Europe

Greece debt talks: Rhetoric ramped up as negotiations struggle

Yanis Varoufakis, Jean-Claude Juncker and Alexis Tsipras Image copyright Reuters/EPA
Image caption Yanis Varoufakis, Jean-Claude Juncker and Alexis Tsipras have all used strong words to describe the negotiations

The Greek government and its international lenders have increasingly ramped up their rhetoric as they wrestle over a deal to end the country's debt crisis.

In the latest war of words, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker accused the government of misleading voters after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the country's creditors were trying to "humiliate" its people with demands for reforms.

But strong language has long been a feature of the bailout negotiations.

Just days after Syriza won the country's election, the new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said Greece was "determined not to be treated as a debt colony that should suffer what it must".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Classical Greek tragedies by dramatists such as Euripides have inspired some of the statements on the crisis

And the imagery of suffering and servitude was also apparent when he called on Germany to help end the "gross indignity" of the Greek debt crisis.

'Cow sliding on ice'

More recently, PM Tsipras denounced the fiscal "strangulation" of his country, while European Council President Donald Tusk delivered an unusually forthright plea for Greece's leaders to stop "gambling".

"The day is coming, I'm afraid, that someone says that the game is over," he said.

The analogy of the crisis as some sort of card game or contest has been used by both sides, even though the Greek government has denied approaching the talks in this manner.

Mr Varoufakis told Italian television back in February that the euro was as "fragile" as a house of cards. "If you take out the Greek card the others will collapse," he said.

Meanwhile, the drama of ancient Greece has also provided an irresistible opportunity for some speakers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Yanis Varoufakis looked crestfallen as he listened to PM Tsipras addressing parliament on Tuesday

When describing the progress of the talks in June, EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said: "I really like Greek tragedy, but I think now we really have to move on to the happy ending."

But more unusual metaphors have also begun to emerge.

Mr Juncker sparked some amusement last week while describing the grave task facing negotiators as they try to divert Greece away from default and exit from the eurozone.

He said Greece was a cow slipping on ice that must be pushed to firm ground.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Jean-Claude Juncker teases PM Tsipras about his lack of tie at a meeting in Riga in May

Wall Street Journal reporter Gabriele Steinhauser then revealed that a Commission spokesman had decided it necessary to clarify further - that the cow had been skating on thin ice for too long and needed to be moved off.

And surprising as it may seem, this is not the first time an image of a cow has appeared in the discourse around the negotiations.

Mr Varoufakis, whose sound bites have earned him his own feature on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme, said in February that creditors' demands were like "trying to extract more milk from a sick cow by whipping it".

Sloppy kisses

The finance minister's oratorical skills have certainly helped raise his profile on the world stage, but they have arguably also landed him in rather hot water.

He was replaced as his government's top negotiator in April amid criticism about his style.

It came just days after he quoted Franklin D Roosevelt in a post on Twitter, which was taken by some to show ill feeling between the finance ministers of Europe.

He later said he had directed his post at journalists, and denied reports he had been personally insulted by finance ministers at a meeting in the Latvian capital, Riga.

But it still gave us a brief glimpse of the mood around the talks as the different sides struggled for an agreement.

Observers got more of an insight than they were expecting when Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup, told Dutch magazine Vrij Nederlands about the working relationship between negotiators.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Juncker gave Mr Tsipras a warm welcome to a summit in Brussels despite the increasingly chilly rhetoric

His relationship with Mr Juncker was "good", he said. "We are on the phone almost weekly to stay on the same page about Greece," he said.

"Every time we meet he hugs me and gives me sloppy kisses... although he seems to do that with everyone."

Venting frustration

The rhetoric in recent weeks has not always been quite so affectionate, with EU officials and German politicians venting their frustration at Greece

One diplomat described Greece's attempts to unlock bailout funds from the EU and IMF as "amateurish".

Greece has retaliated, with PM Tsipras suggesting that the IMF bore "criminal responsibility" for austerity measures that had plunged the Greek economy into recession.

"We've lost the diplomatic tone that you would usually see in negotiations such as these," says Matthew Carey, an international lawyer specialising in dispute resolution.

Mr Carey says Greece has increasingly adopted a "gun at the head" approach.

However, it is difficult for the government to take a hard line on an agreement when Greeks have already said they do not want to leave the eurozone, he adds.

Time is running out for leaders to reach a debt deal. Some will say now is the moment for actions rather than words.