Published: Kathimerini Daily
The hasty, hurried nature of the Greek referendum in 2015 and the transgression of basic rules in conducting it (only five days of campaigning available to answer a long technical question with the “no” box above the “yes” box on the ballot paper) render a comparison between the two procedures irrelevant. However, even though the referendum was so unorthodox, the Greek voters faced two main questions, the same that British voters were considering before their vote in 2016, and the same that engaged voters in the referendum for Scotland’s independence in 2014.
Those that advocate referendums hasten to lend them an emotional dimension, describing them as unique opportunities for genuine popular expression against the establishment. According to this narrative, citizens in Scotland would decide on a union imposed and maintained by the powerful in the English establishment, in Greece about an austerity program which had been concocted at the “directory” in Brussels, and now in England on their participation in the European Union.
It is an anti-establishment narrative, part of the broader sentiment of dissatisfaction with the traditional political powers: supposedly, a spontaneous movement from below seeks to shake up the established order, which in turn reacts, devaluing the genuine will of the people. This approach describes those that are negatively disposed towards the referendum as being sceptical about direct democracy. Thus, when for example the pro-European Ministers of the government warned that a British pull-out from the EU would lead to a reduction in household incomes, the Euro-sceptics replied that it was time for the people to ignore all this talk of danger and demonstrate “who really governs this country”. Correspondingly, those in Greece who warned that the referendum would set at risk the country’s European identity, were accused of ignoring the right of the people to decide their future for themselves.
It is very interesting to see however, that the same people who praise referendums as conclusive and non-negotiable expressions of popular will, end up downgrading those same referendums by using them as a means to strengthen their negotiating position.
The Greek referendum has already been recorded in the collective perception as the government’s ultimate, failed negotiating weapon. The Prime Minister had hoped that the rejection of the agreement by the Greeks would compel the EU to adopt the Greek proposals about the memorandum. The Greeks did indeed reject the agreement, but the government was forced to sign it regardless, ignoring the will of the people.
In Britain, many Brexit supporters within the Conservative Party approach the EU referendum with a similar reasoning. That is, they believe that if the people vote in favour of Brexit, the EU would retreat and propose new terms for remaining. Indeed, the British people would then have to agree again with these terms, and would be called upon to vote, affirmatively now, in a second, this time conclusive, referendum! Thus, the “No” of June 23 suddenly becomes “Yes, subject to conditions”.
Do foreigners have any say?
In July 2015, the supporters of the Greek “No” treated the successive interventions by foreign leaders (Schulz, Juncker, others) in favour of “Yes” as illegitimate attempts by the powers that be in the EU to influence the decision. Such interventions did not occur in Greece only. In 2014, José Barroso, in his (then) capacity as president of the European Commission, warned the Scots that a vote in favour of independence would set at risk the country’s EU membership. Barroso’s warnings were echoed by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who had said that without the pound Scotland could well face the fate of Greece in the Eurozone. Just a few hours before the vote opened, Barrack Obama sided in favour of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Similarly, in advance of the British referendum several foreign leaders and representatives of international organisations have intervened dynamically in favour of Britain remaining in the EU.
In the UK too, many people are angered with such statements, considering that it is no business of the Americans, for example, to declare in favour of one or the other side in a British referendum. But is it realistic, or even legitimate, to expect politicians in the rest of the world to remain silent for months until the completion of a national process of which the result also affects them? Further, is it reasonable to require from people like Obama or Trudeau to refrain from saying in public what everybody knows they believe?
The main current of opinion in the global political arena has been clearly negative as to all three referendums. Not against the procedure per se, but because in all three cases the demands are contrary to international practice, which encourages countries to collaborate and reach common decisions on supra-national issues through established economic and political associations.