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Notes On the Greek Referendum’s Result

, by Tom Vasseur

After the recent Greek referendum a solution to the Greek question seems farther away than ever. The reaction from austerity hardliners on the result of the election echoed the line from Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Solution, which criticised the East German crackdown on anti-government demonstrations:

Wouldn’t it be simpler under these circumstances,

for the government to dissolve the people,

and elect another one?


The hardliners – including Eurogroup president Dijsselbloem, Chancellor Merkel and her finance minister Schäuble – have become even less keen to show a willingness to compromise while the Greek government seems bolstered in its confidence after the electorate has confirmed its support and also seems more unlikely to back down. In light of this deadlock federalists have to ask themselves: what is to be done?

First, we have to recognise that both austerity hardliners and the Greek government adhere to European values, but that neither stand for our Europe as federalists. The Syriza government is at times depicted as anti-European simply because it has a substantially different programme to the austerity hardliners. Federalists should speak out against this appropriation of the idea of Europe as a set of economic policies. One is European, not because one supports this or that fiscal policy, but because one shares European values and is open to the European experience. Austerity hardliners too often treat Europe as a tool. Their commitment to the European project goes only so far as it can help in extending their own particular political project throughout Europe. For federalists Europe – that is to say, the European experience – is not a means, but an end in itself. Europe ought to be an Ode to Joy and federalists ought to be committed to spread that joy.

At the same time, Syriza’s Europe is not a federalists’ Europe. As many of the parties on the European left its call for more democracy is in effect a call for a halt to an ever closer union and a return to the national welfare state. While there is genuine admiration, praise, and even cooperation between Syriza and other parties of the European left this symbolic European solidarity can never be enough for European federalists.

In addition, Syriza is very much a party caught in Europe’s past. Its insistence on reopening the German war debt question is not just a political move intent on turning the tables and presenting Merkel with the same rigidity as she shows others. It is also symptomatic of a party and country which still hasn’t been able to move beyond the Second World War. This modelling of its contemporary politics and policies – economic, but also foreign – on past divisions and alliances stands in the way of truly contributing to a united Europe.

Federalists should also be independent when it comes to evaluating the behaviour of the two extremes in the Greek question. Syriza’s faults lie not even so much in their proposals as in their erratic behaviour throughout the negotiation process. The referendum was perhaps the pinnacle of this unpredictability. Regardless of whether one supports or opposes the idea behind this referendum, it should be clear that the timing was poor.

But plenty has already been said in criticism of Syriza in the public debate so far. The hardliners, on the other hand, have generally escaped scrutiny so far while there is plenty errors they have made. One of the key faults is that the insistence on structural reforms in Greece is accompanied by a refusal to even talk about structural reforms of Europe. This goes so far as the fantastical denial for any need for structural reforms. German finance minister Schäuble even wrote ‘es gibt keine Eurokrise’ – there is no Eurocrisis. Schäuble is of the opinion, unsupported by fact, that public profligacy is the sole cause of the current debt crisis.

Institutional reforms in Europe are a necessary component if we want to solve the disharmony in our European Union. Eurobonds, European financial sector reform, democratising and Europeanising the Eurozone’s governance by giving the European Parliament a place in it, common social and fiscal policies, a Euro area budget to stabilise economic relations between member states have to be on the table as well. Federalists can’t accept that the public debate is being narrowed to exclude these options.

Some, like Dutch Premier Mark Rutte, argue that while these reforms would have the desired effect they cannot be allowed before structural reforms at the national level have been completed. Otherwise, they claim, the “pressure to reform” would be removed. This is a deeply anti-European sentiment. In effect it means the perpetuation of a certain level of economic and social hardship in order to have political leverage over other member state governments. This goes directly against the solidarity which we as federalists stand for. If any federalist doubts the hostility of hardliners towards European solidarity let them consider the following incident during the previous European elections as documented by Der Spiegel: “During the election, the word “solidarity” appeared prominently on one of Juncker’s campaign signs. (…) Juncker’s slogan [sic] so incensed officials with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party that they almost refused to allow him to make a campaign appearance in Berlin.”

A last point of criticism is the continued interference of austerity oriented politicians with the democratic process in Greece. During the referendum, and the last three elections European politicians ensured that the Greek electorate was well aware of what result they would prefer. In itself this is not a development federalists would oppose. On the contrary, the development of a European political party system is a development federalists should hope to see materialised in the future. However, context is important. When Pablo Iglesias, the front man of Podemos, visited a Greek election rally in January 2015 it was a meeting of equals. The repeated cautionary remarks and voting advice of hardliners such as Merkel, on the other hand appears like the domineering shadow of a leviathan, unconcerned with the well-being of the Greeks. The same counts for when they dictate what the result of a voting procedure supposedly will mean. They are thinly veiled threats which stand uncomfortably with the values of democracy which we federalists hold dear.

Who, then, to stand with as federalists? And what judgement to pass on the referendum result? For one federalists need to stand with those who want to bridge the divide for Europe’s sake. This includes politicians such as President Hollande, Premier Renzi, and President of the Commission Jean Claude Juncker. Especially the latter, while unfortunately also having given in to the temptation of lecturing Greeks on what to vote, has in general been a true figure of compromise in the interest of all Europeans. He has spoken out against the stereotyping of Greeks instead of harnessing it, has treated Tsipras and his government as an equal despite being ideological opposites, and has genuinely been trying to get to a compromise. Our hope should be that both sides will act more like Juncker in the future.

And the referendum? Oddly timed and vaguely phrased though it might have been with doubtful practical consequences for the Greek people and Europe as a whole, one cannot help but to feel the immense symbolic importance of it. When Papandreou announced a referendum in 2011 he had to back down and the Greek people with him. If there is one thing the 2015 referendum means it is this: the Greek people are no longer for turning. This too, is a reality to be taken into account by now.

A satisfactory resolution to the current situation seems further away than ever. Both sides in the negotiations are to blame. Federalists are poised to support those building bridges, resist the closing of public debate, push for European reforms, and induce both the Greek government and austerity hardliners to negotiate as Europeans for Europe’s future.

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