The grand project of European Union bureaucrats — bringing the united continent under ever tighter centralized control exercised from the EU capital of Brussels — is the real sick man of Europe.
Greece has closed its banks for at least a week, banned the cashing of checks, halted almost all payments outside the country, and limited the amount of money that an individual can withdraw from an ATM to $66 per day.
All of this came after the European Central Bank ended more emergency loans needed to keep the Greek banking system afloat. That move was in retaliation for the decision by the far-left Greek government to reject new bank-bailout terms from its creditors and instead call a referendum on July 5. On that day, the Greek people will be asked to make a choice: either “surrender” and give in to cuts in pensions and higher taxes or refuse and perhaps be forced to exit the euro and go back to a depreciated drachma as their national currency.
There will be endless discussion about who bears the most blame for the Greek crisis: a series of profligate Greek governments that often veered into outright corruption or the euro-zone governments that allowed Greece to borrow at artificially low interest rates while they overlooked the obviously flawed statistics touting the health of the Greek economy.
I gave a series of lectures in Greece in May and am certainly not going to defend the magical thinking of many Greeks or their incompetent leftish government when it comes to economics. But let me say something in defense of Greece. Echoing my NRO colleague Andrew Stuttaford, I note that at least the Greeks are letting their people have a direct say in their future — a fitting move given that Greece gave birth to the democratic ideal.
The bureaucrats in Brussels and their counterparts in Europe’s national governments are furious with the Greeks for daring to consult their own people. Daniel Hannan, a British member of the European parliament, sarcastically tweeted, “Calling a referendum is, to Eurocrats, the most offensive thing a politician can do.” Stripped of their veneer, Eucrocrats’ arguments against all referendums amount to saying that referendums are a bad idea because they shift power from small cliques of unelected but wise rulers to an unsophisticated, nationalistic mob that might fall prey to populism, scare stories, and tabloid headlines.
Hannan, familiar to National Review readers as one of his country’s most articulate conservatives, wrote to me today, saying that while the Greek tragedy will cause much unneeded pain, it also provides a valuable lesson about the perils of ever greater political centralization:
We can see, in Greece, how the EU project ends: in the almost total control of a country’s affairs by Brussels. Greeks now have a chance — as Britons soon will — to opt instead for independence. We have been told for decades that European integration was necessary to our economic well-being. When the euro was launched, the European Commission solemnly assured us that it would add an extra 1 percent of annual growth to every participating economy in perpetuity. As Sarah Palin might put it, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?”
It’s not as if European voters have been blindly following their Brussels “betters” in pursuing unity at all costs and against common sense. In 2005, a new EU constitution, which aimed to centralize the continent under a “president” of Europe, was heavily rejected, first by a referendum in France, then by a Dutch referendum. Andrew Duff, a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, gave voice to many of his colleagues when he ridiculed opponents of the proposed EU constitution as “an odd bunch of racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, the disappointed centre left, and the generally pissed off.” Duff said it was unwise to “submit the EU constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites.” After all, that would be democracy.
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The EU shrugged off the French and Dutch defeats and proceeded to produce the Lisbon Treaty, another governing document that differed only in very minor details from the rejected one — but this time, the document wouldn’t be trusted to most voters. The Irish government, however, followed its laws and allowed its citizens to vote on the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum in 2008 — and voters rejected the treaty. EU bureaucrats dismissed the result as the work of “populist demagogues” and forced the Irish — with a combination of threats and virtual bribes — to vote again on the issue. The second time, the EU prevailed.
Bureaucrats ignored all warning signals that the EU and the euro were on a dangerous path — and here we are, enmeshed in the Greek crisis.
Bureaucrats ignored all warning signals that the EU and the euro were on a dangerous path — and here we are, enmeshed in the Greek crisis. Once again the Eurocrats in Brussels remain defiantly unaccountable. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch minister who chairs the Eurogroup monitoring the crisis, just announced that his group would hold “a meeting of the 18” — the Eurogroup without Greece. According to a Greek witness, when Dijsselbloem was asked how such a meeting could make decisions, he answered, “We can do what we like since we are an ad hoc body.”
No one should pretend that the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, called a referendum out of a sincere belief that the voters should be consulted. The Greek Communist newspaper Rizopastis, which opposes holding a referendum and is urging voters to spoil their ballots, properly points out that he is trying to avoid responsibility for making any decision. Indeed, Tsipris is clearly a shameless, opportunistic politician. He opposed a similar referendum when former center-left Greek prime minister George Papandreou proposed it in 2011.
But for all the perfidy of the Greek government, it is, at least in its moment of crisis, returning to the roots of the democratic ideal: that it is the people, not experts or elites or aristocrats, who should have the ultimate say on those matters that must ultimately be settled politically. Here’s hoping the Greeks wake up their fellow Europeans to the fact that if they want to ensure a prosperous and free Europe for their children, politics is too important to be left to non-transparent Eurocrats.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.