(The Telegraph) — “In the upper reaches of the Euro elite, where leaders are forever driving up to summit meetings in shiny German cars and looking grave and self-important for the cameras, where smooth diplomats know that the way to get business done is to do it discreetly with fellow officials, there is no surer sign that a colleague has gone stark raving mad than him announcing that he is going to hold a referendum on matters European”, the journalist Iain Martin reported.
It is bad enough that David Cameron has decided to put Britain’s future in the EU to the voters. But at least the UK Prime Minister has given warning several years in advance and has enlisted the support of the British business establishment to win his vote in 2017. By contrast, the Greek leader, Alexis Tsipras, announced on Friday that he wants to hold a referendum in Greece on the eurozone crisis on July 5.
In the eyes of the Euro elite, this momentous decision made Tsipras the instant winner of the European madman of the year competition. Several years ago, when his now forgotten predecessor in Athens attempted a similar manoeuvre, demanding a public vote, the Germans ordered George Papandreou not to be silly. Indeed, the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, told President Obama that the Greek leader was a “madman”. Truly, that was the pot calling the kettle noire.
Now, Tsipras wants his own vote. What does he think he is doing? Does he realise that this is not how the eurozone and the European Union work? Who knows what will happen if Greek voters are asked whether they approve of the final offer of new terms from stricken Greece’s creditors. Goodness, the voters might say no. So exasperated were the other Eurogroup leaders that on Saturday they decided that the referendum move means their latest offer is void and Greece is on its own. It looks as though the referendum will go ahead regardless.
That fear of referendums on the part of EU leaders and officials is rooted in bitter experience, of course. The messy attempt to smuggle the integrationist Maastricht Treaty past European electorates in the early Nineties was followed by the long-running wrangle over the abandoned EU constitution and the Lisbon Treaty. Voters are awkward. Sometimes they do not do as they are told by the leaders and officials who do the deals. Why take the risk?
But Tsipras is certainly not mad, or not in the sense that he has lost his marbles. Despite his Marxist beliefs and trainee demagogue antics, there is something rather compelling about the cunning way in which he has handled this crisis and declined to be railroaded by the corporatist EU powers-that-be, even though he has been slapped in the face (literally, last week) by the atrocious Jean Claude Juncker, the president of the EU commission. This is to say nothing of the ineffective behaviour of the over-rated German chancellor, Angela Merkel, cooed over by diplomats and the foreign policy community despite no one ever being able to name a single great achievement or convincing act of leadership in her career other than the knifing of her mentor Helmut Kohl.
But surely the real madmen here are not the Greek Marxists at all. The real madmen are those who created the euro, this cock-eyed construct, who thought political dreams and vanity could trump economic sense and cultural and national differences, by creating a currency union on a vast continent without the necessary safeguards.
Yet instead of facing these realities, and accepting that the EU model as currently constituted has had it, the Europhile leaders intone pompously about European Union values being agelessly sacrosanct. It is as though these men and women believe themselves to be functionaries of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than representatives of a modern botched-together political experiment that was only created in its latest form when German and French politicians misdiagnosed the consequences of the end of the Cold War as recently as 1989 and prescribed the euro.
This weekend, as those in the markets brace for the likelihood of Grexit, and a mammoth default on debts of more than 300 billion euros, it seems likely that Mr Tsipras has wanted Greece out of the eurozone all along, pretending throughout the negotiations that he is trying for an accommodation and debt relief when really he wanted to leave. That is what observers of Syriza, his party, believe.
But Tsipras had a problem when he came to power. Although many Greek voters like his style, they also liked the euro because it meant membership of a supposedly democratic club that confers respectability. That is why he had to be seen to try for a deal, to create the illusion of good faith, so that he can say to the Greek electorate that while he did his best, the wicked architects of austerity – the central bankers and International Monetary Fund (IMF) technocrats who want to make poor Greek pensioners (age: 57) homeless – would not see sense.
Now, Tsipras may win either way. Either the creditors retreat in the next few days, because European financial institutions are exposed and the IMF is looking at a giant hole in its books, thus enabling Syriza to proclaim victory. Or, much more likely, Greece defaults on its debts and reintroduces the drachma as its currency against a backdrop of grievance and anti-German feeling that will serve the Greek Left well for generations to come.
The Greek people certainly won’t be winners, or at least not in the short term. On Saturday they were jogging to their banks in preparation for a full-blown bank run, in the expectation that the government will have to introduce capital controls, restricting the flow of money out of the country. If it does not do this, then the banks will have to close their doors. On Tuesday, Greece will start defaulting on the first chunk of 9.7 billion euros it owes the IMF this year. And that is all before the expected referendum on Sunday, which is a vote on a deal that eurozone finance ministers are declaring void already. What a mess.
Leaving will not be easy, contrary to the predications of British Eurosceptics, or at least not straight away. The experience of previous major defaults and hasty reorganisations suggests that it is extremely difficult to hold down inflation. It is also unlikely that the high-taxing socialist Tsipras will introduce the capitalist policies and reforms that will attract inward investment and grow the economy.
At this late hour, in the final act of the Greek drama, enter David Cameron, like a man who arrives at a pub when the other customers and staff are administering the kiss of life to a regular who has collapsed on the floor next to the bar after consuming way too much ouzo.
Cameron clears his throat and asks if someone wouldn’t mind awfully getting him and his British friends a pint. There is silence, until someone points out that they have their hands full at the moment.
In a similarly fraught atmosphere, Cameron was given a few minutes to read out his proposals for reform to EU leaders last week as they grappled with Greece and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. His demands – on benefits and the promise of a post-dated cheque guaranteeing who knows what from the other countries after the referendum – are pathetically small.
There remains one fascinating other possibility, however, which may get the escapologist Cameron off the hook in that style of his to which we have all become so accustomed. If Greece does leave and the effects are explosive, then it might – just might – finally persuade the Euro elite that their approach is bust, and that what is needed instead is a way for Europeans to trade and be friends without the architecture of an integrationist, incompetent, failed super-state.