Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Athenian democracy

On Saturday morning, I was at the Battle of Ideas at the RCA in London, listening to a fascinating discussion on the future of the Eurozone. Bruno Waterfield - the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent - made the point that one of the EU's most unfortunate tendencies, brought to a new level by the introduction of the euro, was the return of compulsion in European affairs, with small countries forced to implement austerity programmes on the orders of their larger, more powerful neighbours, however destructive to their own interests such policies may be.

Bang on cue, up pops the leader of the small country that has had the toughest austerity programmes of all imposed upon it to suggest that the Greek people might like to be consulted on the matter, and all hell breaks loose.

EU Referendum notes that George Papandreou first mooted holding a referendum on the issue back in June, so yesterday's announcement shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise to the other Eurozone leaders (such as Sarkozy, who proclaimed himself utterly astonished). Yet I just heard on the radio that in Greece itself "no-one saw this coming" and the reaction has been stunned and almost entirely hostile. In fact, the Beeb's reporter sounded almost as infuriated by Papandreou's inappropriately democratic behaviour as the French president himself.

A few minutes later Paul Mason revealed that "senior leaders" in Cannes, where the G20 summit has been overtaken by events, have been coming up to him asking if he has a clue what Papandreou is playing at, because they haven't the foggiest. Perhaps they imagined that Papandreou's promise was just a "political" one, like David Cameron's offer of a referendum of the Lisbon treaty that vanished once he got into office.

Another of Saturday's speakers was Philippe Legrain, an adviser to Manuel Barroso. He made the point that there's not much overlap between what is politically possible and what is (economically) necessary, and admitted that the EU leadership doesn't have a good track-record of taking the people of Europe with them. The Greeks weren't so much being invited to make sacrifices for their own good as being told that they were themselves the sacrifice for the sake of Europe and the euro; and they might not altogether like the prospect. This is quite an admission from such a rampant Europhile. It may help to explain why Papandreou's proposal, surprise or not, has produced such a reaction: not so much indignation, perhaps, as fear.

The spluttering of Sarkozy, Merkel and co, though, seems to bear out Daniel Hannan's view that EU leaders can no longer tolerate any interference from the people in their plans. Whether the referendum idea is a cyncial power-play aimed at undermining his political opponents (as seems likely), or whether Papandreou has indeed become imbued with the spirit of Pericles scarcely matters. By asking the people to settle a question that belongs properly to politicians and bankers, he has committed "an act of ingratitude bordering on treason."

As a report BBC radio put it this evening, Papandreou has been "summoned" to the G20 meeting to explain himself with the dyarchs, where he may come under "strong pressure" to abandon the referendum plan, or at least to present the Greek people with a question to which they will be certain to vote "yes". This might just have been his plan all along, of course - Hannan points out that he's as Euro-enthusiastic as the rest of them, despite everything. But it still looks like a deliberate piece of humiliation.

Poor Papandreou might almost be the rebellious satrap of a Western province summoned to the throne of the King of Kings in Persepolis.