THE relationship between the government of Greece and the rest of the eurozone increasingly resembles a bad marriage. The two sides are sick of each other. Mutual trust has broken down. Efforts to patch things up continue, but nothing seems to work.
The conventional solution to such a dilemma in a real marriage is divorce. Divorce settlements usually mean both sides suffer financially. The two parties go ahead anyway, because they are prepared to pay a heavy price to get out of a bad relationship. We have now reached that moment with Greece and the eurozone.
Those who fear the consequences of a Greek exit from the euro — a Grexit — would point out that the marriage metaphor could be dangerously misleading. There are well established processes for breaking up a union between two people. There are far fewer precedents for breaking up a currency union. It could lead to a global financial meltdown, similar to the one triggered by the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, because of the unquantifiable legal and financial risks involved.
However, German negotiators and some elements of the Greek government seem to think that the risks of Grexit are containable. If they believe that, they should take a deep breath and go for it. At this stage, it could be better for both sides.
For Greece, leaving the euro would open up new economic and political possibilities. It would allow the country to default on some of its gigantic debts. It would also enable Greece to devalue its currency and escape the fixed exchange rate system that has helped to devastate competitiveness.
Of course, there would also be ugly short-term economic effects. The experience of countries such as Argentina suggests there would be runs on banks and capital controls. Prices of key imports, such as food and energy, would go up.
Over the longer term, however, there could be political benefits to Greece. It is clear many Greeks feel humiliated and pushed around by the eurozone. Leaving might be a psychological liberation that allowed the country once again to feel that it was allowed to take decisions for itself — however difficult the circumstances.
That sense of responsibility might, in turn, help to fix some of the flaws in the Greek state that have so enraged the rest of the eurozone — particularly the lack of trust between citizens and government, which has allowed corruption and tax evasion to flourish.
The effects of a Grexit could also be helpful for the rest of the eurozone. Successive bail-outs for Greece have created cynicism and anger across the eurozone and fed the rise of eurosceptic parties.
A Grexit would re-establish the idea that the rules of the eurozone really do mean something. It could also encourage countries such as Italy and France to press ahead with some of the structural reforms that Greece failed to make.
On the other hand, some of those who oppose a Grexit do so because they fear it might succeed, rather than because they fear it might fail.
They worry that if Greece makes a success of going it alone, others might be tempted to follow — in particular, Italy, where most major opposition parties now oppose the single currency. This objection only has force, however, if you have a theological belief in the single currency as an end in itself.
In reality, the euro should be seen as an instrument towards bigger goals — a more prosperous and peaceful Europe. In the case of Greece, the euro has clearly failed to create prosperity — and that is putting it mildly in a country that has lost 25% of its output since 2008.
The euro has also failed to achieve the broader political goal that it was meant to serve — that of promoting European unity. On the contrary, countries that used to get on well, such as Greece and Germany, now detest each other. Old stereotypes of domineering Germans and lazy southern Europeans are once again rampant and are poisoning European politics.
Simply patching up the marriage between Greece and the eurozone for another few months is not going to fix those problems. But if Greece can demonstrate that there is a viable way out of the euro, it would provide a model for breaking up a misconceived currency union or shrinking it to a more manageable size.
That is a precedent the EU should welcome, not fear.
© The Financial Times Limited 2015