07/08/2015 12:34 EDT | Updated 07/08/2016 05:59 EDT

Greece's Tsipras short on allies as he faces exasperated euro partners with days to avoid ruin

BERLIN - Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has stretched his EU partners' patience to the limit with months of missteps and contradictory moves and now, having just four days to save his country from ruin, is finding his list of allies is short.

Even potentially sympathetic southern Europeans have become skeptical toward the 40-year-old leftist radical. France's Socialist President Francois Hollande has emerged as a potential mediator between Greece and its creditors, but he's unlikely to overcome stiff German-led resistance to cutting Greece yet more slack.

Tsipras swept to power in January on promises to bring an end to the hated spending cuts he blamed for an economic depression. That would have required extracting far-reaching concessions from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders.

But the inexperienced leader apparently failed to grasp the complexities of the European Union. Rather than tackle the details of an economic plan to get new loans, as creditors wanted, Tsipras sought to convince other European countries to overhaul their fundamental approach to rescuing Greece. He tried, for example, to convince them to stop focusing on spending cuts and loosen the terms of Greece's existing loans.

Whatever the merits of his economic views, Tsipras failed to make political alliances in Europe.

"One of the sticking points was that, right after taking office, Alexis Tsipras went on a big tour of Europe to seek coalition partners, but within a very short period of time he scared off all his European partners for various reasons," said Julian Rappold, a European policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in Berlin.

After months of on-off talks, Tsipras shredded much of the remaining goodwill with his shock move last week to call a referendum on the terms creditors had offered and his decision to campaign for a "no" vote. The creditors say Greece must lay out a detailed reform program if it hopes to get aid.

Merkel, a key figure in five years of bailouts for Greece, notes the country is only one of 19 eurozone democracies whose views must be respected.

"We have shown a great deal of solidarity with Greece," she said after meeting Hollande on Monday. "On the other hand, Europe can only keep together and stand together ... if every country also takes responsibility for itself."

Hollande, meanwhile, is trying to use France's role as a driver of European unity, its diplomatic weight, and cultural affinity for Greece to find middle ground. That also helps Hollande fend off domestic challenges from those who brought him to power on his own promises to "finish with austerity" but feel he has betrayed that ideal and hasn't done enough to stand up to Merkel.

But Merkel's position enjoys support from other fiscally strong countries in northern Europe such as the Netherlands and Finland, and officials in eastern European countries such as the three Baltic nations that have pushed through their own painful reforms are sounding even tougher. They have long since become exasperated by Athens' often-chaotic negotiating style and perceived foot-dragging on reform plans.

"You know, there was a promise for today. Then, they're promising for tomorrow," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said after Tsipras failed to produce a detailed reform blueprint at Tuesday's emergency eurozone summit. "For the Greek government it's every time 'manana.'"

Even in southern Europe, where many have chafed at the German-backed recipe of austerity and economic reform over the past five years, Tsipras has won little sympathy among governments. Potential sympathizers were unwilling to sign up for what was portrayed as a special deal for Greece — something that the likes of Spain's government, which faces its own challenge from the anti-austerity left in elections later this year, couldn't countenance.

Greece's referendum result Sunday, in which Greeks overwhelmingly rejected the creditors' proposals for more cuts in exchange for loans, created some cracks in the united front against Tsipras. Hollande faced "pressure from his party to take the role of a mediator, perhaps take a step toward Greece," and some conciliatory voices elsewhere, Rappold said.

Yves Bertoncini, director of the Our Europe-Jacques Delors Institute think-tank in Paris, said countries that suffered their own debt crises such as Ireland or Portugal may now be open to some degree of quiet compromise, in part out of fear of economic fallout from a Greek exit from the euro.

However, he said those countries are reluctant to go too far to help Greece, given all the cutbacks they made themselves to dig out of debt. "If you make a list now of those favourable (to Tsipras' government), you will not find many."

Polls suggest that the French are more sympathetic to keeping Greece in the euro than Germans; but despite that and pressure from his own party to mediate, Hollande "cannot risk a conflict with the chancellor on the question of Greece," because that would put France's own stagnant economy and slow reform efforts back in the spotlight, Rappold said.

European officials have also complained of conflicting signals from the Greece government, saying their arguments and pledges have shifted during the course of negotiations. European Parliament president Martin Schulz, long a relatively moderate voice, suggested after Tsipras called a referendum that the Greek government may not actually have wanted a deal.

In the end, Tsipras may simply have overestimated the importance of Greece's relatively small economy after years of efforts to shore up the eurozone's defences. On top of that, a 2012 private-sector debt restructuring meant that banks in French and Germany were no longer significantly exposed to a Greek default.

"Today the other 18 member states no longer have to fear an economic catastrophe because Greece has gotten into turbulence," Merkel told German lawmakers last week.


Charlton reported from Paris.