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Syriza risks an EU exit in a referendum wracked with problems

No campaign voters burn an EU flag. EPA/Armando Babani

Greeks go to the polls on July 5 to answer a highly complicated question regarding what bailout measures they should accept from their country’s international creditors. A bailout is needed to release the funds to keep Greece’s economy afloat and avoid bankruptcy and potential eurozone exit (Grexit).

Tsipras has asked Greeks to vote No without any particular reference to the likely repercussions of the choice, but focusing instead on the need to “restore hope” and “conquer fear”. This decision reveals the dead end that the Syriza government has reached. It devalues the democratic value of the referendum and risks an EU exit – something the majority of Greeks do not want.

The main problem of the decision to call a referendum can be traced in the way it has been organised. In an unprecedented move for any established democracy, Tsipras announced the referendum only a week in advance, allowing almost no time for proper deliberation. No leaders’ debate has been planned and no official studies have been produced in order to assess the possible choices.

Plus, the question suggested for the referendum has been framed with reference to two long technical documents. The government argues that a No will give them more power against the creditors, but even if 99% of Greeks do so, this cannot have any influence over the other eurozone governments who are responsible to their own electorates. By contrast, EU officials have argued that a No vote means no to Europe, implying that this may mean an EU exit.

Moreover, the build-up to the referendum has seen most citizens spending hours in queues to withdraw money from ATMs, while banks remain closed. In other words, the referendum process seems more of a mockery than an exercise of democracy.

Anti-EU rhetoric

Once the referendum has taken place, it is difficult to guess how the Greek government intends to reach a much-needed deal with the country’s creditors. Both Syriza and their far-right coalition partners, the Independent Greeks party (ANEL), have adopted a nationalistic anti-EU discourse professing the EU’s desire to humiliate the Greeks.

Tsipras himself accused the EU of being authoritarian and desiring to pillage Greece and the IMF to have criminal responsibility for the Greek situation. If you follow the logic of this rhetoric, it clearly questions why Greece should stay within such an undemocratic and hostile EU/eurozone, irrespective of the conditions attached to membership.

Additionally, the Greek government has portrayed itself as a champion of democracy against authoritarian EU rule. This argument, however, is problematic. Nobody forced Greece to join the euro in the first place. And, having joined it, they have an equal place at Eurogroup meetings where decisions are made by the eurozone finance ministers who are also elected and represent national governments.

Tellingly, Ireland and Portugal, which have now exited similar bailout programmes, did not express such concerns. In an unprecedented move for Greece’s history, even Cyprus has kept its distance from the Greek drama. What’s more, if the Greek government is so passionate about democracy, it is puzzling why it has developed a close relationship with Putin’s Russia, which is not famous for its democratic credentials.

It’s been a short battle between YES/NO campaigners. EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

The coalition government seems trapped in confrontation with the EU as a result of internal politics. A popular accusation within the Greek parliament has been to accuse political opponents of being collaborators or agents of the creditors. The implication is that making a deal with them is synonymous to treason for members of Syriza or ANEL.

By narrowing the debate in this way, there is little room for criticism of their policy of fighting the EU – doing so marks you as a traitor or enemy of the Greek people. The continuation of this logic is that no government can or should implement the treacherous act of making a deal with the creditors.

Upheaval and uncertainty

Another contradiction that the Syriza-ANEL government will face whatever the outcome of the bailout negotiations is its argument that by rejecting EU-led austerity it protects Greeks against hardship and recession. Nobody, however, can predict with certainty whether exiting the eurozone is a good alternative in the long term while the immediate financial catastrophe is certain).

Tellingly, over the past five months the Greek government has not implemented austerity but economic growth has deteriorated. And regaining domestic sovereignty over economic policy would not solve the country’s severe economic problems.

Even though Tsipras and key members of his government and party have alluded to Grexit as a viable alternative, it will mean economic, political and social devastation for most parts of Greek society. The only social group to benefit in the short to medium term from such a development would be Greece’s elites and oligarchs who were able to move their euros abroad and will have their wealth multiplied after Grexit as the Greek drachma is expected to have much less value than the euro.

Grexit is also supported by the more radical left wing of the Syriza party, which would like to establish socialism in Greece – something unfeasible within the EU. It should be remembered that any pursuit of Grexit goes against the overwhelming majority of Greeks who want their country to remain in the eurozone.

As in other times in Greek history, Greeks face a big dilemma on July 5. I hope that the efforts of a generation for a democratic, stable and prosperous Greece within the EU will not be abruptly terminated.

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