By Alastair Macdonald and Philip Blenkinsop
The EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker delivered an emotional condemnation of the Greek government on Monday, accusing it of betraying his efforts to broker a loan deal and urging Greek voters to defy their leaders by voting “Yes” in Sunday’s referendum.
Accusing leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ministers of playing “liar’s poker” with the future of Europe, the European Commission president said if Greeks rejected what he called a final, fair offer from creditors to save them from bankruptcy, it would be taken as a signal that they wanted to quit the euro, and the Union.
In a half-hour address to a packed news conference in Brussels, the veteran EU insider broke with months of diplomatic defence of the novice administration’s democratic mandate to seek easier terms from its creditors.
“The whole planet would take a Greek ‘No’ … to mean Greece wants to set itself apart from the euro zone and from Europe,” he said. His call for a “Yes” was echoed by the speaker of the European Parliament, German Social Democrat Martin Schulz.
Juncker, a conservative former premier of Luxembourg, faced criticism for being too soft on Athens over the past five months as he sought to help Tsipras, 20 years his junior, cut a deal with some in the euro zone who might rather see Greece leave.
He warned that he may no longer be able to prevent a “Grexit”.
“For me, Greece’s exit from the euro zone has never been and will never be an option,” he said. “But I always told my Greek friends that, by saying that Grexit is not an option, they shouldn’t believe that at the very end of the process I would be able to present, against all the others, a final answer.”
TALKS BROKEN OFF
Tsipras called a referendum on the creditors’ offer, breaking off negotiations, hours before finance ministers met on Saturday. That leaves Athens set to default on a debt repayment to the IMF on Tuesday. The other 18 euro zone ministers met without Greece to agree how to defend their own economies.
“I am deeply wounded, saddened, by the spectacle Europe put on on Saturday,” Juncker said. “In a single night, European consciousness took a heavy blow. Goodwill sort-of evaporated. Selfishness, tactical, even populist games got the upper hand.”
Having frequently in the past spoken of Tsipras as friend, he said on Monday: “I feel rather betrayed.”
Juncker said the EU proposals had promoted social fairness at the expense of corrupt elites and vested interests.
Praising Ireland, Portugal and Spain for enduring pain to rein in their debts, he said it was time for Greece’s leaders to “shoulder their responsibility” — accusing them, not for the first time, of misrepresenting EU offers to the Greek public.
The government is asking people to vote on proposals as they were last Thursday, and said it did not receive an offer Juncker said was made late on Friday that included a concession letting Greece set a lower VAT sales tax on its vital hotel sector.
“This is not a stupid austerity package,” Juncker insisted.
After praising its ancient role in establishing democracy, he concluded, in Greek: “Greece is Europe; Europe is Greece.”