by MicK Hume
‘If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.’ So goes the famous old slogan, attributed to the anarchist Emma Goldman, expressing radical cynicism about the capitalist elites’ traditionally contemptuous attitude to political democracy.
In the current Euro-crisis, however, it appears that matters have gone further still. Europe’s political, media and economic elites are now so insecure, isolated and fearful of any hint of popular opposition that even the suggestion of giving Greeks a vote seemed to change everything for them – and some of them would clearly like to make such referendums illegal if they could.
No sooner had Greek premier George Papandreou announced his plan for a referendum on the latest Euro bailout and austerity package than, in two shakes of an imaginary ballot paper, all that the elites hold dear had apparently been destroyed: the ‘historic’ deal to save Europe agreed days earlier was now reportedly ‘in ruins’, the financial markets were sinking like stones, there were warnings that the Euro itself was now in mortal danger and even that the world was heading for a global depression. All this panic and chaos, apparently, because somebody suggested the outrageous idea of giving the Greek people a say on their future? No wonder that many in authority talk as if they really would like to ban voting today.
Much about the proposed Greek referendum on the latest Euro bailout deal remains uncertain - whether and when it might actually happen, how the question will be posed, what the final outcome might be. But one result of the referendum call is already crystal clear. It has confirmed without doubt the deep fear and loathing that Europe’s elites now feel towards their electorates and towards any suggestion that the Continent’s peoples should be consulted about their rulers’ counter-crisis measures. Whatever impact the result might have on the economic crisis, the reactions to the plan suggest Europe is already at risk of democratic bankruptcy.
Papandreou’s announcement of a referendum, described even by the sober BBC as a ‘nightmare’ for Europe, could hardly have caused more shock, anger and revulsion in high places if somebody had placed a bomb under this week’s G20 summit in Cannes. The mood of Europe’s rulers was captured by President Sarkozy’s French regime, which described the Greek prime minister’s dalliance with democratic politics as ‘irrational and dangerous’. Trying to square this disdain for public opinion with his own need to seek re-election by the French people, Sarkozy himself has generously conceded that ‘giving people a voice is always legitimate’ before adding the obligatory ‘but…’: ‘the solidarity of all Eurozone countries is not possible unless each one agrees to measures deemed necessary’. In other words, whatever the Greek or any other electorate wants, their government will have to adopt those ‘measures deemed necessary’ by the Euro-elite, primarily the Germans and the French, if they want to remain members of the club.
Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel have been impressing that point on Papandreou this week, the Greek prime minister reportedly ‘summoned’ to a dressing down in Cannes as if he were a naughty schoolboy and told that Greece must obey the rules or be expelled from the Euro. They even gave the Greeks a blackmailer’s ultimatum – no more handouts until they hold their referendum and vote the ‘right’ way. Meanwhile, the media protests that it is the Greeks who are ‘holding Europe to ransom’, as if the breakdown of that small southern economy was the cause of the continent’s financial crisis rather than a symptom of it. In the recent past, the EU authorities used all their brute powers in a bid to bring the Irish to heel over something as symbolic as a Euro-constitution. How much harder they will be prepared to lean on the Greeks over the survival of the Euro itself?
Writing here last week about the UK parliament’s rejection of a referendum on Britain’s relations with the EU, I noted how the leaders of all parties had united to dismiss the notion of such a campaign and vote as a ‘distraction’ from the important business of dealing with the Euro-crisis. This week, the reactions to the proposed Greek referendum suggest that the Euro-elites now see democracy not so much as a distraction, more as a disaster or even a death-threat. They fear the Greeks might set a bad example and put the idea of voting in the heads of other peoples on the fringes of Europe.
It is as if the referendum could act as the modern equivalent of the Trojan horse inside the Euro-citadel. Beware of Greeks bearing votes!
All of which should only confirm to the rest of us how important it is to have the widest possible democratic debate – and votes - about the future of Europe. The Euro-elite have tried to treat the economic and financial crisis as a private affair at their endless series of failed summits. Insulated against outside political pressure, they have managed to avoid taking decisive action or even addressing the bigger questions, bungling along from one ‘life or death’ crisis meeting to the next without achieving anything more than a list of multi-billion Euro promises.
Less than a week after assuring the markets and the world that they had agreed a deal that would solve the Eurozone’s problems (while telling us not to worry our little heads about the small print), Europe’s rulers were shrieking about it all being ‘in ruins’ because the Greek premier mentioned the dreaded ‘R-word’. How is anybody supposed to entrust their future to these miserable excuses for leaders and their magic beans, when their solutions are so fragile as to be blown away by the first whiff of public dissent?
Of course, Papandreou is no democratic knight in shining armour. He is an opportunist survivor who has called a referendum in an effort to save his own skin as anger mounts at home over the tax rises and spending cuts demanded as part of the international bailout deal. The precise outcome of any vote is hard to call in a confused political picture where polls suggest a majority of Greeks want to reject the austerity package, yet remain in the Euro. It also remains possible that the Socialist government will collapse sometime between now and any referendum, starting with a parliamentary vote of confidence on Friday.
But whether via a referendum or a general election, it is surely right to hold a national debate and a vote on what is being demanded. Either way, the problem is not that the Greeks and the rest of Europe are being offered too much of a democratic say, but too little. Democracy must involve not just a vote, but genuine choices and alternatives. In that light, the big drawback today remains the narrowness of the debate. Papandreou wants to persuade his people they must accept austerity to remain in the Euro. The main opposition also sees Greece’s future tied to that of the Euro but with more tax cuts. Outside of that narrow difference, there are other voices in Greece calling for a unilateral default (rather than the partial one being managed by the Euro-bankers) and a Euro-exit, but more as a two-fingered gesture than a serious attempt to address the issues.
Reviving European democracy will require far more of a clash of alternative visions (and less talk about no-politics ‘governments of national unity’). Instead, political debate in Europe remains so stagnant that the Swedish foreign minister feels free to declare that he cannot see what the Greeks could possibly hold a referendum about – after all, ‘are there any options?’ It was a statement that summed up the narrow-minded arrogance of the Euro-accountants and their contempt for popular politics.
The answer is that the Greeks are entitled to have a referendum or an election about anything they see fit. There must always be the option of telling Merkel and Sarkozy and the rest of their gang that they are not the only ones with a vote on the future of Europe. Nightmarish thing, democracy, isn’t it?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.