Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Greek referendum

All Saints' Day 2011. After the EU leaders have cobbled together a financial arrangement intended to save the Greek exchequer and economy at huge expense to the North-European taxpayers as well as to the Greek workers and pensioners, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou now risks exploding the whole operation by calling a referendum. The Greek electorate, less than enthusiastic about the sternly conditional "aid package", may well abort it. Some first thoughts on the Greek referendum.

(1) The decision to decide by referendum is in itself excellent. The problem is that, like most referendums under parliamentary regimes and dictatorships, it is just a one-off referendum, not one embedded in a stable political culture based on regular lawmaking by referendum. True to type, it is called by the executive, not by the citizens themselves. This way, governments call referendums when they expect the popular preference to coincide with their own, all while avoiding or suppressing them in the opposite case. So, as an exercise in democracy, this promises to be a tainted referendum.

(2) Nevertheless, for most Eurocrats and their pall-bearers in the media, the Greek referendum is already far too democratic. Just last week, they already clamoured that Europe and her future were being "taken hostage" by the German Parliament when it insisted on exercising its constitutional right to decide on Chancellor Merkel's plan for saving Greece and the euro. In the Eurocratic view, echoing the rhetoric of all despots and anti-democratic ideologues throughout history, unelected Eurocratic committees should have their hands free to make the policy of their choosing,
unencumbered with democratic procedures. In fact, the expected conflict between the EU-charted course and the will of the people (not just the Greek people, for in this case, the Dutch or Finnish voters may well be on the same wavelength, viz. unenthusiastic) would have been avoided if earlier phases of the financial and economic policies affected had already been subjected to referendums. There was no need to fear a democratic vote on the Greek bail-out if a democratic mandate had earlier been secured for the steps that got us to this impasse, such as the introduction of the euro.

(3) In the expected and much-feared event of a "No" vote, the EU leaders have the option of taking the Greeks at their word and withdrawing the whole operation. That would mean: letting the Greek state go bankrupt. Considering contemporary citizens' dependence on the state, most observers will take that eventuality as too horrible to contemplate. But perhaps we just ought to take the wager. If Greek society collapses along with the state and cries for help, we can still send food aid, an ad hoc police force and all that. But possibly the Greek citizenry will prove more resourceful than to let it come to that point. Should be an interesting experiment.

(4) Since Eurocrats don't like experimentation, they can be counted on to unleash every trick in the book in order to prevent the Greeks from voting or, if that goes through somehow, from voting "wrongly". A multiple of the intimidation used on the Irish when they were forced to re-vote on the Lisbon Treaty (the renamed European Constitution draft) will now be rained down on the Greeks. To be sure, the Eurocrats may be right to this extent that in economic terms, their plan is perhaps a lesser evil compared with the prospect of Greek bankruptcy. But because present policies have never had a serious democratic basis, they will now resort to subverting or overruling democracy in order to force their solution on the people.

(5) Greece is now accused of being ungrateful. Of course, the EU powers-that-be are really trying to save the banks that have partly caused this mess and entangled themselves in it because the fall of those banks would in turn badly affect the whole other European economy; it is not like as if they are being altruistic towards Greece. Yet some tough questions do indeed deserve to be asked. Have any Greeks protested when their politicians were lying their way into the Eurozone by giving their EU partners false data about Greek state finance? Who among them has tried to stop their public spending from running wild? (Likewise, the Icelanders could be asked whether they reined in their banks when these were bringing in the money of duped investors who later demanded their money back from the Icelandic taxpayer.) Granted that the banks are selfish and irresponsible and thieves, and that it is an ugly sight to see taxpayers forced to bail them out, but the politicians and the common people also share in the responsibility.

(6) In an undemocratic system, such as the present parliamentary system with its delegation of powers to unelected levels of decision-making such as the EU, the temptation is very strong to contrast "the people", those innocent sheep, with "the politicians", that band of robbers. On many issues, the interests of the political class and of the citizenry diverge; but in the case of Greek financial irresponsibility, they may have converged. When it came to over-spending on social security and civil servants' wages, and to cheating the EU partners into facilitating this over-spending by allowing Greece prematurely into the Eurozone, the impression exists that Greek commoners and Greek politicians were on the same wavelength. Democratic-minded people should get out of this mindset of blaming a political class placed above them and washing their own hands off all responsibility.

(7) The great virtue of direct democracy is that decisions are made by those who bear the consequences of these decisions. Some commentators are sure to protest that the consequences of the Greek referendum will affect all Eurozone and even all EU citizens, most of whom are not entitled to cast a vote in Greece: "The Greeks are holding hundreds of millions of Europeans hostage!" They said the same thing about the Irish when they were delaying the Lisbon Treaty, when in fact the Eurocrats and these commentators did what they could to prevent all those other Europeans from voting, knowing fully well that the far more numerous German or British electorate would likewise vote it down if given a chance. As said here at the outset, the Greek referendum is tainted because it is held in the context of a non-referendum-based system. But if we ever want to make a start with European democracy, we should not postpone the opportunity and make the most of it. Even the certainty that the anti-democratic forces are going the use any problems accompanying the outcome as trump arguments to criminalize the very idea of popular sovereignty should not be accepted as an excuse. Let Greece be the trailblazer of direct democracy once more.

Read more!