Greece has greatly damaged its chances of an EU bail-out by lashing out at Germany over war-time atrocities and accusing Italy of cooking its books to hide public debt.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
Published: 8:44PM GMT 24 Feb 2010
The escalating dispute came as a general strike in Greece spilled over into violent clashes between hooded youths and riot police in Athens. Chants of "burn the banks" are a foretaste of tensions once austerity measures bite in earnest later this year.
Public and private sector unions joined forces to bring the country to a standstill for 24 hours, halting flights, trains, and shipping, and shutting schools and hospitals.
Theodoros Pangalos, deputy prime minister, said Germany had no right to reproach Greece for anything after it devastated the country under the Nazi occupation, which left 300,000 dead. "They took away the gold that was in the Bank of Greece, and they never gave it back. They shouldn't complain so much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings," he told the BBC.
Twisting the knife further, he said the current crop of EU leaders were of "very poor quality" and had botched this month's crisis summit in Brussels. "The people who are managing the fortunes of Europe were not up to the task," he said.
One banker said the situation was surreal. "How can they call the Germans incompetent Nazis and still expect a bail-out?"
Mr Panagalos has gone even further than premier George Papandreou, who said Greece had become a "guinea pig" for squabbling eurocracts playing power games.
Athenian rhetoric has confirmed fears in North Europe that the ruling PASOK party is still in denial about the crisis and will not deliver on promises. The insults have caused bitterness in Germany, increasing the possibility that Europe's paymaster will lose patience and leave Greece to its fate after all.
Hans-Werner Sinn, head of Germany's IFO economic institute, said Athens was holding Euroland to ransom, threatening to set off mayhem if there is no bail-out. "Greece should never have entered the euro zone because they did not qualify and they are now blackmailing other European countries via the euro. It's not for the EU to help Greece. We have an institution that is very experienced in bailing-out activities: the IMF," he said.
Dr Sinn said Europe should call Greece's bluff. If the euro falls, so much the better. "The euro is overvalued anyway. It is way out of line, and a weaker euro would be quite useful for Europe to stimulate exports."
Otmar Issing, former doyen of the European Central Bank, echoed the view in Germany's Bundestag on Wednesday, warning that a Greek rescue would "open the floodgates" for serial bail-outs and destroy EMU discipline. "The crisis is made in Greece. It is the result of bad policy, not outside forces like an earthquake."
Edgy investors have begun to question whether the EU really does have a support package up its sleeve. Spreads on 10-year Greek bonds over German Bunds rose to 332 basis points.
Greece's problems are mounting by the day. Fitch Ratings downgraded four of the largest Greek banks on Tuesday, fearing a double hit from the EU-imposed fiscal tightening – 10pc of GDP over three years – and withdrawal of ECB stimulus. Wealthy Greeks have reportedly shifted large sums to Cyprus, eroding the Greek deposit base.
Investors fear austerity protests could spread in Europe. Portuguese unions have called a general strike for early March. Spanish unions held marches in Madrid and Barcelona on Tuesday over pensions, but turnout was low.
The EU has always found ways to master crises over the last 60 years, and will most likely do so again, but this one feels different to EU veterans. Germany's top court has left doubts about the legality of any bail-out. There is deep resistance in both Germany and Holland to calls for an EU fiscal authority or debt union – a quantum leap in EU integration.
Such a move would imply an open-ended guarantee for over €3trillion in Club Med debt, and a violation of the political contract behind EMU. Bavarian leader Edmund Stoiber once famously derided warnings that the euro would leave German taxpayers on the hook for foreigners as no more likely than "a famine in Bavaria". Pledges come back to haunt.