In November 2011 Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou was summoned for emergency talks in Cannes, France to defend his plan for a referendum intended to validate the second bailout agreement and the debt restructuring plan.
Papandreou argued that a “yes” vote on the terms of the agreed program would soothe the rising tensions in Greek society and create much-needed consensus for the “reforms” that the Greek government had agreed to undertake.
The key eurozone players insisted that the only option on the table was an “in/out” referendum on Greece’s membership in the eurozone and the European Union (EU). Faced with a rebellion in his party, Papandreou shelved the referendum plan, conceded defeat, and resigned. The ensuing coalition government ratified the catastrophic agreements, deepening the economic crisis and further diminishing Greece’s bargaining power.
On Sunday it was time for a new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, to gamble on a referendum. The government’s decision has nothing in common with the 2011 moment. Papandreou’s referendum proposal was the ultimate blackmail of an entrapped leader, seeking to “gag” the electorate by equating the bailout terms with Greece’s membership in the eurozone.
There is much irony in the fact that Papandreou has accused Tsipras of exploiting “the ultimate weapon of democracy as a tactical ploy, undermining its political essence.”
Faced with the obduracy of the “institutions” (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission) and the “kick the can” modus operandi of Greece’s European partners, Tsipras has decided to ask the electorate to evaluate the irrational demands of the creditors. The government’s radical populism appears to be the only available tactic left to improve Greece’s increasingly weakening bargaining power — one of the last remaining wild cards in a series of tactical defeats. It is also the only way left to uphold the country’s popular sovereignty.
The rapid formation of a strange bedfellow coalition government with the right-wing ANEL party gave Syriza a free hand on the economy. A team of the party’s top economists and their aides was given the mandate to renegotiate the “bailout” programs. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis became the face of political change and carried the message across Europe. Greece would seek to renegotiate the loan agreements aiming to reach an “honorable compromise” that would provide a final settlement of the Greek Question.
The argument was phrased in the language of democracy: the institutions ought to respect the “mandate” of the newly elected government to end the politics of austerity. Moreover, the Greek government made frequent appeals to a broader “European interest”: a change in Greece would turn the anti-austerity tide in Europe and bring back growth, to the benefit of the “average European.” Finally, the reforms that the government sought to promote would have the seal of approval of “benevolent” international institutions, such as the OECD and the International Labour Organization.
The February agreement became the first milestone in the internationalization of the Greek question. Some thought of it as a stepping stone towards an “honorable compromise.” Others regarded it as a stumbling block, a strategic defeat. At the time I argued that the agreement was in fact a tactical retreat, which nonetheless seemed to have given rise to a political horizon that was more accommodating to Syriza’s anti-austerity strategy.
However, the time that the Greek government seemed to have earned fell short. Contrary to expectations, the European Central Bank superseded its technocratic role and imposed further restrictions on the liquidity of the banking system. The suffocation of the Greek economy intensified. Even Varoufakis would later employ the Balkan word besa to highlight the dishonor of Greece’s European partners. The political horizon did not change. The only effective change was the renaming of the troika and the agreement on a new negotiating process.
“Flexibility” became the keyword of the ensuing weeks. The negotiations resumed in a two-tier process. On the one hand, groups convened in Paris, Brussels, and Athens to discuss fiscal targets and collecting data. The fact that ministers did not line up to take orders from the representatives of the troika was seen as a small step towards restoring the dignity of the Greek people. On the other hand, various channels opened up between Tsipras and top-ranking EU officials. However, it quickly became clear that the “flexibility” offered had a very narrow range.
A bloc of European creditor-states led by Germany did not yield to the moral hazard of giving in to Greece’s “demands.” A change in the status quo would endanger the dogma of fiscal stability prevalent in Europe. At the same time, governments in the troubled south of Europe, especially in Spain, feared that any concessions to Greece would jeopardize their own political future. There is a very careful and thought-through method in the madness, which is driving repeated pleas to “restore sanity and humanity.”
As we entered into May, a number of new neologisms were employed to reflect the new realities: Grimbo, Graccident, Varoufexit, Gredge. The Greek negotiating tactic shifted gears. By then it had become abundantly clear that the Greek hopes for a bridge agreement leading to a final settlement of the Greek question had been a mirage. The European institutions welcomed the restart of the negotiations in Brussels and the employment of a team of experts directed to discuss the nitty-gritty of the fiscal measures.
Four Greek red lines began to take shape: the pension system, the labor market, privatization, and tax revenues. The progression of the negotiations brought about the violation of most of the government’s red lines amid growing tensions between the institutions. Disharmony prevailed and a new, this time darker, line rose above the horizon: a firm refusal to endorse a new round of across-the-board cuts in wages and pensions.
This month, the plot thickened with the delay of the IMF payment. Discussions, meetings, conference calls, and mini-summits proliferated. An unprecedented and exhausting debate about the VAT became the subject of everyday deliberations across Europe and Greece. With the passing of time, it became clear that the institutions’ various proposals were ultimata aimed at breaking the government. Although recessionary, Greece’s last-ditch proposal was contingent on some sort of debt relief and a moderate plan for the country’s immediate finance requirements.
The troika showed no flexibility. Plans for a regime change were underway. The leaders of the right-wing New Democracy and the center-left Potami parties were summoned in Brussels for talks. It was now time for the European Commission and its president, Jean-Claude Junker, to do what it knows best — manage the blame game.
Faced with impossible demands, there were only two options left in the government. First, to submit to the deepening of the economic depression in Greece. Second, to turn to the people, either by elections or by upholding a referendum.
Greek politics are now entering into a new, more divisive phase, which deepens the political divisions of the so-called “memorandum” period. Contrary to the demands of some European leaders and their political proxies in Greece, the government has insisted that the proposed question on the ballot is not about Greece’s place in the eurozone and the EU.
The referendum is not an “in/out” or a “euro/drachma” referendum. The wording of the referendum concerns the acceptance or rejection of the latest deal proposed by the institutions. The government has hinted that its negative advice might change in the event of a last-minute deal, but that seems unlikely at the moment.
Although this move is in agreement with Syriza’s mandate to renegotiate an anti-austerity deal within the existing eurozone framework, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that in the event of a “no” vote, other options will have to be put on the table. It should also be mentioned that a “no” to the deal is in no way a negation of Greece’s membership in the eurozone and in the EU, as the Greek Communist Party and other smaller parties of the radical left advocate. The message of a Greek “no” will reaffirm the country’s willingness to find common ground in Europe.
In the event of a “yes” vote, the government and Syriza will have fallen in a “democratic trap.” Greece’s creditors and their domestic political proxies will argue that despite its clear parliamentary majority the government has no political legitimacy to reach an agreement with Greece’s creditors. Discussions about new elections or other coalition governments are certain to proliferate. This is why every European bureaucrat in Brussels is campaigning for a “yes” vote.
Commentators have rightly argued that the government’s decision on the referendum enacts a right to democratic dissent and puts democracy back on the map in an increasingly authoritarian Europe. The demos has taken the stage and ought to be left free to deliberate on the future of its political community. Nonetheless, the creditor-sponsored bank run and the unavoidable implementation of capital controls in the Greek banks have given rise to a politics of fear.
Greece does not and should not be left standing alone at this critical time. As Pablo Iglesias argued, “The problem isn’t Greece, the problem is Europe.” Now, more than ever, the Greek people are in dire need of support and solidarity, in every form, by any means necessary: by taking to the streets on the day of the referendum, by creating and empowering existing solidarity campaigns across Europe and the world.
There will be those advocating a “no” vote — like ANEL leader and defense minister Panos Kammenos — who peddle crude nationalism. That is not the point the Left makes. We acknowledge that the national interest that the Greek government rightly upholds is first and foremost aligned with a transnational European interest. Our patriotism does not yield to phantasies of national greatness and illusions of economic self-sufficiency.
For decades now Greece’s fate has been in the hands of its “enlightened” statesmen. This moment is different. It is now time for the people to exercise their democratic right and decide on the future for the generations to come.