If only a deal to end the crisis could be sealed with a kiss. But, 24 hours after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras got a Greek-style embrace as he arrived in Brussels on Wednesday (10 June), an agreement to save his country from bankruptcy seemed as elusive as ever.
In Greece, men often kiss when they meet or part as friends. But the man who planted the kiss on Tsipras on Wednesday was European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is from Luxembourg – a country generally less known for open displays of affection between heterosexual males.
The occasion was a meet-and-greet session before a summit of European Union leaders and their counterparts from Latin America and the Caribbean at the Commission headquarters.
For anyone worried about the fate of Greece and the wider eurozone, the question was whether Tsipras can persuade creditors from the European Union and International Monetary Fund to release funds or relax borrowing limits so that Athens can repay debts due by the end of this month and avoid default.
The mood between Tsipras, a former Communist youth leader, and top European politicians was under close scrutiny. Things got off to a slightly awkward start.
Brussels was abuzz that Juncker was upset with Tsipras’ tactics in negotiating a deal, under which Greece is supposed to accept yet more reform and austerity in return for cash.
But the Commission president seemed keen to convey through body language that normal friendships had been resumed. As Tsipras approached, the Greek leader’s right arm twitched, suggesting he wanted to greet his host with the usual handshake.
Juncker was having none of it, seizing his guest in an embrace and planting the kiss on his cheek. Tsipras remained for a moment before extricating himself as quickly as possible without causing offence.
After a brief pose beside Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk for the photographers, Tsipras departed the podium and headed off for a long day. Eventually he secured a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, but no deal.
Juncker has a record of more demonstrative public behaviour than his European colleagues, as chronicled on websites such as one titled From Luxembourg with Love.
Why Tsipras, now a member of the radical left, appeared ill at ease is less clear. For the communist movement he once belonged to, past fraternal embraces have bode ill. A portrait of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker full on the lips in 1979 now adorns what remains of the Berlin Wall, which fell a decade later.
Niceties and brinksmanship
Tsipras’s day began with an 8 AM flight from Athens to Brussels on the prime minister’s official jet. Often he takes scheduled flights, but perhaps this time Tsipras wanted to think over his negotiating tactics without interruption from Greek journalists, who also fly to major events in Brussels.
After the Juncker greeting, the young premier slotted in a brief discussion with the Commission president on the sidelines of the summit. The two men agreed to meet again on Thursday.
What remained uncertain was whether he would meet Merkel and Hollande, leaders of the eurozone’s two biggest nations, and without whose approval no deal can be struck.
Greek officials said privately they expected the talks to take place. Merkel said it was up to Tsipras to request a meeting with herself, and Hollande.
Only when the diplomatic niceties and brinkmanship had been dispensed with did the three leaders finally get together late in the evening, after dinner.
They met in a spartan conference room in the Commission headquarters on a floor far above where journalists are allowed to roam, so the only guide to the mood is a series off official photographs. They showed Tsipras, in his uniform of dark suit and no tie, smiling broadly as he sat next to Merkel.
Across the table sat Hollande. Both the French and German leaders also managed smiles, although Merkel’s seemed to involve more effort to achieve.
Afterwards, both sides said they had agreed that Athens should “intensify” negotiations with its creditors. But if there was any agreement on anything else, they didn’t mention it.
Otherwise, Tsipras spent part of his day mingling with leaders of countries perhaps more sympathetic to his cause, such as leftist presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela – both of whom have experience of taking on the Western establishment.