Victims of Illusions: The Non-Solution of the Greferendum

The Greek government has squandered all its goodwill within half a year through a combination of arrogance, belligerence, naivety and utter incompetence. It set out to restore the "dignity" of the Greek people by "liberating" them from the alleged stranglehold of the Troika, while in the process "transforming" Europe into a more equal and just continent. It has achieved neither.
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The seemingly never-ending Greek drama has become a story of amateurism versus dogmatism with incompetence and cowardice on both sides. The Greek government has squandered all its goodwill within half a year through a combination of arrogance, belligerence, naivety and utter incompetence. It set out to restore the "dignity" of the Greek people by "liberating" them from the alleged stranglehold of the Troika, while in the process "transforming" Europe into a more equal and just continent. It has achieved neither. The current Greek government is confronted with almost exactly the same deal as its so maligned predecessor. Moreover, outside of (West) European gauche caviar, desperate for a new "anti-imperialist hero" after Hugo Chavez's death, support for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Coalition for a Radical Left (Syriza) has evaporated its amid erratic behavior and endless accusations of "blackmail" and "betrayal." Even worse, they have strengthened the belief among its opponents that (all) Euro-skepticism is necessarily incompetent and moralistic.

The so often repeated claim that the Troika is "disingenuous" is not just evidence of the typical moralistic discourse of populism, in which the other side is "the enemy" that is "corrupt," but, even more importantly, shows the Greek government's utter misperception of its opponent(s). Whether they truly believe their accusations or not is not that relevant, although it does go to the question whether they are simply incompetent or (also) disingenuous. In essence, the Greek government is accusing the Troika of being -- well -- the Troika! It blames them for not supporting the Syriza program. The Troika largely does the same, of course, but uses overall a more technocratic, rather than moralistic, discourse.

The essence of this drama is that both camps are informed by fundamentally different visions and try to come to an impossible compromise on the basis of a warped view of each other. The Greek government thinks the Troika is essentially committed to a strong Europe than to the politics of austerity, and the Troika still thinks that Greece is a typical European state, which in their view means a Northern European state. Hence, Tsipras keeps presenting "fairer" options, while Merkel keeps calling for "rational reforms." While both can be criticized for incompetence and immorality, the costs are clearly much higher for Tsipras' Greeks than for Merkel's Germans.

Whatever the logic and morality of the austerity politics, and both can be seriously questioned, the Troika has been absolutely clear that this is the foundation of its Eurozone politics. It might be rigid, but it is straightforward and, therefore, honest. In sharp contrast, the Greek government, both Syriza and coalition partner Independent Greeks (ANEL), has been far from clear in its position. It has invented a third option, Eurozone without austerity, which from the outset has been rejected by the Troika. More fundamentally, however, Syriza proclaims to be a radical left party, which supports an economic model somewhere in between socialism and social democracy. It wants to realize this within the European Union and the Eurozone, which are both fundamentally neoliberal projects, in which substantial state involvement in the economy is considered wrong.

The current standoff was inevitable as soon as the Greek population voted Syriza into power. In essence, therefore, both ANEL/Syriza and their supporters are responsible for the situation that they find themselves in now. They can blame the Troika for being, and staying true to being, the Troika, but that doesn't change the reality. Tsipras' call for a referendum took much of the rest of the European Union, and perhaps many in Greece, by surprise. Pundits will undoubtedly see it as further proof of the highly rational (choice) strategy of 'game theorist' and Finance Minister Varoufakis, trying to put extra pressure on the Troika. However, their archenemy Papandreou did the same in 2011 and failed (too).

In classic populist language Tsipras called for a "democratic response" to the creditors that try to "humiliate" Greece. Varoufakis tweeted that the referendum will "boost" democracy in "euro-related matters." Responding to reactions that he had been elected to make these decisions, as this is how representative democracies work, he said that the government doesn't have a mandate to make this important decision because only 41 percent of the people voted for ANEL and Syriza. This is a bizarre argument, which, in extremism, would mean that the government should resign, as it doesn't represent the majority of the Greek people. Moreover, it hasn't stopped Syriza in the last months from claiming to speak in the name of "the people," i.e. not just for a majority but for all (pure) Greek people. Incidentally, the righteous claim of boosting democracy was already undermined by ANEL leader Panos Kammenos, who said that the Greferendum would be withdrawn if the creditors would accept their counteroffer.

Rather than boosting democracy the more likely reason for the referendum is to prevent a break up of the government and of Syriza. As a literal coalition of more and less radical left groups Syriza is only really united in the opposition to the bailout conditions. The 'party' is fundamentally divided on continued membership of the Eurozone and even the European Union. However, if democracy is really so important to Varoufakis and the others, they should put the interests of the country and its population above those of the coalition government and the political party.

Tsipras has called a referendum on the very narrow issue of the specific terms offered by the creditors for the latest aid package. This is a ridiculous proposal on several accounts. First, the referendum will have to be organized within one week by a state with limited capacity under the best of circumstances, let alone in the height of an economic and political crisis. Second, the terms offered by the creditors are not even public yet (let alone translated into Greek). How can people vote on them if they haven't seen them? Third, the referendum is framed purely as a vote on the terms of the creditors, as if there is an option to get the financial aid under different terms. And, even if this were to be the case, and all behavior and statements of the Troika members makes this highly doubtful, what will happen then, i.e. in the best case scenario: Another referendum on the amended terms?

There is a good case to be made for a Greek referendum, but it is not this one. The Greeks should get a straightforward choice between the only two realistic options: staying in the Eurozone under the stated conditions or leaving the Eurozone (and allegedly have their "dignity" and "democracy" back). This is the fundamental choice that should have informed Greek politics for the past years. Greeks could have had that vote in the January elections, but Syriza prevented it by offering a faux third option: stay in the Eurozone without the Eurozone conditions. Now that everyone knows there are only two options, Syriza should finally give the people a vote on them, be it in new elections or in a (well-prepared) referendum.