Referendums: A Greek-British Affair


I have written many articles expressing the relationship between Greece and the United Kingdom. But I have never formerly mentioned the elephant in the room – the two countries past experiences with referendums.

Greece has recently elected a new government and conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and with this Greek citizens decided to reject the past populist and socialist incumbent Alexis Tsipras. In contrast, we have the imminent departure of British Prime Minister Theresa May and the real possibility of Boris Johnson leading a hard Brexit government.

Both countries have had their politics changed mostly due to the result of referendums, but I want to give some reflection on the experiences both have endured as a result.

Greeks elected SYRIZA with the mandate to fight austerity and provide an alternative to the Conservative government implementing troika demands. However, nobody could have conceived the surprise referendum called by Tsipras asking Greeks to decide whether to say OXI (NO) or NAI (YES) to EU bailout terms that would have helped rescue Greece from the crisis it engulfed itself in. The result of OXI presented a reflection of what Greeks entrusted SYRIZA to do – that was to fight against more austerity measures and hopefully come out on top. But what was clear in the aftermath, was that Tsipras was uneasy executing the decision of the Greek people. Tsipras did not want the responsibility and legacy of bankrupting Greece or even exiting Greece from the Euro.

Equally, we have Britain – that bastion of intelligent diplomacy and envy of the world – fighting an election under Prime Minister David Cameron with the key promise of a referendum to decide whether the U.K. remains in or leaves the EU. After winning the election with even more seats and forming a majority, the campaign started with David Cameron declaring his intention to remain a member. He probably never thought the British people would vote to leave the EU, and the issue remains as controversial today as when the former PM was in office.

Both nations have clearly displayed the commonality, that calling a referendum is the least of the problem. The problem is with the aftermath, coming in the form of executing a result you never expected to win and having to go down a path as a politician you know will be toxic. Greece’s relationship with Europe was never worse than when Varoufakis insisted with EU bureaucrats that they must respect the will of the people. And for Britain, their relationship with Europe was heavily strained when earlier this year the British government clearly expressed the possibility of a No Deal. At the end of all this, SYRIZA and Tsipras fell flat on their faces losing the trust of the Greek people and thus proving that populism of the left can overpromise and underdeliver. Thus, the result for Greece here was an even worse bailout agreement and a new Conservative government that will have to pick up the pieces of the past.

For Britain, this isn’t a closed chapter, if anything the chapter is still to be determined. The referendum over there has divided people into remain and leave camps, and the uncertainty caused for ordinary business and individuals who can’t plan ahead means that faith in British politics is slowly worsening. We now find ourselves in a new situation, with a prime minister on her way out, and a new one that will take the nation to the edge. There is talk of an early general election before the year-end, and once again this will be a reflection of the Brexit sentiments of the nation… leavers will probably vote Conservative, but those who want to remain in the EU will probably vote Liberal Democrat.

Overall, there is a pain in referendums, and there is never a winner in the referendum game. Tsipras failed, and Greece is now turning a new chapter, but Britain is still stuck in 2016 and that referendum will stick around until it either is completed or stopped altogether.

I imagine if former PMS’s Tsipras and Cameron asked to comment on referendums now they would say something like….don’t bother, it’s not worth it.