Europe and Greece on the Brink

CAMBRIDGE – A deal between Greece and its creditors might not happen. Several factors are in flux; Greek and northern European interests are not aligned; and personal animosities are in play. For Greece, an exit from the euro would not be easy, but if the alternative is endless austerity without debt forgiveness, its government may conclude that leaving the eurozone is the better choice.

Germany, for its part, would prefer to avoid a Greek exit – a position that Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis seems to have been banking on. But the German public largely wants to punish Greece, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not want to set a precedent for recurring bailouts of the European Union’s weaker members.

Failure to reach an agreement would be painful for Greece, which would face chaotic economic conditions. But an exit from the euro would also provide its government with new options – most notably, the ability devalue its currency to make its exports more competitive. For the rest of Europe, however, the risk is mostly on the downside, because beyond the obvious losses that would be incurred if Greece does not pay its debt to European governments and international institutions, there is the wider worry that the crisis could reverberate through the continent’s real economy.

There are three important risk channels through which Greece’s troubles could hit the European economy. The first is by destabilizing its financial institutions. The second is by disrupting the other EU member states in situations similar to Greece’s. And the third is by bringing about unexpected political outcomes. To be sure, each threat on its own seems containable. But to predict that they are likely to be contained is not the same as saying that they will surely be contained. And the combination of the three makes the impact on Europe of a Greek default and exit more unpredictable.