The Hardest Job in Europe

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou hasn't exactly saved Europe, but could anyone have done much better?

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Papandreou delivers a speech to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement parliamentary group in Athens / Reuters

This has not been Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's best week. First he surprised a bunch of people -- including fellow European leaders who were bailing his country out -- by announcing a referendum on whether or not the help would be accepted. Then, in the resulting furor, came the next announcement: Just kidding! The referendum, which some feared could add that extra bit of instability that Europe doesn't need, has been cancelled.

If the first move made him look undiplomatic -- unmindful of the stakes, or the incredible risks that other countries were making on Greece's behalf -- the second move, especially because it was first announced by his finance minister, made him look weak. But his irritated allies are only part of the problem: Papandreou is now inches away from being ousted at home, facing a very tight confidence vote Friday evening. Reuters is reporting Papandreou saying privately, in a cabinet meeting, that he might stand down after building a coalition with the opposition. If he doesn't do that, his opponents might simply call for an election. 

And yet, surveying the wreckage, one still wonders: did Papandreou do any worse than anyone else might have done in his position? Was he doomed from the start?

It's a familiar debate in politics and an even more familiar one among historians. Which counts for more: men or circumstances? Choices, or the framework that determines them? Papandreou came into power promising reform, and that's exactly what his government set about trying to enact. It was hardly their fault that, in the course of setting the books straight, they found that predecessors had lied for years about the government's finances.

It's hard to see how anyone could have gracefully navigated through the competing interests in Greece and Europe right now. Greek citizens are having none of the austerity measures Papandreou has imposed under pressure from Germany: aside from protests in the streets, there have been, for example, the trash collector strikes, leaving garbage in stinking piles all over Athens. Plenty of citizens seem to think the strings-attached bailouts from Europe are pointless, as Greece will have to default anyway. Meanwhile the European community wants more discipline still. And it needs Greece to take the money on the table: fears are rampant about a domino effect, Greece's troubles are increasing investors' fears about Italy, and so forth.

It's not quite that all of Papandreou's European peers want one thing while all of his constituents want another. Plenty of Papandreou's own party members, for example, were outraged by his referendum idea, feeling he risked Greek stability for a political trick. Reuters, at least, tracked down an ordinary shopkeeper with the same opinion.

As the BBC points out, despite anger over austerity measures, "A recent opinion poll in a newspaper showed 70% [of Greeks] wanted to remain within the eurozone."

But that, actually, was precisely Papandreou's point, many say, in calling for the referendum. One popular reading of the referendum gimmick is, as The Wall Street Journal's Terence Roth put it, that Papandreou's "solution" to opposition intransigence and public outcry was to "call the bluff." In other words, what he was really saying was something like: 'Okay, guys. You really want to sink this ship? Sink it. I dare you. And if you don't, shut up.'

It's too soon to tell for sure, but it looks like that may have backfired big time. Here's the quote from Antonis Samaras, leader of the opposing New Democracy party:

I am wondering: Mr. Papandreou almost destroyed Greece and Europe, the euro, the international stock markets, his own party in order to ensure what? So that he could blackmail me and the Greek public? Or to ensure what I had already said several days ago; that I accept the bailout agreement as unavoidable?

Not exactly an ideal sound bite to have on the airwaves.

So we'll see what happens with this confidence vote tonight. At least one expert -- Michael Thumann, writing out of Istanbul for German paper Die Zeit -- thinks Papandreou's finished regardless of the outcome. He calls this week's 180-degree turns "suicidal."

Perhaps that's true. If so, the real verdict won't come tonight, but a few decades down the line, and even then there will be a degree of provisionality. With a little more context, will historians decide the decisive factor was the hand Papandreou was dealt, or the way he played it? After all, people do stupid, suicidal things with bad hands all the time, and it looks a lot like boldness and brilliance if it works. But in politics as in poker, people tend to care less about strategy than outcome.