Greece – a referendum in the cradle of democracy

On Sunday Greece will vote in one of the most unusual referendums to be held in Europe in a long time. With only a week’s notice the country has been asked to vote on an extremely vague question, which in essence boils down to whether or not to accept an offer by the Eurogroup (Greece’s creditors) for a new series of bailouts and reforms. The only problem is that the Eurogroup has made clear that this offer is off the table, making the actual question essentially meaningless.

Will Tsipras still be smiling next week? (Photo: Lorenzo Gaudenzi)

What this has resulted in is a referendum that means very different things depending on who you listen to. PM Alexis Tsipras is portraying it as a way for the Greek people to democratically give their opinion on the crisis at hand. Campaigning for a No vote, he claims that this will give Greece a far better bargaining position, even saying that if the vote is a No, he will be signing a better deal by Monday and banks will be open by Tuesday. If there’s a Yes vote, he has indicated he will resign.

Unfortunately for the Greeks, this complex enough picture is muddled when you actually listen to what the Eurogroup is saying. They are portraying it as essentially a Yes/No vote on the Euro, saying that a No vote will bring no change. They’ve basically accused the Greek PM of lying to his people, and when you listen to the differences in position it certainly seems like this is the case. Again today, claims by the Greek Finance Minister that new approaches had been made by Greece’s creditors were dismissed as simply made-up by the Dutch Finance Minister and head of the Eurogroup.

As I mentioned last week, the decision by Tsipras to hold a referendum is part of an incredibly high stakes poker game he is playing with Europe, and he seems to think he has gone all-in with a reasonable chance of success. However, the leaders of Europe, and especially the Germans, may secretly be happy with the outcome as well. As BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt explains, this has happened before. When previous Greek PM Papandreou wanted to put a bailout deal to a referendum, he was informed by Angela Merkel that it would be seen as an in/out referendum on the Euro. He gave in then, but Tsipras is more of a gambler. The stakes however, have not changed.

The whole thing raises interesting questions about the nature of democracy, and this is a word which has been thrown around a lot recently. Tsipras says the referendum is a “sovereign democratic right”, and with this he hits a sore spot of the EU – its perceived democratic deficit. By placing the emphasis on democracy, he hopes to win sympathy from others in Europe dissatisfied with the lack of popular participation in decisions on EU integration.

I believe he is right that the Greeks should be able to make their own decisions – though preferably in a fair and clear referendum. However, he forgets that democracy is not everything. If Greece votes on Sunday to reject the ‘deal’, this will be taken as a rejection of Europe. A democratic vote brings no obligation on Europe’s part to suddenly come up with a different deal; the Greek people cannot impose conditions on the 27 other European peoples. Greece’s debt and structural problems will still be there. You cannot vote away reality.

Whatever happens on Sunday, there is no simple solution ahead. A Yes vote will cause political turmoil as Tsipras and Syriza try to figure out what to do, but it will at least bring the possibility of quicker aid from Europe. A No vote could lead to the horrific economic crash I described earlier, making what has come before look easy. Greece’s millennia old democratic principles could lead to disaster.

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