Why a Greek No Should Lead to a British Yes

News Abroad
tags: EU, Grexit

Luke Reader received a Ph.D. in History from University of California, Irvine.  He has published on the imperial policy of the Labour Party and on the BBC.  He has taught at John Carroll University, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica College, and Saddleback College and was formerly a press officer in the UK Civil Service.

It has been an extraordinary few hours in Europe.  Greece has decisively rejected the package of debt relief, austerity budget measures, and economic reforms imposed by its creditors, the so-called troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF.  Those opposed to the European Union (EU) seem to be reveling in a moment of schadenfreude.  This has been particularly pronounced in Britain, which faces a referendum on EU membership in 2016 or 2017.  Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP), delightedly acclaimed the Greek vote for rejecting the principle of European unity.  Yet Eurosceptics would do well to emulate Virgil and remain suspicious of Greeks bearing gifts.

From the British perspective, EU conduct toward Greece has created strange bedfellows. Eurosceptics in UKIP and the right wing of the Conservative Party decry EU bureaucracy for stifling markets.  Greens and those on the left of the Labour Party, like leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn, lament the assault on workers rights and social policies in Greece and beyond by EU economic policies.  Both arguments draw upon longstanding complaints of a European Union unwilling to listen to reason, and more than happy to enforce its will on member nations by fiat.

Yet the situation in Greece differs wholly from that in Britain. The Greek No campaign had vociferous support from the nation’s two leading politicians, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.  By contrast, those supporting the measures put in place by the troika had little credibility.  In Britain, it is those opposed to the EU who lack authority. The three main political parties – Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – all support a referendum on continued membership of the European Union, if only to defuse an issue that has bedeviled political life for three decades.  At the same, most politicians and three quarters of the public wish to remain part of the EU.  Anti-EU politicians are marginal figures.  Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to UKIP as “closeted racists,” while in 2013 a senior Conservative characterized the Eurosceptic right of the party as “swivel eyed loons.” 

Secondly, there are limited opportunities for a new political party like Syriza to emerge in Britain.  The first past the post system used in British elections favors established parties, making it difficult for protest movements to make a breakthrough at the ballot box.  In the 2015 general election UKIP and the Green Party won 12.6% and 3.8% of all votes, but received only one MP each.  By contrast, the Scottish National Party won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland despite winning just over half of the vote there, while the Conservatives won an absolutely majority of seats with just over 36% of the national vote.  Proportional representation holds out the possibility of a much more vibrant political scene by granting seats based on the number of votes received.  This allows for the emergence of flexible movements that can respond to changing economic and political circumstances.  For example, Syriza translated its capture of anti-austerity sentiment on the Greek streets after the economic collapse of 2008 into success in the polling booth in January of this year

Finally, the consequences of austerity in Greece should give British Eurosceptics pause.  Since 2008, the Greek economy has been reduced in size by 25%, while the youth unemployment rate stands at 60%.  Most of the money lent to Greece has gone to the banks rather than the Greek people.  Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz explain that while Greek debt is not historically significant, the economy of Greece has been sacrificed for an ideological point that even the IMF admits has failed.  While Varoufakis heralded the democratic statement made on July 5 by the Greek people, members of the EU continue to threaten Greece unless the financial terms imposed by the troika are adhered to.  The consequences of the troika’s actions have been disastrous.  Bullying rhetoric, failure to consider debt relief, and the dismissal of the wishes of Greek voters imperil the project of European unity that has kept the peace on a fractious continent for almost seventy years. 

If economic catastrophe were to strike, Britain outside of the EU would be just as vulnerable as Greece.  In the EU at least, Britain is protected by size.  In 2014, the European Union economy was worth 13.9 trillion Euros.  Britain accounted for 2.2 trillion Euros of this total, roughly 16%.  By contrast, the Greek economy was worth just 179 billion Euros or less than 1.5% of the EU total.  While the UK has the world’s fifth largest economy, its economy is worth less than 3% of the global total.  Shorn of the relative security granted by its size in the European Union, where could Britain turn to for protection if economic collapse occurred in the wake of withdrawal from the EU?  Size matters.  Compare the bailout granted Spain and Italy in 2012 with the conditions faced by Greece.  And if that does not prove the point sufficiently, consider the debt relief and bailout granted Germany in 1953, funded in part by Greece. 

The idea that a Greek no supports a British withdrawal from the EU could not be further from the truth.  Eurosceptics might be enjoying the latest crisis in Europe, but pragmatism should trump belief.  The problems of Greece within the EU simply reflect those Britain could face on the global stage.  If the Greek referendum has significance for those thinking about Britain’s place in the European Union, it should be to confirm the virtue of remaining a part of that organization.

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