Published:

39 comments

Well, we will get to enjoy watching a European referendum after all, even if it is not us who get to vote. The only new thing about the contempt poured on the Greek referendum proposal by European leaders is that are not bothering to conceal it; when I worked in Brussels, the contempt for referendums was freely discussed behind closed doors, but not anywhere where voters might get to hear it. The difference between the Greek referendum and the normal European referendum is that it matters, and they have only one chance to get the right answer.

I was standing next to Jean-Claude Juncker, then EU president and now Eurozone president, when the news came through of the French 'non' to the European referendum, and his immediate reaction was that they would have to vote again until they get the right answer. Of course, the French voters never even got that chance – the name of the treaty was changed, and it was pushed through parliament where the views of voters could be safely ignored (the Irish did get to vote twice, and gave the right answer second time). All previous 'no' votes in EU referendums have been annulled either by second referendums or votes in parliament; none have changed the course of that the EU was going in anyway (like our referendum on membership in 1975). 

For the Greeks it is very different affair: it is a vote about resolving a very deep crisis, it is about Greece and it's future, and the result actually matters. Greek politics is such that it is pretty much inconceivable that voters will get a second chance to get the right answer, or that parliament will ignore the result and just vote through the euro bail-out deal anyway. The outcome of this referendum could lead to Greece leaving the euro, or even the EU. It would be the first referendum which has actually changed the course of the EU that EU leaders have pre-determined. Which is obviously why they hate it so much. This is a referendum whose result they can’t annul.


So which way will the Greeks vote? If it is just about the austerity package on the table, or about the performance of the very unpopular prime minister George Papandreou, then the answer will be no. But if it turns into a vote on Greek membership of the euro or even the EU, then it is more likely to be yes. Including the possibility of falling out of the euro in the question could swing the result; and the more Angela Merkel declares that Greek membership of the euro is on the line, the more it helps Papandreou get the result he and other European leaders want (I suspect Angela's unprecedented warning was agreed with Papandreou in advance).

And then there's the whole question about how the Greek referendum will affect the referendum debate in the UK (not least since it is the sort of game-changing referendum that UK eurosceptics want here). I think that it will probably dampen enthusiasm for a UK referendum – if the Greeks conform and give the government a yes, UK referendum campaigners will have a bit of wind taken out of their sails. If the Greeks deliver a no, and anarchy breaks out in Athens, then we might all take fright. Only if they vote no, and Greece thrives as a result, will the prospects of a UK referendum be given a real boost – but that seems an unlikely outcome in the circumstances. Either way, MPs and ministers have a particularly powerful motive to watch the events in Greece very closely indeed.

39 comments for: Anthony Browne: Why the Greek referendum is the most important in EU history

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.