Tuesday

18th Feb 2020

Opinion

The EU's darkest day

  • "Greece has essentially seen its independence eviscerated" (Photo: Laurent Sauvebois)

Monday July 13 will go down in history as the day Greece lost its independence after 185 years of freedom, the day democracy died in the country that invented it and the day the European Union took a decisive step towards self-destruction.

After almost 20 hours of of browbeating by EU leaders in Brussels – which one senior official compared to “mental waterboarding” – Greece was given a blunt choice: vote through a raft of draconian measures demanded by creditors or leave the Eurozone.

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With banks shut and state coffers empty, prime minister Alexis Tsipras had no option but to accept the deal. But the price will be heavy – for both Greece and the EU.

Greece has essentially seen its independence eviscerated. A state whose motto is ‘Freedom or Death’ and whose national anthem is ‘Hymn to Liberty’ is now little more than a protectorate of the EU. Its parliament no longer has the power to make sovereign decisions about the issues that matter most to its citizens.

Instead, it has two days to vote through a shopping-list of far-reaching reforms mandated by Brussels. Its administration is subordinate to a triumvirate of unelected officials from the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. And billions of euros of assets are to be stripped from the Greek state’s control and placed in a Luxembourg trust fund.

As the summit of Eurozone leaders limped to a conclusion Monday morning, some commentators compared the tortured talks to the Nice Treaty, thrashed out over four days in 2000. In fact, it more resembles the Versailles Treaty, whose punitive terms were imposed on Germany almost a century ago and poisoned international relations for decades after. No wonder officials at the all-night talks variously described Tspiras as looking like a “beaten dog” or “crucified.”

It is possible to argue that Greece deserves this brutal treatment. It fiddled its figures to enter the Eurozone, it failed to implement the reforms it signed up to and its present government has shattered the trust of EU colleagues by its toddler tantrums and reckless risk-taking.

But it is no longer possible to argue that Greece remains a sovereign state.

For decades, EU cheerleaders have argued that membership of the EU is about pooling sovereignty, not losing it. This has now been exposed as a charade – as European Parliament President Martin Schulz admitted when explaining Greek hesitations about handing over assets to a foreign-based fund. “It is of course a question of relinquishing sovereignty,” he said.

Nor is it possible to argue that Greece remains a democracy as most Europeans understand the term.

Democracy, from the Greek word ‘demos’, means ‘rule of the people.’ In January, Greek voters gave a clear mandate to the leftist Syriza party to oppose EU-imposed austerity measures and reconfirmed this in a referendum on a proposed bailout package last week.

Ignore these votes, as EU leaders blatantly did Monday, and you ignore the will of the Greek people and sacrifice national democracy at the altar of European integration. Frogmarch elected politicians to vote through measures they oppose – as Greek MPs will later this week – and you make a mockery of a proud parliament.

Of course, Greece has obligations as a EU and Eurozone member – just as the governments of the other 27 member states have obligations to their electorates. But what is the point of holding national elections if results can be vetoed at the European level – as Irish voters discovered twice in the past? And what is the purpose of national parliaments and governments when they no longer have the power to decide their own policies or budgets?

Federalists like the European Parliament’s Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt said Monday that the lesson from the Greek crisis is a “currency union without a political union isn't sustainable.” He is probably right.

But saving the Eurozone by creating a fiscal, economic and political union will lead to the end of the European Union as we know it.

The EU will split in two if anything like a United States of Europe is created. On the one side will be Eurozone members like Germany, France and Italy with common taxation policies, budgets, ministers and possibly armies. On the other will be countries like Britain, Sweden and Denmark, which will still follow most EU laws but retain their independence.

Needless to say, a divided Europe will be a weaker Europe when it comes to tackling pressing problems like standing up to a resurgent Russia or handling mass migration in the Mediterranean.

There is little evidence from the last two decades that the massive transfer of powers from nation states to the EU has made the Union better able to project power on the world stage or provide greater prosperity for its citizens. In fact, the euro – which was supposed to bind Europeans together, has ended up tearing them apart. And far from creating a European people with a common identity, tighter integration has lead to a backlash from populist parties representing the antithesis of the European dream.

Straightjacketing states in a political and economic union would exacerbate this trend. Remove the rights of peoples and states to decide how much they spend on schools, hospitals and pensioners or how they guard their borders, tax their citizens and defend their territories and national identities will get bruised, resentment towards political elites will rise and the desire for self-determination will become unstoppable.

In the past, imposing artificial constructs on disparate peoples has ended in failure or disaster and there is no reason to think it will be any different in a United States of Europe.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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