Greeks denying gifts
Davos: "We will help Greece if they really need it. Just don't tell the Greeks that." That's the message the European authorities would like to send the international bond markets. Alas, they can't. Which explains the conflicting signals coming out of Davos and Brussels in the past 24 hours on the subject of bailouts.
At this year's Davos, Greece has been rather like the small unattended package at the back of the hall. Everyone thinks it could be a big problem. But no-one wants to be the first to open it up.
As I said on the Today programme this morning, the Greek prime minister has been forced on to the defensive by the markets, telling everyone who will listen here that Greece will fix its own problems without help from anyone else.
He gave that speech at a rather low-voltage public session on the Eurozone yesterday, sharing a stage with a typically tight-lipped ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet. But Prime Minister Papandreou added that he thought that Greece had been the victim of malign anti-Euro forces, picking on Greece as the weak link in the Eurozone chain.
Many have dismissed this as a typical "blame the speculator" move from leaders facing public debt crises - which, of course, it is. But I think he was also quietly reminding everyone in the room that the Eurozone was indeed only as strong as its weakest link. He would very much like Brussels and Frankfurt to see Greece and the Eurozone's fortunes as tightly intertwined.
The further falls in the Euro today have rather made his point. As things stand, the Euro will have fallen more than 2% against the dollar since the start of the year.
The likes of Axel Weber, the Bundesbank president, dearly wish it was not a collective problem. As I have explained before, the ECB has been giving back-door support to the likes of Greece, by allowing domestic banks across the Eurozone to post domestic government debt as collateral for nearly-free central bank cash.
Harder-liners such as Weber have not been very comfortable with even this. Thought of a proper, front-door bailout for fiscal miscreants like Greece makes them positively ill. Especially when there is supposedly a "no bail-out" clause in the Euro treaty, specifically written (by Germany) with Pigs (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) in mind.
But- as ever - that clause can be suspended in special situations. Last spring even Germany realised that the global financial crisis was a special situation, and European officials sent out a strong signal to the markets that desperate countries would, in fact, get support. That underpinned confidence in the thick of the crisis.
Now, from the standpoint of Frankfurt at least, the crisis has passed. In December, the ECB announced that normal service would soon be resumed - and the days of bucketfuls of cheap cash were coming to an end.
That's why the markets have been spooked. They also know the French and German want every country to take responsibility for fixing its own budget mess.
Greece has put forward such a plan - to cut borrowing from nearly 13% of GDP to just 3% by 2012. But few believe that the Greek population will put up with it. There's a general strike planned early next month.
So the question is being asked again: will Europe stand behind them? But, as we're seeing, "Europe", at times like this, does not speak with one voice.
The European commission president went for a positive-sounding fudge in his remarks yesterday - indicating that there would be a European solution to the crisis, if needed, but with studied ambiguity about whether it would be under the auspices of the Eurozone or the EU.
Given the bail-out clause, EU support would be a lot easier, constitutionally, but it's not entirely clear where the money would come from. Also, as we've already seen, the political obstacles are not small. This morning, the UK Chancellor, Alistair Darling, appeared to rule out EU support for Greece though that could change.
So we return to my opening thought: Eurozone officials would like a way to say yes to the bond markets, without appearing to let Greece off the hook. But it's not clear that such a path exists. And if they keep looking for one, they risk making the bailout they fear that much more likely.
The lesson of history - repeated again and again - is that uncertainty about the end-game only brings it closer. The more doubt there is about the Greek safety net, the higher the risk premium on Greek debt will go - the more likely it is that Greece will fall.
Update 15:00: I note that the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, has now given her take on the Greek situation. Or should I say takes.
In a piece headlined "Lagarde says no eurozone bailouts", Reuters has her saying the following in an interview this morning:
"(The euro zone) is a monetary zone which holds us together. There's no way out. There's no bailout system and we have to deliver on the commitments that we made."
That seems pretty clear-cut. Except, it seems, to AFP. On the basis of the same interview, they report: "Lagarde said fellow eurozone member Greece would not be abandoned while it seeks to tame a runaway public deficit. 'Greece is not alone', Lagarde told CNBC television at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos."
Apparently Ms Lagarde had left plenty of room for interpretation.
And to think I had accused European officials of sending mixed signals.