Greek referendum: Democracy has junk status

2 November 2011
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Frankfurt

He who submits a vital issue to a referendum is a public menace to Europe. This has been the message from the markets – and since Monday night, from the politicians too.

Two days – that’s how long the newly won stability of the European elites lasted. Two days between Merkel as godmother, with the eyes of all the world on her, and that plunging feeling. A clinician could describe what this is: a pathology. He could describe how sick the collective psyche is, how untrue and self-deceiving the fantasies of omnipotence and self-confidence that it allowed to blossom.

Horror in Germany, Finland, France, even in England, horror in the financial markets and the banks: horror, horror, everywhere – just because the Greek Prime Minister, Georgios Papandreou, plans a referendum on a fateful question for his country.

On Tuesday, just as the bankers and politicians had threatened, more news of diving markets came pouring in every minute. The message was clear: if the Greeks do say yes, they must be stupid. And Papandreou must be a gambler, because he’s asking them.

Before the panic spiral continues to gather speed, however, it would be helpful to step back, the better to see clearly what’s going on here. What we really see is the spectacle of a degeneration of all the values that once seemed embodied in the idea of Europe.

Some players in the financial markets are taking the emerging tale of decline a little further. The UK's Daily Telegraph is reporting a joke that has been going around in financial circles, and apparently in the British Cabinet as well: If a military junta came to power in Greece through a coup, it would be rather a good thing, because military juntas are not allowed in the EU.

And Forbes, not just any little tattler in the financial community, is opening the floodgates a little wider: “What’s so sad, or bitter if you prefer, about the joke is that, if we ignore the little problem of it being a military dictatorship, this would in fact be a good solution to Greek woes."

A power struggle between economics and politics

One needn’t subliminally ‘get’ all the relationships of the joke to grasp just how massively the moral conventions of the postwar period are being wiped out in the name of a supposedly higher financial and economic rationale. Such processes occur gradually and do their work semi-consciously, sometimes over decades, until out of them a new ideology comes forth. That was invariably how it went in the incubation phases of the great crises of authoritarianism in the Twentieth Century. One really has to write down what Papandreou said – and what to the ears of Europe sounds like the ravings of an capricious, wayward patient in the sick ward. "The will of the people is binding." If the people do quash the new deal with the EU, "it will not be adopted."

In Germany, we recall, we understand by “democracy” the parliamentary approval that came a few days ago, and that was enforced by the Supreme Court and welcomed by all parties. Even a EU summit had to be put off because of it. None of this applies to Greece, though.

What’s so unreasonable about Greece? That the Greek Prime Minister is placing before the people of Greece the key question on their own fate. The supposedly exemplary, thrifty Germans and their politicians are responding with panic – but only because the financial markets are reacting with panic. They have all been made prisoners by the need to pre-empt expectations of how the financial markets will respond.

Increasingly it’s becoming clear that what Europe is going through right now is not an episode, but a power struggle between the primacy of economics and the primacy of politics. The primacy of politics has already lost ground massively. And the process is speeding up.

Papandreou is doing the right thing

The absolute incomprehension surrounding Papandreou's move reveals a lack of understanding about the democratic public in general – and also about the reality that one must be ready to pay a price for it.

Is it not apparent that we’re leaving the appraisal of the democratic processes to rating agencies, analysts and banking associations? Over the last 24 hours they have all been bombarded with interviews, as if they had anything to say about the Greeks’ wish to vote on their own future.

The alleged rationality of financial and economic procedures has helped the atavistic subconscious to break through. That one could insult whole countries as ‘lazy’ and ‘deceitful’ once seemed to have gone out with the era of nationalism. Today this behaviour is back, with ostensibly "rational arguments" backing it up. The deformation of the parliamentary system by forced compliance with the market, however, legitimises the people not only as the "extraordinary legislator" – in the case of Greece it downright forces them to declare what they want.

Even in Germany, one who follows his own conscience as a freely elected representative can be sure to arouse anger [a reference to Wolfgang Bosbach, a conservative ally of Chancellor Merkel who is strongly opposed to more bailouts). What happened to a member of Germany’s parliament as a subject is now facing a state, and if things carry on like this, it will soon face all of Europe.

Papandreou is not only doing the right thing. He’s also showing a way ahead for the Union. In this new situation, Europe would have to do everything possible to convince the Greeks why the path it is pointing to is the right one. It would then have to persuade itself that it truly is. That would amount tsome self-assurance for the equally highly indebted countries of Europe that could finally gain some clarity on what price they want to pay for the intangible values of a united Europe.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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