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PM Tsipras Says Reneging on Referendum Saved Greek Society

Αssociated Press

From left, Swiss Confederation President Alain Berset, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Greece Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrive for a family photo in Palermo, Italy, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras said his decision to renege on a referendum he called three years ago asking Greeks to join him in opposing austerity – they did, he didn't – saved the most vulnerable in society and wasn't at odds with his party's principles.

"When I faced the greatest dilemma any prime minister could face, in July 2015, what helped me take difficult decisions, was when, with a clear head, I assessed the consequences that any political choice would have on social sectors that the left is obliged to represent and defend," Tsipras told delegates at an SPD party conference in Berlin, said the Greek paper Naftemporiki.

The referendum came seven months after he took power on pledges to reverse pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings before he said he discovered he couldn't, going back on his own referendum and supporters in seeking a third bailout.

That was for 86 billion euros ($96.56 billion) from the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) that came with more of the crushing conditions he swore to reject but then agreed to implement, including more pension cuts, an avalanche of tax hikes and new taxes on previously exempt low-and-moderate income groups.

He said it was necessary to prevent Greece from being forced out of the Eurozone, a prospect he earlier said he'd happily consider before changing his mind on that too. The fallout after the referendum caused tumult, the closing of Greek banks for several weeks and imposing capital controls still in place.

Six months of arduous negotiations with the Troika also resulted and his decision to walk away from the referendum result also led to the ouster of then-Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who was opposed to Tsipras' giving in to the Troika.

In pointing to "leftist choice" to avoid a split with the Eurozone and EU at the time, he said, "Success by a leftist power is not simply an exit from the crisis, but an exit from the crisis with society standing, and with the fewest possible losses for the weakest, the poor, the middle class, wage-earners, and the young... therefore, success is different if you judge it from the left, and another from the right, and this distinction is substantive and not just semantics," he said. The major opposition New Democracy mocked his pained explanation that he really didn't do what he did because he had no choice.

"If Mr. Tsipras had a clear head when he discredited the country and tacked on another 100 billion euros (in future debts and burdens), we shudder to think what would have happened had he remained clouded," the Conservatives said.

THE VIEW FROM PARIS

Former French President Francois Hollande said Greece came very close to exiting the Eurozone in the summer of 2015 and that EU leaders were not bluffing in telling Tsipras that Greece would be out unless he caved in.

He said a so-called Grexit was planned by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is putting up the bulk of the rescue loans and who demanded and got harsh austerity measures in return to protect her banks.

He said he strived to keep Greece in the Eurozone and tried to rebuff Merkel's standby plan.

“If Greece goes, who will be next? Are you sure you won’t be next?” was his key argument to Greece’s partners he told Kathimerini in an interview.

“Angela Merkel was demanding but also patient. At the last minute, although she could have leaned toward the option of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, something that many in her government were doubtlessly pressing her to do, she resisted and sought a credible and sustainable solution.”

He said that, “Blackmail is never a solution. However, it was necessary for Alexis Tsipras to highlight how painful the effort was already for his country and stress that he needed time to improve the finances that had deteriorated under his predecessors. If Alexis Tsipras had thought about leaving the eurozone, he never said so and never threatened to do so.

“Tsipras had won the referendum but he had lost the trust of the Europeans. He could feel proud of convincing the Greeks to support him but also worried about the day after. That night I congratulated him on the result but I said that he would now face great difficulties. I told him: 'If you want to keep Greece in the Eurozone, you have to say so quickly. You have to start negotiations immediately. Help me help you. If you want a solution, I’ll help you. But I can only do so once you’ve decided.” And in the end he came to negotiate.”