A Greek national flag and EU flag hanging outside a kiosk in Athens

So Alexis Tsipras has failed. A weak hand was weakened as Greece became more isolated than ever before, and the pan-European anti-austerity front that he promised in the last election failed to materialise. Five months of negotiations have yielded nothing to match the radical rhetoric that swept him and his party to power.

But the failure is not the Greek prime minister’s alone. His predecessors failed as well, omitting at each stage to tell their voters the true story when they were in opposition and suffering the consequences once in power.

Compare the depression in Greece with the fortunes of Ireland, Portugal and Spain since the crisis erupted five years ago, and what stands out is the consistent preference of Greece’s political class for placing short-term party gain over the national interest. But as details emerge of the proposed new agreement, it is clear that the failure goes wider still and is not confined to Greece. The policy of austerity that has been forced on the country by its creditors, as Olivier Blanchard, the International Monetary Fund chief economist, acknowledged in 2013, made Greece’s recession longer and deeper than it need have been.

Now it is to be intensified. For all the reported differences between the IMF and the European Commission, it is clear that the tactics of Mr Tsipras have united his interlocutors, and united them specifically in their resolution to push Greece further down the same disastrous road as before.

Their insistence on ignoring the country’s sky-high unemployment rates reflects the almost complete collapse in trust engendered by the Syriza government’s manner of dealing with them over the past five months. But it also reflects their deeper underlying impatience, and that of their electorates, with the seemingly endless saga of the Greek crisis and their understandable doubt whether any agreement once signed will ever be seriously implemented.

With Greek banks on life support, events are moving to a resolution and not in the way that the Greek side can have hoped. Mr Tsipras still claims to be optimistic, but his hold over the party is not very strong: within Syriza, details of the creditors’ package were greeted with dismay — and not only by the party’s radicals. Beyond it, there is deep and justified concern at the limited scope in the latest Greek plan for anything resembling the kind of structural reforms the economy really needs.

Time may once have been on Athens’ side. But, having wasted that commodity over many weeks, the Greek government now confronts an urgent situation. Mr Tsipras’s last hope has lain in geopolitics — exploiting western fears of pushing Greece into the orbit of Vladimir Putin and taking much of the Balkans with it. But these fears have their limits too: they will not do much to sway electors in Germany and elsewhere, however much they keep Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Barack Obama, the US president, awake at night. And they will not sway the IMF either.

The probabilities must now therefore still unfortunately be on the side of a Greek exit. This will be catastrophic for Greece and costly for the rest of Europe. There is an alternative but it rests on the unlikely possibility that the Greek prime minister will opt in the coming days for country over party, for an unfamiliar future over a familiar past. Can Mr Tsipras make the shift in role from student radical to national statesman?

The omens are poor — and the paltry real returns from his negotiating strategy so far make the task harder — but the thing is not impossible. Syriza and the Greek party system are both in flux. Syriza’s internal opposition to the new package is real but the electoral centre ground in the country at large remains — for now — staunchly in favour of remaining in the euro. Pasok, the party which dominated the left since the end of the junta, is dwindling into insignificance, leaving the way open for Mr Tsipras domestically.

Despite everything, he remains popular within the country. If he can claim victory in defeat, present an agreement with the creditors as his, and hold new elections on a centre-left platform some time in the autumn with the real prospect of significant debt relief, he may yet pull it off. Those in his party who hope to build socialism through a return to the drachma will be sidelined, and Greece may be able to remain within the eurozone as the polls suggest a majority still want. That would allow the Greek people a badly needed respite from the psychological turmoil of endless crisis and give time to stabilise and reinforce the country’s battered political institutions.

On such slim eventualities does Greece’s future and perhaps that of the euro itself, now hang.

The writer is Ira D Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University

Get alerts on Greece debt crisis when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article