Much of what Guy Verhofstadt shouted at Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in the European Parliament the other day – captured in the video above, which has since gone viral – is perfectly true.
Yes, Greece has dragged its feet making necessary pro-market economic reforms, not just over the past five years but since that country joined the European Union in 1981. Yes, tax collection is not what it should be in a modern western economy. Yes, there remain too many closed industries, stifling competition with their restrictive practices and deliberately insurmountable barriers to entry. Yes, corruption is still a real problem in some cases. And yes, the Greeks voted in a left-wing Syriza government well endowed with socialist rhetoric but less so with reforming zeal.
And yet when you watch a democratically elected leader – the prime minister of one of the EU’s own member states – being lectured and belittled in view of the whole world by a European parliamentarian, something does not sit right in the stomach. Unlike Britain, Greece is an enthusiastic EU member, viewing their membership of the organisation and the single currency as a marker of national progress and development. But must this be the price of their ongoing membership, their leaders summoned to Brussels for public rebuke and their ministries thrown open to clipboard-wielding EU technocrats?
As was perhaps inevitable, Greece has largely capitulated in the ongoing standoff with their creditors and the European Union. Austerity measures, even more than were demanded before the “Oxi” vote in the Greek referendum – which itself tells you a lot about the real motivations behind the EU’s negotiating strategy, not seeking a sustainable deal but wanting to punish a small member state for not immediately doing what it was told – are now being willingly accepted in the latest Greek proposal.
Final referendum result: Yes – 38.7%, No – 61.3%
If nothing else happens as a result of the dramatic “Oxi” (no) vote in Greece’s referendum today, can we at least finally disabuse ourselves of the notion that Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is somehow a formidable and effective world leader?
We hear time and again how Merkel is the most powerful woman in Europe (or sometimes the world), and how she is such a shrewd and canny operator, driving hard bargains in the EU and commanding respect on the world stage. But Margaret Thatcher she ain’t. The European Union may like to think of itself as a warm, fuzzy family of nations, but in reality there is only one country, Germany, which plays the role of parent when it comes to economic matters, particularly within the eurozone. And Angela Merkel’s “bad cop” Pyrrhic victory in keeping the door closed to any form of debt relief for Greece, even in the face of entreaties from President Obama and mounting evidence that some form of debt restructuring is an essential precursor to the return of growth, has just driven Europe off a cliff.
As the eurozone goes into meltdown and the European Union faces what could become an existential crisis, everyone is looking to cover their backs as the recriminations fly. And Lord knows that Greece shoulders some of this blame, having governed itself irresponsibly over many successive decades and governments, as this blog has repeatedly acknowledged. But what excuse do the sharp-suited EU bureaucrats and eurozone politicians have for their collective failure to contain the Greek situation? What excuse does Angela Merkel have?
By Ben Kelly, blogger and editor of The Sceptic Isle.
‘Mr Dijsselbloem suggested even if Greece voted to approve the bailout plan it would be hard for its eurozone partners to continue to trust Mr Tsipras’s leftwing Syriza government to implement it — hinting a new government would be necessary.’
The EU is escalating its campaign of intimidation against the Greek electorate in order to push them towards the “yes” vote they seek. Now efforts are escalating to oust the democratically elected Greek government whatever the result of today’s referendum. President of the EU Parliament Martin Schulz has called for the Syriza government to be replaced by “technocrat” rule until stability can be restored in Greece after its economic collapse. We have been here before.
We have already witnessed a post-modern, bloodless coup d’état in Athens before, as we did in Rome. Elected prime ministers were given a final, firm push and removed from power and replaced with Eurocrats appointed from Brussels, a former Vice-President of the European Central Bank and a former European Commissioner no less. They were appointed with the mission to impose policies approved by the EU but rejected in general elections.
Mario Monti appointed himself finance minister as well as prime minister and a government was installed in Italy without a single elected politician. The fragile pretence of EU democracy collapsed, and the dictatorial nature of the centralist new European empire was exposed. Apparachiks in Brussels ruling through colonial governors in Athens and Rome, overseen by the ECB in Frankfurt and the government in Berlin dissolved national democracy. The electorate in the Euro colonies were cut out altogether.
The Greek Euro crisis is not a game; it is a deadly serious question of who really holds the power in the EU and the eurozone – the people or the institutions. Unfortunately, EU bureaucrats and European heads of state have chosen to close ranks and continue their reckless game of chicken with desperate, depression-weary Greece, making a total mockery of European ‘solidarity’.
Anyone hoping that Greece’s dramatic decision to put the EU’s death-by-rolling-bailout terms to a popular referendum might bring the country’s intransigent creditors to their senses will have been sorely disappointed today. Once the initial shock that a sovereign country dared to stand up to to the EU wore off, it soon became apparent that the EU’s leaders were determined to call Greece’s bluff and double down on their uncompromising position.
We should not be surprised. The very idea of a solitary European democracy acting muscularly in its own self interest is clearly horrifying to the EU elite, who have been so busy constructing their unwanted political and economic union that they are no longer capable of even comprehending dissenting opinions.
Of course, the chancelleries of Europe did the bare minimum in order to make a public show of being conciliatory to Greece – emphasising their supposed fraternal concern for the country and desire to help the Greek economy return to growth. But their actions said differently, and spoke volumes about their real priorities.
The Guardian puts it quite plainly:
Following a week of vacation, I left Athens for London just hours after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made his dramatic address to the nation, stating his intention to put the latest EU bailout offer to a referendum. While the popular islands and tourist areas of central Athens showed few outward signs of the unfolding drama, queues were already forming at ATMs in poorer and more residential areas. The following are my thoughts on the Greek crisis and the behaviour of the international institutions which increasingly supplant national democracy.
No wonder the power brokers of Europe are dazed, confused and spitting with rage. Cyprus meekly fell into line when their turn came. Ireland whimpered and did what it was told. But Greece is displaying a puzzling degree of stubbornness and outright disrespect by failing to behave like a weak supplicant nation with no negotiating power, infuriating the finance ministers and leaders of the other eurozone countries in the process. It’s almost as though, in their arrogance, the Greek government actually believes that its primary duty is to the people of Greece rather than the multinational institutions which now seek to go through the country’s budget and the government’s manifesto with a red veto pen.
Heaven knows that Greece is not without blame in this crisis. A Byzantine system of differing VAT rates, ludicrously early retirement ages, inefficient state-owned industries and unchecked cartels and corruption have all played their part in running up the Greek deficit and ensuring that the last few years of bailout assistance have failed to produce results or return the economy to growth.
But for as long as our world is built on the principle of the sovereign nation state, free people in a free country have the inviolable right to make their own bad choices and then take what measures they see fit to correct these errors through the democratic process. Unfortunately, when nation states are increasingly stripped of their power and influence – having vested them in political institutions like the European Union and monetary unions like the Euro – this is no longer possible. Suddenly, millions of people in far-flung places have a vested interest in decisions taken in one small country, and the democratic will of any one member state is only one consideration among many others competing for consideration.