By Iain Martin 27 June 2015
With his call for a sudden referendum, Alexis Tsipras outraged Europe’s elites, who detest nothing more than to be reminded of the will of the people
Alexis Tsipras's task is to sell a deal to his restless Left-wing party at home
In the upper reaches of the Euro elite, where leaders are forever driving up to summit meetings in shiny German cars and looking grave and self-important for the cameras, where smooth diplomats know that the way to get business done is to do it discreetly with fellow officials, there is no surer sign that a colleague has gone stark raving mad than him announcing that he is going to hold a referendum on matters European.
It is bad enough that David Cameron has decided to put Britain’s future in the EU to the voters. But at least the UK Prime Minister has given warning several years in advance and has enlisted the support of the British business establishment to win his vote in 2017. By contrast, the Greek leader, Alexis Tsipras, announced on Friday that he wants to hold a referendum in Greece on the Eurozone crisis on July 5.
In the eyes of the Euro elite, this momentous decision made Mr Tsipras the instant winner of the European madman of the year competition. Several years ago, when his now forgotten predecessor in Athens attempted a similar manoeuvre, demanding a public vote, the Germans ordered Georges Papandreou not to be silly. Indeed, the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, told President Obama that the Greek leader was a “madman”. Truly, that was the pot calling the kettle noire.
Now, Mr Tsipras wants his own vote. What does he think he is doing? Does he realise that this is not how the Eurozone and the European Union work? Who knows what will happen if Greek voters are asked whether they approve of the final offer of new terms from stricken Greece’s creditors. Goodness, the voters might say no. So exasperated were the other Euro group leaders that on Saturday they decided that the referendum move means their latest offer is void and Greece is on its own. It looks as though the referendum will go ahead regardless.
That fear of referendums on the part of EU leaders and officials is rooted in bitter experience, of course. The messy attempt to smuggle the integrationist Maastricht Treaty past European electorates in the early Nineties was followed by the long-running wrangle over the abandoned EU constitution and the Lisbon Treaty. Voters are awkward. Sometimes they do not do as they are told by the leaders and officials who do the deals. Why take the risk?
But Mr Tsipras is certainly not mad, or not in the sense that he has lost his marbles. Despite his Marxist beliefs and trainee demagogue antics, there is something rather compelling about the cunning way in which he has handled this crisis and declined to be railroaded by the corporatist EU powers-that-be, even though he has been slapped in the face (literally, last week) by the atrocious Jean Claude Juncker, the president of the EU commission. This is to say nothing of the ineffective behaviour of the over-rated German chancellor, Angela Merkel, cooed over by diplomats and the foreign policy community despite no one ever being able to name a single great achievement or convincing act of leadership in her career other than the knifing of her mentor Helmut Kohl.
Greeks queue outside banks in Athens
But surely the real madmen here are not the Greek Marxists at all. The real madmen are those who created the euro, this cock-eyed construct, who thought political dreams and vanity could trump economic sense and cultural and national differences, by creating a currency union on a vast continent without the necessary safeguards.
Yet instead of facing these realities, and accepting that the EU model as currently constituted has had it, the Europhile leaders intone pompously about European Union values being agelessly sacrosanct. It is as though these men and women believe themselves to be functionaries of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than representatives of a modern botched-together political experiment that was only created in its latest form when German and French politicians misdiagnosed the consequences of the end of the Cold War as recently as 1989 and prescribed the euro.
This weekend, as those in the markets brace for the likelihood of Grexit, and a mammoth default on debts of more than 300 billion euros, it seems likely that Mr Tsipras has wanted Greece out of the Eurozone all along, pretending throughout the negotiations that he is trying for an accommodation and debt relief when really he wanted to leave. That is what observers of Syriza, his party, believe.
But Mr Tsipras had a problem when he came to power. Although many Greek voters like his style, they also liked the euro because it meant membership of a supposedly democratic club that confers respectability. That is why he had to be seen to try for a deal, to create the illusion of good faith, so that he can say to the Greek electorate that while he did his best, the wicked architects of austerity – the central bankers and International Monetary Fund technocrats who want to make poor Greek pensioners (age: 57) homeless – would not see sense.