Wall Street Journal

Who says that beggars can’t be choosers?

It’s been a little more than two years since Greece first plunged the euro zone into its present crisis, and 21 months since Athens got its first €110 billion bailout. Since then, there has been little by way of meaningful reform and a lot by way of precipitous decline. The EU and the IMF are prepared to throw Athens a second lifeline of €130 billion on the condition that the Greek political classes agree to more spending cuts, public-sector layoffs and a cut to the minimum wage.

So the politicians debate, the unions strike, and the angry mobs take to the street.

That’s the state-of-play this week as interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos attempts to corral the socialist Pasok and the center-right New Democracy to meet the terms of the bailout. In the contest of blame for Greece’s woes, we’re hard-pressed to choose which of these parties deserves more. It was under New Democracy that Greece cooked its books to make its deficits seem smaller. Pasok came in, exposed the fraud and has since missed nearly every target it has promised to meet, whether on tax collection, closing the deficit, privatizing state-owned firms or implementing other reforms.

Now the parties continue to jockey for political position ahead of elections, and neither the process nor the outcome will be edifying. Still, the real marvel is that there are people on this planet who remain prepared to commit to another bailout that today equals 50% of Greece’s still-shrinking GDP—if only the Greeks will let them.

Greece’s paymasters in Berlin, Brussels and Washington may imagine that they have Athens by the throat, what with things as bad as they are. But as long as the architects of the bailout strategy remain committed to the notion that a Greek default, messy or otherwise, would be a catastrophe for Europe, it is Athens’s squabbling and incompetent politicians who really hold the reins. Beggars can be choosers when allowed a choice.