Beware of Greeks bearing votes

lecture Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Could George Papandreou's Athens government collapse?

Greece gave us democracy, Europe and economics, in both concept and language.

While referendum is from a Latin route, Greeks also gave us chaos and catastrophe.

Also from Greek, Fathom Consulting's Yiannis Koutelidakis has today taught me a word that's going to weigh heavily on the Hellenic people - euthinophobia, meaning the fear of responsibility and duty.

All this is playing out in a global drama (another gift from the Greeks), with markets taking a deep dip on the news that the people could be about to have their say on the state of their nation's finances.

There's uncertainty about every aspect of this. The most reliable prediction is that it's going to be very tough to get a "yes" vote.

Also, you can be sure that those being asked to lend to the eurozone (China, for instance) are hardly likely to do so while political risk has gone up so sharply. China's leaders don't see the attraction of asking their people's opinions.

It may be that events move faster than Greece's returning officers can get the ballot boxes out of storage. Merely the threat of a referendum could see the eurozone deal unravel.

Or it may be that the collapse of George Papandreou's Athens government, as party supporters desert him, is another route to a collapse of the deal.

If there's to be a Greek disorderly default (hypotheticals are Greek too), not only does it trigger default swaps sweeping through the financial sector, but it raises the obvious question for the bond markets: if eurozone partners will let Greece go, why not Italy, Spain, Portugal or Ireland, so who's next?

And if Athens gets as far as a referendum, the outcome will probably depend on how the debate is framed.

If it's a question of whether Greeks want the austerity measures or not, then it's a fair bet they'll say: on balance, er, no thank you very much.

If it's a vote of confidence in the government, that would point in the direction of a "no" vote too.

And if we get as far as a "no" result, the usual response from Brussels (let's negotiate again, and find another form of words that the people might accept if we ask them again) is unlikely to withstand the markets' impatience and intolerance of political risk.

But if the debate is framed around the analysis (yes, another Greek import): this is the best deal we can get; we hang together or we hang separately; if you vote "no", you're out the euro and the consequences are uncertain but almost certainly painful . . . well, then it might have some chance of success.

And in the meantime, it will have given the Athens government more leverage in negotiations with other eurozone partners: "don't push us too far, because we've got a vote we all need to win".

The most recent polling suggests Greeks are against the austerity measures agreed last week (59%, according to a survey for To Vima newspaper). But a bigger majority is in favour of sticking with the euro (73%).

Discount deals

If forced to choose, the decision is down to how strongly people hold these opposing views.

So, where does this leave the G20 leaders gathering in France for this week's summit?

Having failed repeatedly to draw a line under the deal, eurozone leaders seem to be getting closer to a simpler straight choice; accept the default is going to be messy and risks contagion, or throw a guarantee round the weaker members, hand over to the European Central Bank to buy bonds in abundance, and bombard the markets into backing down.

As markets tumbled, I've been out to Glasgow Fort shopping park in the east of the city, to report on the UK growth figures exceeding expectations.

The centre manager says Hallowe'en went well, and some shops had record figures for the back-to-school season. He's pinning a lot of hopes on Christmas, as retailers tend to do.

But shoppers and some shop workers I met aren't buoyed by the latest from the Office of National Statistics.

Shopper numbers are holding up, but carrying fewer bags as they depart and looking keenly for discount deals.

Most we met were despondent about inflation and economic uncertainty. And with the lights going up last night, they're planning a thriftier Christmas. That's not what the retailers want to hear.

Beware of Greeks bearing votes.