European officials have been arguing for weeks that, for all the hand-wringing over the future of Greece, the rumour it would leave the euro was fantasy.

Reintroducing the drachma would not only be too costly, they argue, but Greece’s debt situation would actually get worse – a devalued drachma would mean all of Athens’ euro-denominated loans would suddenly cost even more to pay off.

But on Wednesday, Maria Damanaki, Greece’s European commissioner, became the most senior Greek official to raise the possibility, issuing a statement that “Greece being distanced from the euro is now on the table” and urging Athens to move urgently.

“Either we agree with our creditors on a programme of tough sacrifices and results, undertaking our responsibilities to our past, or we return to the drachma,” Damanaki, the EU maritime and fisheries commissioner, said in the statement.

As a European commissioner, and one not involved in economic policy, Damanaki is not really in a position to influence either Greek or European policy on monetary affairs.

But prior to coming to Brussels, she was a senior member of Greek prime minister George Papandreou’s socialist party, serving in several leadership positions, including a seat on the party’s political council. As a result, her warning has significant weight.

Damanaki made clear a return to the drachma was not something she was advocating. She said Greece’s membership in the single currency and its “European course” were “the greatest achievement of post-war Greece”. But she said both were now “at risk”.

“I am obliged to speak openly,” she said. “We have a historic responsibility to see the dilemma clearly.”

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