ATHENS — Less than a week ago, Greece stood defiant.
Thousands of people flooded the square outside Parliament, draping themselves in blue-and-white flags to celebrate the country’s sweeping rejection of the tough austerity measures demanded by its European creditors, which Greece’s fiery young leader had likened to “blackmail.”
But by Friday, the euphoria had faded as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s vows to stand up to Europe caved to the harsh realization that the birthplace of democracy stood just 48 hours away from financial ruin — and Greeks were poised to swallow what amounted to the same dose of austerity they had refused in a vote Sunday.
“Each one of us shall be confronted with his stature and his history. Between a bad choice and a catastrophic one, we are forced to opt for the first one,” Tsipras said in a speech before his party’s lawmakers, according to local media. “It is as if one asks you for your money or your life.”
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Greek Parliament backed a last-ditch plea to creditors for more than 50 billion euros in emergency funding that could carry the country through the next three years. European officials in Brussels also planned to pore over the proposal Saturday afternoon. Approval from the 19-member euro zone’s finance ministers would open the door to restarting formal negotiations that had broken down in the run-up to the referendum.
Securing the bailout money could pave the way for shuttered banks to reopen, return some semblance of normalcy to beleaguered citizens and affirm this Mediterranean nation’s identity as an integral part of Europe. But it almost would amount to an acknowledgment that while the austerity Tsipras disdained may be painful — and may deepen Greece’s financial crisis — leaving the common euro currency would be worse.
“The revolutionary moment has fizzled,” said Mark Medish, who served as a top official in the Treasury Department and the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. “In effect, the no vote would be turning into a yes.”
But members of the far-left block of Tsipras’ ruling Syriza party signaled they were unhappy with the deal. Panagiotis Lafazanis, who heads the radical block and sits in Tsipras’s cabinet, characterized it as a departure from party philosophy. He and seven other Syriza members abstained from voting. Seven of the party’s lawmakers skipped the vote altogether, and two rejected the proposal. The insurgency could result in a political shakeup once negotiations with Europe are over.
The bailout “doesn’t give answers to the country’s problems or a positive destination,” Lafazanis told Greek media.
How Greece went from victory to economy-destroying defeat
In return for a bailout, Tsipras offered to undertake a massive restructuring of the national budget that has eluded his predecessors but that analysts say may be unavoidable if Greece is to stabilize its foundering economy. The package of spending cuts and tax increases is estimated to total 12 billion to 13 billion euros — even more than previous Greek proposals had offered. It includes abolishing key tax breaks for islands that are popular tourist destinations, phasing out a subsidy for poor pensioners and privatizing sprawling state industries.
“This could be called the education of Alexis Tsipras,” said Aristotle Tziampiris, associate professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus. “The overwhelming majority of the Greek people were united in fact in their desire to stay in the euro zone.”
The apparent capitulation by Greece, though, still needed the backing of its creditors, some of whom remained decidedly unamused by the antics in Athens.
Greece’s troika of lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — discussed Greece’s request for a bailout in a conference call Friday afternoon.
A commitment of fresh money could open the door for the ECB to lift its cap on emergency aid for Greece’s banks, which have been shut for two weeks. The central bank will likely discuss the matter Monday, according to the Reuters news agency.
French officials, who sent advisers to help Greece craft its proposal, lobbied for leniency, with President François Hollande describing the offer as “serious and credible.”
But Germany, the largest creditor nation, is likely to be a decisive voice, and hard questions were still being asked in Berlin. German officials were calling for signs of follow-through by the Greeks, and the strong endorsement of the proposal by the Greek Parliament might help.
This is the third bailout that Athens has asked for in five years. Greece had sought an extension of its previous program, but now it is to start a wholly new one.
“The situation of the expired old program does not exist anymore,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin. “Therefore, what we need is a new, multi-year program which in its requirements and commitments by far exceeds what was discussed at the end of June.”
Yet there seemed to be a slight opening by the Germans on the thorny but pivotal issue of easing Greece’s crippling debt, even if slightly. German Finance Ministry spokesman Martin Jäger said a major debt-slashing was out of the question. But he left open the possibility of a debt restructuring that eases Greece’s terms, saying the intent was not to “significantly reduce the cash value of the debt.”
A commitment by Greece’s lenders to address its debt could sweeten the deal for Athens. As Friday’s debate over the bailout stretched into Saturday morning, Tsipras held out that potential as a crucial victory.
“I hope we are nearing the end of a battle,” he said before Parliament. “Sooner or later, this seed of dignity and democracy will bear fruit for other Europeans.”
But for some Greeks — primarily from the prime minister’s own party — there remained only one solution: to leave Europe and its austerity regime behind.
A small contingent of the bailout’s most ardent opponents gathered Friday night in Syntagma Square in front of Parliament. Petro Vaios, 20, handed out leaflets and carried a sign on his backpack that read, “No bailouts, old or new.”
The protest was a mere shadow of the throngs that filled the streets after last Sunday’s referendum. Vaios said he knew he was fighting for a lost cause.
“After five years of austerity, we now know for sure that the European way has not led us anywhere,” he said. “If we follow the same path, it’s like committing suicide.”
When asked how he felt about Tsipras, the leader who moved from open resistance to desperation in the space of a week, Vaios only smiled and replied, “It’s a tricky question.”
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.
Europe rallies behind Merkel as Greeks hit breaking point