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Friday, November 04, 2011

Greece vs Germany: Battle of the Referenda

At the beginning of what has been a crazy week, Greek PM George Papandreou surprisingly announced he would call a referendum on the second eurozone bailout package for Greece, arguing: "We trust citizens, we believe in their judgment, we believe in their decision."

This caused a great deal of consternation among European politicians and decision makers, which we covered here. The general gist of the comments was that the decision was irrational and irresponsible, and that rather than looking a gift horse in the mouth, the Greeks ought to be grateful that they were receiving a bailout in the first place. However, the frustration also partially stemmed from the fact that significant sections of public opinion were envious that the Greeks would be getting a say on the bailout, but they would not, in particular in Germany. In some cases this was expressed more subtly, while in typical style, on its front page, Bild demanded: "Ms Merkel we also want a referendum!"

While it is hard not to appreciate the annoyance of European politicians who have been striving, however inadequately, to overcome the debt crisis, far too many comments appeared to denigrate, or even de-legitimise the principle of the Greek people being allowed to have a say on a matter of such crucial importance for the future of their country. For example the FDP's parliamentary leader Rainer Brüderle said he was "irritated" by the plans; the FDP have made it a point of principle to stand up for the interests of German taxpayers during the crisis, yet seem to believe that Greek taxpayers (yes some Greeks do actually pay tax) should be denied a say on measures imposed on them due to the irresponsible decisions of their political elite.

Even if the choice would have been illusionary given the alternative, i.e. a disorderly default, would be a lot worse, the principle of having a say is nonetheless an important democratic tradition, as to their credit some German commentators acknowledged, such as FAZ's Frank Schirrmacher:

Before the panic and terror spirals out of control it's good to step back to see clearly what is happening here before our very eyes. It is the spectacle of a degeneration of the [democratic] values and beliefs that once seemed to be embodied in the idea of Europe
In the course of a frenetic couple of days Papandreou was ultimately forced to drop his referendum plans, due a combination of domestic and external opposition. He also managed to secure the backing of the main opposition party, New Democracy, for the austerity measures, which some have argued may well have been his game all along. This resulted in some petty triumphalism on the part of some European leaders such as France's Nicholas Sarkozy, who somewhat glibly commented that: I am glad that there were enough responsible people in Greece who understood our message." In a reversal of its position of the previous day, Bild praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her role in the death of the Greek referendum with a euphoric summary:

Chancellor Angela Merkel has… brought the Greeks to reason. A major feat of strength as if it were a deed of Hercules! The Chancellor is now truly Angela Mercules!
Did anyone say double standards?

However, Merkel (pictured in a Herculean pose) might find herself having to fight some more referendum enthusiasts, this time closer to home. Süddeutsche today reported that, inspired by the Greeks, high profile CSU (the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU) politicians Thomas Silberhorn and Alexander Dobrindt have both said they support the principle of holding referenda on EU issues, with Silberhorn saying he wouldn’t mind a referendum on future EU treaty changes regarding a permanent stability mechanism. However Peter Altmaier of the CDU was said to be "annoyed" by the two, riposting that:

I find it highly problematic when we complicate the difficult situation that has emerged with the announcement of a Greek referendum even more with a demand for further referenda.
The idea of a German referendum was also criticised by Jürgen Trittin of Germany's Green party (Die Grünen), who said that “to ask for referendums when they are against Europe is not democratic, but right wing populism”.

Er, ok.

As we have argued before, the eurozone crisis has multiplied the difficult balance of effective crisis management with democratic accountability by a factor of 17. While Papandreou's referendum plans may lie in ruins, one thing is clear: the battle of referenda is not over yet...


Sheona said...

You mention "the difficult balance of effective crisis management". But we have not yet seen any effective crisis management, merely a throwing of borrowed money at Greece and desperate attempts to borrow even more money

Peripatetic Scribe said...

An amazing picture of Frau Merkel - is this the "shape of things to come"? Some of the (German) quotes concerning a referendum are atrocious (in that they go directly against the concept of government by the people, for the people), so thought I would add my view, as follows:

A referendum (also known as a plebiscite or a ballot question) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of direct democracy.

Now, if any country or indeed any other "organisation" (EU for example) cannot live with this concept, then the do not deserve to be construed as "democratic societies" nor to represent such ideals.

Anonymous said...

Very true - but isn't it now a little bit late for a referendum? While a referendum is indeed a particularly good idea for democratic legitimation (though nobody bothered to ask the people in Europe whether they actually want to introduce the Euro some ten years ago) it should have been give an early warning for the people who actually fund Greece and moreover held a bit earlier than just after they are running short of funds. They should have gone for a referendum when the first package has been put together and asked their people whether they want to stick with the Euro and eat the austerity package or exit and try it on their own. Than it would have been a strong signal for direct democracy.

Peripatetic Scribe said...

Anonymous - totally agree with you. An earlier referendum would as you say give greater legitimacy and send a strong signal that Europe was/is democratic. I wonder, as I write this, how the Italians will react...a referendum now for exactly the same reasons.....