A Greek referendum was, in fact, a bad idea

A Greek referendum was not an excellent idea, whose implementation was prevented by its alleged opponents, as Anthony Barnett says; it was a bad idea and, moreover, very incompetently implemented.

 A Greek referendum was not an excellent idea, whose implementation was prevented by its alleged opponents, as Anthony Barnett argues here; it was a bad idea and, moreover, very incompetently implemented.

The incident of the now called-off referendum, as presented by Barnett, looks like a perfectly cut and dried plan with its roots planted firmly on a sound politically moral basis. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who is “intelligent, thoughtful and not corrupt,” stands alone against “the Greek establishment, supported by opponents of democracy in Paris and Brussels especially,” whose chief intention is to squash Papandreou’s effort “to make Greece an honest country.” The whole issue, therefore, is presented as one of democratic legitimacy and “giving power back to the people.” In reality, the referendum was a badly conceived idea, which lacked political realism and showed little respect for democratic institutions.

There was, first of all, uncertainty over the question the referendum was to decide upon. Would that have been over whether the Greeks endorse the debt deal agreed by Eurozone leaders on October 26, which also includes a substantive reduction of Greece’s debt? Or would the Greeks have been asked, as Angela Merkel intimated, whether they wanted to stay in the Eurozone or not? Neither makes sense. In the first case, the idea of deciding whether you agree unilaterally with an already established agreement is a rather outlandish one. For you not only break the rules of the game in which you are still a participant; you also assume that your partners will stick to the agreement that you have already broken. In the second case, the idea is simply senseless as no major Greek party has ever seriously pondered leaving the euro and returning to the drachma.

Papandreou’s gambit was, moreover, imprudent because, given Greece’s extremely weak position, it failed to consider the reactions of her European and other international partners. None could have been expected to be pleased with Papandreou undermining their most painstaking efforts to bolster the Eurozone and calm down the international markets. And, then, there was another question that was never posed: was Greece really in a position to finance the referendum? Nothing could be more telling of the situation, I think, than the following statement by Christine Lagarde of the IMF, released on 2 November: “I welcome the [Greek] Prime Minister’s indication that the referendum which has been announced will take place as soon as possible so that the Euro Summit agreement can be implemented expeditiously. As soon as the referendum is completed, and all uncertainty removed, I will make a recommendation to the IMF Executive Board regarding the sixth tranche of our loan to support Greece’s economic programme.”

Finally, Papandreou’s decision to call a surprise referendum was anything but democratic as he took it without prior consultation with  - let alone the agreement of - his own party organs, his government, and especially the finance minister, and the President of the Greek Republic, who is responsible according to the Greek constitution for authorizing referenda. His decision also showed little respect for Greece’s European partners who had taken enormous political risks in their respective countries in setting up the October deal.

Contrary to Anthony Barnett’s belief, the quality of any decision depends on its outcomes rather than on the amount and nature of the opposition it manages to bring together. Papandreou has now called off his original decision for a referendum. But look at the disastrous outcomes of it: the previous deal is now being wrecked; Papandreou has lost both whatever popular support was left to him and international credibility; Greece had another unnecessary dose of bad publicity; and the Eurozone now looks even more uncertain and fragile than it was before Papandreou’s very bad idea about calling his surprise referendum.   

About the author

Takis Pappas is an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Greece (on leave) and a Marie Curie Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. His recent work focuses on the comparative study of populism.