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Half-truths in the Greek crisis conceal the big picture

If in war truth is the first casualty, in conflict half-truths are each side’s ammunition writes Haridimos Tsoukas. Consider the recent debate on the Greek crisis in the European Parliament.

Closing his speech, Greek Prime Minister Tsipras referred to Sophocles’ classical tragedy Antigone. “I respect the EU laws”, he said, “but [Sophocles] taught us that there are moments when the supreme right is the right of the people”. Strictly speaking, it was not an accurate rendition of Antigone. The eponymous heroine referred to the “law of Gods” as being superior to the “laws of men”. But we get the Prime Minister’s point: respect for laws cannot be elevated as the supreme behavioral criterion in a conflict.

Consider now EU President Tusk’s talk in the same session. Referring to “simple truths that accompanied people for centuries”, he said: “it is simply impossible to keep spending over a long period of time much more than one earns. This is the source of the crisis in Greece, not the common currency”. In other words, Greece, not foreigners, brought its problems on herself and, therefore, Greece should bear the brunt of the adjustment needed.

Both of these points are half-truths – correct but partial perspectives on the Greek crisis.

First, Mr. Tsipras misreads Antigone. The underlying point in this great tragedy is not that Antigone is right and Creon (the King of Thebes) is wrong. Just as Antigone morally defends the unwritten rules of the Gods that all dead (including her brother who had betrayed his city) should be buried, Creon legitimately defends his decision that traitors should remain unburied. He demands respect for his order on the grounds that the law must be obeyed, since without respect for laws, a city slides into “anarchy”.

In the play, Creon is faulted for his lack of judgment, while Antigone for her “rush to extremes” and “love with impossibility”. If Creon is stubborn, Antigone is confrontational; if Creon is blinded by power, Antigone is blinded by purity. Each one is “thinking alone”, disregarding the other’s truth. They never seek a compromise, bringing about tragedy. Sophocles invited his contemporary Athenians to see that sometimes in life the clash is not so much between right and wrong but between right and right – rules versus justice, for example. Feel free to draw the analogies between Antigone and the current Greek euro-related crisis.

Secondly, Mr. Tusk correctly points out the Greek causes of the crisis – the imprudent borrowing by successive governments to support a massive clientelist state in an uncompetitive economy operating on the basis of oligarchic interests and closed professions. All this is true and well document by IMF and OECD reports.

But this is not the only root of the Greek crisis. The single currency, when not supported by common fiscal policies and political institutions, generates painful problems that plague the less competitive economies. In a single currency without joint fiscal policies, the trade surpluses of the competitive countries become trade deficits of the uncompetitive ones. The Greek crisis revealed the design flaws of the eurozone. And another “simple truth” Mr. Tusk failed to mention: it takes two to transact. For every debtor there is a lender. Excessive Greek borrowing would not have happened without German and French banks irresponsibly lending to the imprudent Greek governments. But the biggest part of fiscal adjustment, in the last five years, was not borne by foreign banks but by Greek tax papers. Is this fair?

Half-truths conceal the big picture: the causes of the current Greek crisis are partly endogenous and partly exogenous. Tsipras points the finger to the self-interested creditors who imposed excruciating austerity on his people to save their banks, while Tusk draws attention on the unsustainable, economically and institutionally, Greek economic model. Both are right. But both provide partial, self-interested narratives. And none is prepared to show the leadership these dire circumstances demand: to see the whole picture and see far ahead.

This is then the challenge for European politicians: true statesmanship is finding the courage and having the intelligence to be wise without experiencing tragedy – to see the big picture, to acknowledge the right of the other side, to craft space for compromise. Can Eurozone leaders live up to that challenge?

Haridimos (Hari) Tsoukas is a Distinguished Research Environment Professor of Organization Studies at the University of Warwick and holds the Columbia Ship Management Chair in Strategic Management at the University of Cyprus ( He is a co-editor of From Stagnation to Forced Adjustment: Reforms in Greece, 1974-2010 (Columbia University Press, 2012).

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