Two points to grasp about the Greek electorate’s rejection of Europe’s bailout terms in Sunday’s referendum:
• Greeks scored a victory for themselves and all Europeans who think the democratic process must stand as the European Union’s paramount principle.
• The European Union lost, but by its own hand. It now stands exposed as an ideologically driven institution unwilling to abide the preferences of voters—and the sovereignty of member nations—if these run counter to the reigning neoliberal orthodoxy.
As we’ll now see, it was never a vote against the euro or Europe—that was sheer scare mongering and shameful propaganda. It was a vote against the demonstrably counter-productive austerity regime advanced by European ideologues incapable or unwilling to respond to evidence that doesn’t fit their beliefs.
It was plain even before the vote count was completed that European leaders are in a dither. While Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, said as votes were counted that talks would have to resume, harder-line Europeans continued to insist that there was nothing left to talk about.
There’s everything to talk about now. When E.U. leaders meet Monday, they can talk about the taste of humble pie, for instance, and get on with new negotiations—as they should. At the European Central Bank, it’s whether to extend more emergency liquidity to Greek banks—as it should, too.
Events will continue to move by the hour. But oddly enough, the fate of Greeks is no longer Europe’s No. 1 question, critical as it is. It’s suddenly No. 2.
You may think Greeks just won back their future or you may think they voted it away. But whatever you think, Europe just ripped a hole in the concept of European unity that may—who can say just now?—prove irreparable. This is the No. 1 question as of Sunday evening.
The European project, rooted in the far-off idealism of the early postwar years, long stood as one of the Western world’s most admirably ambitious endeavors. Uniting long-warring nations into a community that took democratic values as its very warp and weft went from an unrealistic dream to an incipient reality in the course of two generations.
Churchill spoke of a “United States of Europe” in 1946. Joschka Fischer, Gerhard Schröder’s foreign minister at the turn of the millennium, used the same phrase in a celebrated speech, “From Confederacy to Federation,” delivered in Berlin in May 2000. The thought had longevity, and the euro’s launch a year before Fischer spoke seemed irrefutable evidence that it was shortly to prove out.
True, some Europeans soured on the idea of unity years ago, consistently on political grounds. The European Parliament in Strasbourg turned out to be the weakest of the E.U.’s institutions, having little voice next to those of officials and technocrats in Brussels and the bankers at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt—none of them elected, of course.
But the critics could be pigeonholed as minorities on the political fringes, and what one could postulate as a design flaw had never manifest itself in any on-the-ground crisis. En avant! as the French say, was default position.
That was then, this is now.
As soon as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for a referendum on the E.U.’s bailout terms at the 11th hour of negotiations, European officials embarked on a barely veiled campaign of political machination wholly inappropriate to the E.U.’s constitutional purview. What we’ve witnessed for the past 10 days is a purposeful effort to destabilize the Tsipras government so as to install one more to the liking of Greece’s creditors.
This is a betrayal of the most fundamental principles of the European ideal. Those responsible for this disgrace have swiftly done European unity more damage than any left social democratic government in Athens ever could had principles and understandings been observed.
“European leaders are finally beginning to reveal the true nature of the ongoing debt dispute, and the answer is not pleasant,” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel economist, wrote last week. “It is about power and democracy much more than money and economics. I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences.”
Let there be no doubt as to deliberate. “We will help the Greek people,” Martin Schulz, president of the Strasbourg parliament, told The New York Times’ Suzanne Daley late last week, “but most certainly not the government.” Count this one of innumerable “very inappropriate remarks,” as Simon Tilford at the Center for European Reform in London also remarked to Daley.
Many left-leaning economists and political analysts—Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and others—say the E.U. has negotiated in bad faith since the Tsipras government was elected. Europe’s final offer was one it knew Tsipras couldn’t accept without risking his political life. When it withdrew even that in response to Tsipras’s call for a referendum, it was a cravenly cynical ploy to force Greek banks to close and turn Greek voters against the Syriza party’s anti-austerity position.
European officials should’ve seen this showdown—the political flaw in the design breaking through the surface—on the horizon when the last elections to the Strasbourg parliament, held exactly a year ago, delivered resounding victories to Syriza, Podemos in Spain, and France’s rightist Front Nationale. What’s the malady, blindness or paralysis?
The E.U. has no choice now but to recommence talks with Athens. They have until July 20, when Greece must make good on a $3.8 billion bond, held by the E.C.B. This will be interesting to watch, since the I.M.F. just acknowledged that Greece needs debt relief of about $55 billion to recover—in effect backing Athens’ position all along.
“Freedom demands virtue and courage,” Tsipras told Greeks in his last speech before the referendum. Greeks just measured up. Now Europe’s leaders will need more of both than they’ve so far displayed.
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