By Thomas Meaney and Harris Mylonas – Special to CNN
Call it reckless, call it bold, but the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, has attempted to transform a referendum on the European Union bailout plan for Greece into a referendum about whether the Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone or not. The last time Greece had a popular referendum was in 1974 to decide if the people wanted to keep King Constantine, a descendent of the Royal family that European Powers foisted on the Greek people in the 1860s.
This time around, the Greek Prime Minister has shocked the rest of Europe — and even his own Vice President —with his plans to call for a popular vote on whether to accept the 50% haircut deal that EU heads of state agreed on last week to manage the country’s spiraling debt crisis. It’s the latest in a series of Hail Mary passes by Papandreou to keep his hold on power, but the proposed referendum is really only a distraction from the no-confidence vote he faces, which is scheduled in Greek Parliament this Friday. As hard as the Europeans leaders may have fought to prevent a Greek default, they failed to take into account the dire state of domestic Greek politics. But even at this moment the solution to the crisis must be a European one.
The gravest threat facing Papandreou right now is from the Greek people. His government party, PASOK, was elected two years ago on an anti-austerity platform, but has since been forced into the position of calling for more austerity than any Greek government in the postwar era. The demonstrations across the country last weekend that disrupted the parades commemorating the Greek resistance in World War II culminated with the forced departure of the President of the Republic, Karolos Papoulias, from the parade in Thessaloniki. The current political system has been facing a legitimacy crisis for a while now. The social contract, based on patronage, established between Greek politicians and the electorate following the fall of the Greek Junta in 1974 is under severe strain.
The second problem facing Papandreou is the dissent and distrust he is experiencing from his own party, which — for the moment — holds a bare majority of 152 seats out of 300 in the Greek Parliament. This past summer in a cabinet reshuffling, Papandreou tried to smooth out the problems in his party by appointing his main internal rival, Evangelos Venizelos, Vice President. But this accommodation reached its breaking point yesterday when Venizelos declared he had not been informed about the referendum by Papandreou, who nevertheless called on him to deliver the bad news to EU leaders. Meanwhile, the opposition parties claim that the government is blackmailing the Greek people and suggest that the only solution is to have early elections.
The crisis of legitimacy reached its peak yesterday when rumors about tensions between the government and the military leadership of the country became credible when the minister of Defense called for the replacement of all the heads of divisions of the armed forces. It would be a controversial decision in the best of times, but one that’s nearly impossible to carry out for a government facing unprecedented unpopularity.
The European Union leaders are dead against three outcomes: the collapse of the Greek parliament, the ouster of Papandreou on Friday, and the negative result of any kind of referendum on the bailout — all of which would ultimately spell the ejection of Greece from the Eurozone and spur financial chaos on the continent. The solution must come from Europe. The meeting at Cannes Thursday—where Papandreou has been invited by Merkel and Sarkozy— is his last chance to appease his European patrons.
The real question is not whether Greece will proceed or not with the referendum, but rather who controls Europe? Is it the Germans who seem to be the only ones who can undo the European Central Bank policy about printing money? The French and the Germans together who want to keep the Euro strong? Is it the speculators, banks and their interests? Or is the EU open to more democratic control whereby the voters can have a voice?
Whatever the outcome, Greece is now up against the wall thanks to Papandreou. The predicament has suddenly changed from a financial catastrophe and austerity measures to a question about political identity: Do Greeks belong in the European Union or not?
Editor’s Note: Thomas Meaney is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University and an editor of The Utopian. Harris Mylonas is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.