OPINION: Europe finds itself at the beginning of a new chapter after the weekend's Greek and French elections – a chapter that will feature Francois the Beneficent in conflict with Angela the Strict, and Antonis the Court Dwarf playing a minor but irritating role.
The outcome is uncertain but we can now be sure the characters will all stay aboard the same rattling train. The European Union (EU) will for the moment remain intact.
The likely Greek government led by Antonis Samaras says it will be committed to maintaining austerity and therefore preserving the euro, which is the important thing in the short term. Those policies would avoid Greece's default and its exclusion from the euro, in turn shoring up financial institutions and the currency throughout the continent. That, in turn, would avoid an international panic that could tip the world into a depression.
New Zealand, an international trader, can be thankful for that, but the loudest celebrations are in Washington and the European capitals.
President Obama is facing a tough battle to retain the White House in an election dominated by the economy. The opinion polls suggest he has pretty much an even chance of success but chaos in Europe and consequent loss of confidence on Wall Street would lessen his prospects significantly.
The EU members, all facing various degrees of economic stress, would be put under greater pressure were Greece to crash out of the euro. Their banks would be pushed further into the red, perhaps requiring bail-outs, and the pervasive loss of confidence in the currency could require another round of spending cuts.
That prospect has already produced a new president and government in France and every other European administration is similarly threatened. In the bumpy wake of a Greek default their prospects would be more bleak.
Even with the formation of a government in Athens prepared to repay its debts, cut expenditure and reform the economy, Europe is far from secure. Spain and Italy still face daunting problems in righting their economies and smaller nations, such as Hungary, are balancing on the economic precipice.
Those challenges would be difficult to meet were the EU united in its approach, but it is not.
The graphic example of that is the division between France and Germany. Francois Hollande won the French presidency on the promise to ease austerity imposed by his predecessor – austerity that had kept France in step with Germany. The weekend election that gave Hollande's party a majority in the National Assembly means he now has the ability to implement his policies aimed at economic growth.
That will not please Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who is holding firm to austerity as the only way to bring the EU through troubled waters. But domestic political pressure is mounting on Merkel as a federal election approaches and she suffers rebuffs in state contests.
Merkel is also under pressure from a growing EU consensus that growth must be encouraged to avoid depression and that the organisation's financial structure needs reorganisation to make the euro more secure. This, its advocates say, is not just vital for Europe but also for the international economy as it falters.
That is the sombre wrapping around the gift Greek voters have given to their country, Europe and the world.
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