As the Wall Street Journal's Terence Roth puts it
in a great explainer on the surprise development, "Referendums are
anathema in [EU capital city] Brussels, where scripted summits and handed-down directives
are more the style than popular votes and their messy democratic
plagued the European supranational structure for years. In 2000, a referendum in Denmark rejected the euro. In 2001, Ireland held a referendum on approving a treaty to reform the European Union, which failed with a shockingly low turnout (the treaty was later approved).* A new EU
constitution -- "three years in the making," the BBC reminds us -- was
scuttled in 2005 after failing to win referenda in France and the
Netherlands. More recently, Ireland failed to
ratify the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. After some modifications, it passed
on the second go-round.
If the nation-state is fading, how are such obvious exercises of popular -- and popular national -- sovereignty as these referenda still bringing integration projects, and even rescue projects,
to a halt? Of course, proponents of the end-of-nation-state theory
might answer that there is bound to be some back-and-forth on the way
to the future: sovereignty is the clear issue in supranational
transitions, and while national sovereignty is well-established, we've
yet to see a workable mode of supranational sovereignty emerge.
debate we have even in the U.S., for example whenever binding
international treaties on carbon emissions come up. It seems that Americans -- and particularly Americans in the government -- aren't
too keen on giving enforcement rights to anyone other than the American government.
It's also why the UN often has so much trouble with enforcement. It's fine when some
international institution is making it easier for corporations to
work across borders, or telling someone else to do something. It starts looking like less of a great idea when it's telling you to do something.
And that brings us back to Greece. As discussed in a previous post
the Greek fiscal situation was probably never really what it was
supposed to be as a condition of joining the euro zone. Greece has always had a very low score on one of the crucial
measures of sovereignty at the national level: the power to levy taxes.
If you buy Michael Lewis's story in his new book Boomerang
, taxes just
aren't taken that seriously in Greece; fraud and evasion abounds.
Papandreou came into power on a reform platform, but Greek citizens
have been absolutely enraged by the sheer size of budget cuts during
his tenure, often being pressed upon Greece by its European de facto
bankers (Germany). Here, then, is Terence Roth's succinct summary
the rationale for the referendum:
Calls for new elections are rife, with the opposition parties pushing hard to topple Mr. Papandreou's government.
solution was to call the bluff by offering what effectively is a vote
on whether or not to stay in the euro. Polls show that while more than
half of Greek voters hate the reform programs after four years of
recession and mass layoffs, three out of four want to remain in the
In a way, it's not surprising Papandreou resorted to this earlier method of
establishing legitimacy and organizing populations. The standard refrain in the media is that the economic
problems of the past few years have exposed the problems already
present in a variety of institutions, not least the euro zone and the
EU, which was always a little ungainly. Crisis can pull people
together, but it can also highlight structural weakness.
another theory to float, though, and that is that economic troubles
themselves are causing the backlash, or at least exacerbating backlash
that always comes when new forms of social organization
(supranationalism, for example) are being instituted. Harvard economist
Benjamin Friedman has argued, for example in his Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,
that increasing tolerance and inter-group cooperation is linked to
economic expansion. When economic growth slows or stagnates -- or, worse,
an economy actually contracts -- factionalism is pretty much guaranteed.
Old solidarity lines reemerge, whether in increased attendance at
religious ceremonies, upticks in racial violence, or simply greater relevance of
identity politics. It's an idea that seems to be common sense, and
certainly that's the way it's treated in practice: remember all the
warnings against protectionism as we plunged into recession? Free trade
tends to be off the agenda when unemployment is high. It's not
surprising that supranationalism would be politically unpopular as well.
level of individual narrative, this Greek referendum still looks
bonkers. Papandreou could have made himself even more
vulnerable with this referendum idea -- certainly his party isn't pleased. Greece's financial
situation is obviously now in even greater jeopardy. And the other European countries are,
after all that work and pledges of money, understandably outraged. From
certain more academic perspectives, though, perhaps even the
out-of-fashion Durkheimian view of society as a independent,
self-replicating organism, it makes a lot of sense. And either way, as
a test case for those theories or just a potential trainwreck in slow
motion, it's riveting.
* -- This article originally stated that a 2001 Irish referendum rejected joining the European Union. In fact, that referendum rejected the Treaty of Nice, which reformed the EU. Ireland has been a member since 1973. We regret the error.