On October 27th, following seemingly endless negotiations in pursuit of a new debt reduction deal for Greece, the Eurozone leaders emerged with an agreement which cut Greek debt in half and pledged another €130 billion in bailout money to be delivered early next year. The relief was palpable, market surges were predicted and Sarkozy gushed that ‘the results will be a source of huge relief worldwide.” The Eurozone finally appeared to have pulled itself back from the brink.
Europe’s new found serenity was however, short-lived. The following day Greek PM George Papandreou announced his plans to put the acceptance of the new bailout, and the austerity measures which came with it, before the Greek people in a referendum. The action drew widespread condemnation from the media, from within his own cabinet and from the other European heads of State. The markets plunged once more into chaos, with the DOW-Jones dropping almost 300 points, along with a 5% decline on both the French and German stock exchanges in a single day. Crisis meetings were held, the question of a Greek exit from the euro was again a serious possibility and Papandreou’s own hasty exit looked more or less inevitable.
After negotiations with other European leaders, the plans for a referendum were abandoned and Papandreou agreed to step down to allow the emergence of a new national unity coalition government.
It seems an excessive response to a referendum which trusted in the people of Greece. Almost two and a half thousand years after they first began the great democratic experiment, it appears that the Greeks have been told that there is a time and a place for democracy, and this isn’t it. The questions this raises for our democracies are difficult ones. We are taught to value our systems because of the influence the people have on the government, but what happens when we don’t want whats best for us? Is it the duty of the government to ignore our irresponsible desires? Or is it despotic of the government to assume it knows best?
It is clear that the people of Greece were opposed to the terms of the bailout and would almost certainly have voted against it, however without a further injection of bailout money, Greece would be broke by Christmas, effectively halting the implementation of welfare payments, healthcare services and all other government services too. The people cannot therefore, always be trusted to want what is best for them. There must therefore be times when the government steps in to save the people from themselves by ignoring the wishes of the people. This belief is nothing if not despotic, however it appears the Europe’s heads of State have collectively decided what is best for Greece and are determined that the Greek people must not be consulted. The great European bid for unity and equality seems to have been chipped away at by the economic crisis until now we see only France and Germany struggling to hold the jigsaw together above all else. Principles such as equality, democracy and self determination have all succumbed to the desire of Europe’s two great powers to protect the Union.
This idea runs contrary to all of the notions we hold dear, glorifying our system of democracy, a system so successful that the West has been exporting it for decades, imposing it on far away places ruled by tyrants. The most popular retrospective justification for the war in Iraq is that Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was removed and democracy implemented in its stead. Papandreou’s referendum however, the purest expression of democracy which remains in our society, was condemned widely for the risked it posed both to the euro and to his country. Here we see the message once again, there is a time and a place for democracy, and this isn’t it.
With the suppression of the Greek referendum, rightly or wrongly, we have seen that democracy is a luxury afforded to calmer times. Whilst Europe may speak eloquently and emotively on the subject of democracy, it is clear that in times of crisis, our governments believe that there are some decisions that are simply too important for the people to be left to the people.