When is the real deadline for Greece?

People walk on central Athens square where a Greek flag and words reading, "Oh, Greece I love you" are hung froma department store facade.

Kai Ryssdal: German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to Paris today. It was, yes, another meeting on European debt. Time is of the essence, she said. Which struck us as kind of funny, to be honest. Because how many times have we been told that this time Europe really means it, that a deadline for an agreement on Greek debt was do or die. A lot of times, right? Today's version goes something like this: In order to get its next slice of bailout money, -- about $170 billion, plus or minus -- Greece was supposed to deliver a cost-cutting plan to the IMF and European Union today. Today was the deadline. Or was it? Marketplace's Stephen Beard is in London with us. He's got the story for us. Hello Stephen.

Stephen Beard: Hello Kai.

Ryssdal: So was today actually the deadline, my friend?

Beard: Well, I'm not sure what the Greek word for deadline is, Kai. But it seems to be a much more elastic concept than we're used to. The first deadline, actually, was a week ago. Then it was extended to last weekend. Then it was noon today. Now it's tomorrow. In fact, now they're arguing about whether there is a deadline after all.

Ryssdal: What is the actual deadline about? The Greeks have to do what to get what?

Beard: Well, the Greeks have to agree. I mean, there are two parts to this agreement. There is an agreement between Greece and its private sector creditors. Those talks seem to be going OK. But the main stumbling block are the talks between the Greek government and the IMF and the EU over the second bailout. This is where the problems are. The main problem seems to be Greece's three main political parties. They're haggling over the details. The IMF and the EU are reportedly asking for a lot more austerity. But these political parties who face an election as early as April don't want to sign up to anything as unpopular as austerity.

Ryssdal: Yeah. I don't know if you caught the show on Friday from Vegas, but I said to Heidi Moore in the Wrap, I said, "You know, I'm not going to talk about Greece any more until the 20th of March because that, she told me, is the real drop-dead, actual deadline. So first of all, I've broken my promise and I apologize for that. But second of all, is that really now where we are, 20th of March?

Beard: Well actually, the real deadline -- and the deadline after which Greece will be dead, or rather will slide into a messy default -- is March the 27th because they have seven days of grace. That's seven days after some $18 billion worth of debt falls due. If Greece hasn't got its bailout by then, it will default. But the European Commission says the Greeks can't leave it until the last minute, they can't leave it until March the 26th, because there are legal procedures. There's legislation that has to be passed. The European Commission says February the 16th is the deadline.

Ryssdal: All right. Stop right there. You yourself have a deadline, though. You're supposed to be in Athens tomorrow for us, right?

Beard: That's right. I have to be on the ground reporting tomorrow. The Greek unions have called a general strike. It may be impossible to fly into Greece tomorrow. Actually, it may be impossible to fly out of Britain. We've had a cold snap here, which cut the number of flights out of Heathrow by half yesterday. So who knows, my deadline may be looking like a Greek deadline this time tomorrow.

Ryssdal: Stephen Beard in London. Thank you, Stephen.

Beard: OK Kai.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Your story on the casual way in which Greece views deadlines for its sovereign debt reminds me of the origin of the word "deadline."
It derives from a shameful period in Georgia history during the Civil War when Union prisoners of war were held at Andersonville Prision in dreadful conditions. There were two fences at the prison, a stockade wall made of logs, and a wire fence in the interior of prison. Prisoners were told not to approach the wire fence or to attempt an escape over or through it. The line of that fence was called the Deadline. The guards were ordered to shoot anyone crossing the deadline, no questions asked. There was no extension, no re-negotiation of the deadline. The consequences were very clear.
The story may be apocryphal, but the lesson is illustrative. Until the Greek government sees real consequences for their habit of missing deadlines, there will be no changes.

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