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Greece: A Tale of Three Referendums

Europe is telling the Swiss, Greeks and the British to either live by the rules — or else…

June 29, 2015

Europe is telling the Swiss, Greeks and the British to either live by the rules -- or else...

The scene outside three bank ATMs in Ekali, the posh suburbs of north Athens, was pitiful.

Ever-longer queues formed as old ladies, young mothers and middle-aged men shoved their credit cards into the slots hoping to get some Euros out. Some were lucky, some left empty-handed.

“I tried withdrawing €300 on my UK credit card but could only withdraw €100. I asked my accountant if I should take out my Euros,” said one not-poor not-young Greek woman. “Yes, empty your account and take your safe deposit box home as well,” he said.

When bank managers start giving advice like that, it won’t be too long before the nation’s confidence evaporates. And now Greece has a chance to decide its fate in a referendum next Sunday.

I still recall the days when I first came to Greece. It was in the late 1960s and we were there to act in an Oxford production of Agamemnon at Delphi. The surrounding hills and mountains were covered in giant white letters saying “OHI” meaning No. That “No” was a no to Communism — which the then-Greek leader, Colonel Papadolous, believed was destroying Greece.

Now, another Greek leader, Alexis Tsipras wants the Greeks to say “OHI” to the EU’s leaders who, he asserts, want to destroy Greece.

The Greek tragedy

Watching the noisy debate in the Greek parliament that approved Tsipras’s referendum was like a re-run of a bad National Union of Journalists conference in the 1970s. Speakers were shouted down. There were walk-outs. The Speaker, Zoi Konstantopoulou, had to suspend the proceedings more than once to calm down tempers.

Syriza’s political skillset is opposition neat. The art of government which involves messy, disappointing compromises has never been taught to the politicians of Syriza.

Meanwhile “the Europeans” – as the Greeks now call their enemies in Brussels – in the eyes of some have performed disastrously.

In this reading, they have acted like a heroin dealer who turned his client into a junky. It only fits the pattern that Brussels now washes its hands of all responsibility for pouring un-repayable Euros into Greece after 2002. It now tells Greece that it is cold turkey for years to come.

That there are very different readings of the same situation underscores just how high the stakes are.

But this isn’t just about Greece. Europe has entered its plebiscite era. Countries want to use referendums to challenge or change EU rules in order to obtain special treatment.

The Bern-Brussels showdown

The first major referendum was held in Switzerland in February 2014. Under the influence of Europe’s most successful populist party, the Swiss People’s Party. The Swiss voted to impose quotas or caps on EU citizens working in Switzerland.

The response of Brussels was swift and unforgiving. All university research grants to Swiss universities were stopped.

The European Commission made it clear to Bern that unimpeded access to the EU Single Market and free movement of Swiss citizens would come to an end if the Swiss thought that they could unilaterally discriminate against EU citizens.

The Swiss were told that the European Court of Justice would decide on disputes between Bern and Brussels. There will be elections in Switzerland in the autumn and thus, for now, the situation has been handled.

But if the Swiss do not revote their populist referendum and accept common EU rules, the Alpine nation is sure to face difficulties.

What will the Greeks decide?

The second referendum takes place in Greece next Sunday. If Greece votes “Ohi” to the EU proposals, then it is hard to see the country staying in the Eurozone and possibly even in the EU.

Tsipras will have given Greece the same status as Macedonia or – perish the thought – Turkey, a neighbor but not a member of the EU.

Brussels is treating Greece the same as Switzerland. Here are the rules. You don’t want to abide by them, fair enough – that’s your sovereign democratic decision. But we won’t change the rules and what we believe in just because you say No.

The Brexit question

The third referendum is David Cameron’s Brexit plebiscite. He wants the rule changed unilaterally for Britain. He has been told this won’t happen. Boris Johnson, like Alexis Tsipras, now says Britain should say “Ohi” to Europe. The London mayor is also playing the post-Cameron leadership game.

But one can sense a hardening in Europe, especially in more recent EU members from Scandinavia and Poland. They are fed up of being patronized by founder states or self-important ones like Britain.

They are telling the Swiss to live by the rules or be marginalized. They are telling the Greeks to abide by the rules or leave. They will be no less clear with London.

There are good reasons to enforce rules in a large club. As a Brit, I’ll be the first to admit that.

But no matter how one looks at each of these cases, the three referendums have the potential to fundamentally change Europe.


Countries want to use referendums to challenge EU rules in order to obtain special treatment.

Will the Swiss revote their populist referendum and accept common EU rules?

Tsipras could give Greece the same status as Macedonia or - perish the thought – Turkey.