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Greece and the Eurogroup need a marriage counsellor

Thu, 12 Feb 2015 01:48:36 GMT

The thing about marriages that break down is they can take an unconscionable age either to be mended or to be formally ended - because of a combination of the evaporation of trust, the tendency to blame the other for failure and the difficulty in working out who gets what of the assets and liabilities.

So none of us should really have been surprised last night when Jeroen Dijssselbloem, finance minister of the Netherlands and chair of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, told us that discussions with Greece "covered a lot of ground but we didn't reach a joint conclusion".

More troubling perhaps is that the Eurogroup's talks with Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's brainy and unusually charismatic member of their ilk, did not agree either on a basis for having further talks: they could not even reach a conclusion on how and what to negotiate about, such is the gulf between them about what's required to patch up the marriage, or to keep Greece in the eurozone.

That said, it is not all gloom: they start apparently with a shared objective, which is that Greece should not leave the euro.

The problem is that Greece wants debt reduction, an end to austerity and cancellation of the formal bailout agreement - and the rest of the Eurogroup wants none of this.

If this was a marriage, friends of the couple - and disinterested outsiders - would be saying to each of them that negotiating face to face, on their own, is a disaster. That is the road to things being said which should never be said, can never be taken back, and can lead to irreparable damage to the relationship.

So what would often happen now is that the two would go off and see a counsellor, who would get them to focus on what they really want - and perhaps salvage something from the wreckage.

The problem is that there is no obvious neutral, impartial counsellor available for the Greeks and Berlin/Brussels. The natural candidate would have been the IMF, but Syriza sees the IMF as part of the problem, since it was part of the troika that imposed the bailout conditions on the country so loathed by the new government (and, opinion polls show, a majority of Greek people).

But if there is no role for the IMF as counsellor and mediator, then what hope is there for the warring sides of reaching an accommodation. We should expect fireworks in coming days.

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