The old legal maxim for barristers of never ask a question without knowing the answer might come to bite Europe on the bum and blow the eurozone apart.

The hardball has started on Greece, with the IMF and European leaders letting it be known that the €8 billion due to be paid to Greece in about 10 days won’t be paid without a “yes” vote in Prime Minister Papandreou’s referendum. The Greek leader and Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy (who looked very antsy in TV reports from Cannes overnight where the G20 leaders meeting is being held) met this morning, Australian time.

Greece was telling everyone it needed the €8 billion in early October, before its lenders realised the black hole known as Greek debt was deeper and darker than previously thought. So it was withheld while a new bailout (the third) was hammered out last week — that’s the one in which the banks take a “voluntary” 50% haircut. Arrangements were made to pay the amount in November, but so far there’s been no sign of the Greek government running out of money (although some interest subsidies are not being paid on home loan packages in Greece, according to the Fitch ratings group).

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But Greece has to make a €12 billion bond repayment on December 11 and The Financial Times this morning quoted an unnamed European official as saying: “If they want to have a referendum, that’s of course their right, and we very much respect democracy … But in that case, they probably should not expect the others to pay out money before they get the answer.”

Reuters, then FT and other media reported that the IMF was telling the media that there would be no payment without a “yes” vote in the referendum, which was originally due to be held in mid-January, when the seventh tranche of money from the lending group would normally be due. Now that the EU have let it be known it feels the same way, the Greek government is suggesting the referendum will be held in mid-December.

But media reports also suggest that the actual question to be put in the referendum won’t be about the bailout and austerity package (which has been substantially voted on and approved by the Greek Parliament.) Instead, according to the FT:

“People close to the ruling Pasok party indicated that Mr Papandreou wanted a vote on the rescue package but constitutional lawyers said it would have to be on a broader national issue, indicating that it could be centred on support for Greece’s EU and eurozone membership. By posing the question in this way, Papandreou is much more likely to get a Yes vote. Polling has shown that while a majority of Greeks oppose the terms of last week’s rescue deal, only a minority favour quitting the single currency.”

Well, that might be clever, but what happens if Greek voters are so negative (and again refuse to accept their responsibility for the problems, which they have been doing) and vote “no” even to a poll with a broader question like this?

It blows apart the euro, which is what happens if one of the 17 member countries votes no and rejects supporting continued membership of the EU and the eurozone.

The backdrop to this is that political volatility is rising in Europe.  Last night the Netherlands government appeared to have lost its pro-European majority in parliament, after the opposition Labour Party said it would not back any more bailout deals, including the deal agreed last week. Labour has 30% of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament, and has seen its support collapse for backing previous bailout deals, with its popularity with Dutch voters falling 40% in recent months.

The governments of Ireland (naturally after the bank debacle) and Portugal (somewhat surprising) have changed because of the impact of the crisis and bailouts. The Slovakian government collapsed and new elections have been called after a brief impasse over support for the Stability Fund last month. In Germany, Merkel is under growing domestic pressure not to support more bailouts and in the UK, the right-wing eurosceptics and “Little Englanders” of the ruling Conservative Party are causing more problems for Prime Minister David Cameron as they try to exploit the euro crisis for their own ends.

And before the Greeks can vote, Spanish voters will toss the current Socialist government out of office in national polls on November 20 and elect a conservative opposition that (it is hoped) will follow the same policies.

All these results haven’t seen a dramatic repudiation of the EU and eurozone, more a domestic repudiation of the governments that were in power when the crisis erupted (the opposition in Greece is far more complicit in the country’s problems than the Socialists, who discovered the fudging of statistics and hiding of debt). But Greece has always been the weak point for the EU and eurozone and nothing that is happening right now provides any assurance that the possibility of repudiating continued membership of the EU and eurozone might not occur in the referendum.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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