Will Greeks vote ‘neh’ in debt referendum? History says ‘no’, ‘non’ and ‘nein’

Greece’s tough austerity measures have been unpopular with citizens. AAP

Greece’s cabinet has given unanimous backing to Prime Minister George Papandreou’s plan for a referendum on the government’s austerity program.

Papendreou emerged from talks with fellow EU leaders at the G20 summit in Cannes overnight, pledging the hold the referendum on December 4 or 5.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was talking tough on the move earlier in the day, saying that Greece would “not get a cent” if its citizens vote agains the bailout deal.

Greece may be the birthplace of democracy, but it’s difficult to see what Papandreou might gain from pursuing this strategy.

Referenda have a long and infamous history in the European Union (EU). Ireland has been the chief reprobate, as its constitution requires electors’ consent before international treaties may be ratified.

But referenda have been few and far between in the EU. Most countries simply pass the thousands of pieces of legislation emanating from Brussels without consulting their citizens. Some countries don’t even bother asking their parliaments (Italy is famous for this).

Politics from above

In 1957, none of the original six founders of the European Community (France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) bothered to conduct referenda to ratify the EEC Treaty.

The reasoning was simple: tell people what you’re doing and they’ll vote “no”. Or “non”, or “nein”. Or perhaps “never”.

Papandreou has slated the vote for December 4 or 5. AAP

Thus began a grand tradition of EU member governments never asking for their voters’ approval, unless they absolutely had to. This became known as “dirigisme”. In France, dirigisme meant centralised state control of economic and social policy.

In European politics, it quickly came to mean “government by elites”: an unaccountable raft of EU institutions that wielded power behind closed doors with little or no consultation. Because, frankly, people don’t know what’s good for them. No vox populi here, merci.

The good dirigiste would argue that voting, well … complicates things. In 1987, an Irish referendum on the ratification of the Single European Act delayed the implementation of the EU internal market liberalisation program for almost 18 months.

In 2001, a well-organised Irish “no” campaign derailed the Nice Treaty. A second referendum finally passed in 2002.

And, as recently as 2009, it took two referenda for voters in Eire to approve the Lisbon Treaty – a watered-down version of the abortive 2003 EU Constitution, which Dutch and French voters rejected comprehensively in 2005.

To be or not to be …

European voters have often proven militantly anti-EU when presented with a choice. In 1992, Danes decided whether to be or not to be party to the Maastricht Treaty. They voted “nej”, immediately consigning the treaty to two years of amendments and delays.

There was clearly something rotten about the euro in the Kingdom of Denmark, as the Danes also voted, overwhelmingly, to remain outside the Eurozone in 2000. This has given rise to much smug satisfaction in Copenhagen in recent months.

The Swedes, burned badly by the 1992 EU monetary crisis, also kept a safe distance from the Eurozone by consigning a 2003 referendum on euro membership to the dustbin.

… What was the question?

However, the grand prix for nixing referenda must go to a European country that’s not even in the EU: Switzerland has not only knocked back EU membership, but electors also blocked attempts in 1994 to bring the Swiss Confederation into a common market with the EU called the European Economic Area (EEA).

Membership of the British-led European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1959 was about as far as Bern was prepared to go. As the EFTA has only four members left (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and tiny Liechtenstein), they all fit comfortably into an old telephone box.

Meanwhile, bankrupt Iceland’s shotgun application for EU membership may remain on ice after Icelanders voted to reject reimbursements for British and Dutch investors in one of its private banks.

Sarkozy and Merkel are talking tough on the bailout. AAP

For decades, Norsemen and women have also put paid to their governments’ EU membership ambitions. In 1962, Norway applied for membership, but negotiations collapsed.

Two more applications, in 1972 and 1994, wholeheartedly endorsed by the Norwegian parliament, collapsed in the face of overwhelming rejections in popular referenda.

Norway’s riches, born of oil, fish and sovereign wealth funds, mean that Oslo really doesn’t need the EU’s money. Or the EU.

Apathetic? Moi?

EU referenda have had a chequered history in Britain as well. Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson pledged a referendum on EU membership and, surprisingly, with the exception of Basil Fawlty, Britons overwhelmingly endorsed the UK’s entry into Europe, with a majority of 67%. Mind you, 35% of the population didn’t bother to vote.

Tony Blair promised a referendum on British membership of the Eurozone that never came, mostly because neither Blair nor his successor as prime minister Gordon Brown were ever serious about adoptng the euro. These days, David Cameron may enjoy lecturing his Eurozone cousins, but the fact is that the British economy is in as much trouble as its continental counterparts.

Papandreou’s about-face

Greece’s referendum may take place as early as December this year. According to just-published opinion polls, 60% oppose the bailout terms, although these would wipe out 50% of Greece’s debt.

Yet again, financial markets have been spooked by the prospect of a Greek default that could send global markets into paroxysms of shock.

Already, the leading proponents of dirigisme – in the form of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel – have expressed surprise (euro-code for “horror”) that Papandreou is heading inexorably for a referendum.

He clearly didn’t consult with the French and German leaders beforehand. Which he damn well should have, particularly as it’s their euros that are currently keeping Greece out of bankruptcy court.

Supporters of dirigisme would nod their heads sagely. Best not to let the demos vote. The Greeks don’t know what’s good for them.