As Friday night became Saturday morning, with sidewalk cafes still bustling in central Athens, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras abruptly appeared on national television. Mr. Tsipras, only 40, had spent his five months in office locked in increasingly acrimonious negotiations with Greece’s creditors. Belittled by critics, and facing the prospect of default, he was under intense pressure to sign a deal. Instead, Mr. Tsipras tossed a grenade. With much of Europe sound asleep, Mr. Tsipras stared into the camera and shattered the careful decorum of European Union diplomacy. Declaring that creditors were demanding “strict and humiliating austerity,” Mr. Tsipras announced a national referendum on July 5, so voters could decide for themselves.
“We should respond to authoritarianism and harsh austerity with democracy, calmly and decisively,” Mr. Tsipras said. “Greece, the birthplace of democracy, should send a resounding democratic message to the European and global community.”
Stunned, his fellow European leaders shut down negotiations, capped the lifeline they had been providing Greece’s banks, angrily denounced him as irresponsible and dishonest with his own people, and not so subtly suggested that Greece needed a new government if it wanted to continue drawing economic help.
Now, with the Greek crisis posing a threat to the global economy, the sniping started dissipating somewhat on Monday, even as Greece was left coping with a shuttered banking system and new uncertainties about its future. But from Berlin to Brussels to Washington to Athens, the same question permeated discussions about Greece: What kind of game is Mr. Tsipras playing?