned upon itself The Guardian, Business leader (14/6/15)
Greece bailout talks: an intractable crisis with three possible outcomes The Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/6/15)
Greece needs an economic defibrillator and a debt write-off Financial Times letters, Ray Kinsella (25/3/15)
Greece’s new debt restructuring plan Times of Change, Peter Spiegel (5/6/15)
Eurozone still in denial about Greece BBC News, Robert Peston (3/6/15)
Greece bailout talks – the main actors in a modern-day epic The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (9/6/15)
Greece isn’t any old troubled debtor BBC News, Robert Peston (15/6/15)
Greece in default if debt deadline missed, says Lagarde BBC News (18/6/15)
Burden of debt to IMF and European neighbours proves too much for Greece The Guardian, Heather Stewart (17/6/15)
Ending the Greek Crisis: Debt Management and Investment led Growth Greek government