One of the ways that Greece’s Alexis Tspiras offended the European Union’s natural order this week was by seeking to create a rendezvous with destiny: A vote on July 5 that would, in effect, determine the boundaries of the eurozone.
Some of the shock felt in Brussels can be put down to wounded amour-propre — a feeling of personal rejection. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, spoke of being “betrayed”. But there was also outrage at a breach of etiquette. Prime Minister Tsipras had broken the rule dear to most bureaucracies: Everything should be open to postponement. In the EU, deadlines are not dead at all: They are alive and therefore flexible. And, for the past five years, Greece has dutifully accepted this modus operandi, failing to meet deadlines that have repeatedly been pushed back.
But Tsipras’s announcement early last Saturday morning of a snap referendum defied the principle of perpetual procrastination. At a mere one week’s notice, it fixed a moment of decision (assuming he goes through with it, as he repeated he would on Wednesday). The EU is most uncomfortable with such appointments, much preferring to fix its moments of history far in advance, so that when they arrive they are sparse on spontaneity, though replete with choreographed photocalls and stultifying speechmaking. Some of the dates that fit this model are January 1, 1999 (creation of the euro); January 1, 2002 (introduction of euro notes and coins); May 1, 2004 (EU enlargement from 15 to 25 states); and January 1, 2007 (Romania and Bulgaria join the EU, Slovenia joins the eurozone).
In national politics, there are moments that qualify for the question “Where were you when … ?” They may not be of such world-shaking magnitude as the assassination of JFK, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the assault on the World Trade Center, but they are still moments of electrifying uncertainty that have the power to bring down individuals, topple governments and destroy businesses.
I still remember where I was when I heard of the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, for instance. More recent examples from British politics, for instance, would be the suicide in July 2003 of David Kelly, a government scientist who had investigated Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; the September 2007 run on the Northern Rock building society; the News of the World phone-tapping scandal that broke in July 2011.
From Belgian politics, one might cite the prison escape in April 1998 of child-abductor and murderer Marc Dutroux, the broadcast by the francophone television channel RTBF of “Bye, Bye Belgium?” a spoof account of Flemish secession in 2006, and the following year a parliamentary committee’s vote on the Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district. In Italian politics, almost all such moments of recent years would feature Silvio Berlusconi. In Ireland, they usually include politicians and real estate developers.
The politics of the European Union, on the other hand, are constructed in a way that makes unlikely such “Where were you when?” moments. Decision-making is so protracted and rests with so many different parties that it might have been designed expressly to defuse the tension and drain the drama. There is no unitary EU government that can be forced to resign or defeated at a single election. And, just as importantly, the attention of the public is rarely united across Europe on the EU.
A moment of rare EU drama
There have been occasional exceptions. On the night of March 15, 1999, the European Commission that had been led by Jacques Santer resigned en masse. The episode has gone down in history as a coming-of-age for the Parliament and has shaped subsequent relations between the Parliament and the Commission, but the irony is that it came about precisely because the EU had sought to avoid a defining moment. After a succession of scandals about the Commission, which the MEPs (heading towards an election) felt they could not ignore, the Parliament threatened a censure motion, and then, by way of retreat, referred the matter for a report from a committee of “wise persons.” This hackneyed bureaucratic trick backfired when the report was published two months later and found to contain the line: “It is becoming difficult to find anyone [in the Commission] who has the slightest sense of responsibility.…” Since Edith Cresson, the commissioner who was principally at fault, refused to sacrifice herself, the more politically aware among the college of commissioners concluded that staying in office was not an option and they resigned. It was a moment of rare EU drama, though less dramatic in the cold light of morning when it emerged that the commissioners had to stay in office until a replacement college was approved, which turned out to be a further six months.
As Karl Marx observed on the recurrence of events and people in history: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.” John Dalli’s resignation from the European Commission in October 2012 was an extraordinary event for those who follow the EU — a “Where were you when?” moment — since it was the first time an individual commissioner had ever been forced out. But not many people outside Malta or Brussels had heard of Dalli, or cared about his fate.
In autumn 2004, the European Parliament threatened to withhold its approval of the commissioners assembled by President José Manuel Barroso, objecting particularly to the candidacy of Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione. The reckoning was put off: Barroso postponed the vote and Italy put forward another candidate. The pattern was repeated five years later when MEPs objected to Bulgaria’s Rumiana Juleva and last year when Alenka Bratušek was replaced by Violeta Bulc.
This is the EU’s established practice: Confrontations can be created, but there must be an exit route. Whatever the public declarations to the contrary, there is usually a Plan B. That is, for instance, how things turned out when, in quick succession, first the French and then the Dutch rejected the EU’s constitutional treaty in their respective referendums (May 29 and June 1, 2005). After what was billed as a “period of reflection,” the constitutional treaty was withdrawn, though much of it resurfaced in revised form as the Lisbon treaty, which had its own difficult dates — particularly with the voters of Ireland and the Czech president — but took effect on December 1, 2009.
These experiences have taught the EU to distrust referendums, because experience has shown that the results are uncontrollable and the consequences hard to manage. So in calling a referendum for this Sunday, Tsipras was triggering synapses inside the EU’s nervous system that have been trained to recognize referendums as disasters-in-the-making. His additional references to Greece as “the cradle of democracy” were bound to overload the EU’s emotional circuitry.
What follows from all this is a disconnect between the enormity of the events unfolding in Greece and the EU’s addiction to a managerial approach, which dictates that it will sidestep any rendezvous with destiny.
A promise of Martin Schulz
Most people in and around the EU’s decision-making circles are aware that deep and troubling questions are at stake that go beyond questions of arithmetic or accountancy. To what extent is the EU a transfer union? Is the old trade-off between cohesion and creating a single market null and void? Is it possible to disassemble the eurozone? Is the EU about to discover a reverse gear? These are not trivial or managerial questions. Yet the EU is ill-equipped to confront them and much less to get involved in some of the other questions that have been raised during recent months: Whether Germany owes Greece reparations for its Nazi occupation, for example, or how to apportion responsibility for Greece’s admission into the Eurozone in 2001.
Beyond the journalists’ stash of clichés about Greek drama and Greek democracy lies a difficult truth: That for its part the EU is often unable to conjure up the drama or the democracy that would do justice to what is at stake. Juncker’s passionate don’t-blame-me account of the negotiations, and a promise from Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, to go campaigning in Greece for a ‘Yes’ vote, simply do not meet the need. Nor does passing the decision-making to Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank or Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund. If we do, as seems likely, come to look back on July 5 as a defining moment in the EU’s history, it will not be because the EU’s leadership wanted it, but because Tsipras made it so.
Tim King is a contributing writer at POLITICO.
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