Today Greeks hold in their hands not only the fate of a nation, but also the future of the fragile project of European unification. A Yes will mean more years of crushing austerity and external rule. But Wolfgang Schäuble will not be around forever and the consequences of a No are far too serious to take the risk. By Benjamin Zeeb
So, it has finally come to this. On Sunday Greeks will cast their ballots in one of the most momentous decisions in Europe’s modern history. One way of seeing this is as a rare example of democracy really working the way it is supposed to: not through the machinations of an opaque bureaucracy, not mediated by often-corrupted politicians, not dependent on a shaky parliamentary majority. The people will decide and their voice, whatever the outcome, it’s guaranteed to be heard. A Greek No to the Eurogroup’s proposal will greatly increase the probability of the country’s exit from the Eurozone. It will plunge Greece and Europe into chaos, it will put an end to the failed austerity policies, it will severely and likely irreversibly weaken the ties that bind us together. A Yes will mean the single currency survives for now. Greece will – at least for the time being – continue to be subjected to what it rightly perceives as external rule. An economic policy that has failed to yield any positive results will be continued, but the European project will live to fight another day.
The Greek people’s voice has returned to the European stage. We welcome it. But with this opportunity comes great responsibility. After years of disenfranchisement under the Troika’s heel, the tables have turned. In the coming referendum a population of just over 11 million people (or 3% of the Eurozone’s inhabitants) will punch above its weight – to an astonishing extent.
Come Sunday, Greeks hold in their hands not only the fate of a nation, but also the future of the fragile project of European unification. When Angela Merkel said again today that a failure of the common currency is equal to a failure of Europe, she wasn’t exaggerating. Granted, the Eurozone won’t come to an end immediately. The immediate descent into chaos Greeks will experience in case of a No-vote will not be replicated instantaneously across the Union. But a Eurozone member leaving – and one of the most important in geostrategic as well as cultural terms at that – will send us all on a trajectory towards division that will be very hard, if not impossible, to turn around.
Apart from that, little good will come out of leaving for Greece. We don’t have to talk about the immediate consequences. There is no question they will be devastating. What has happened in Cyprus, where the economy has made little to no progress since long-term capital controls were instituted, will look like a non-event in comparison.
So how about a little further down the road? Proponents of Grexit both on the German and the Greek sides say that leaving the common currency also presents Greeks with an opportunity. In this scenario, Greece regains its competitiveness and returns to growth through the devaluation of its new currency. This is not completely untrue. The goal here is to make Greece more economical, and a cheaper currency would probably do the trick. But think about what that means: many of the imported goods you now use routinely will become a lot more expensive. Everything from air conditioners to laptops, from furniture to clothing could be marked up as much as 100%. Devaluation works, because it succeeds in a more radical way than the European programmes ever could in making your labor, your real estate and the goods you produce cheaper. Exiting the Eurozone you might be able to shake the Troika’s impositions, but you won’t escape the underlying goal of its policies, which was ultimately to repress wages and prices in Greece far enough for investment to return. You will out-Troika the Troika and the only goods that will be affordable to regular Greeks will be those produced at home, all while staying dependent on now expensive imports.
In the long run, even the positive effects of gained competitiveness pail in the face of the dire consequences faced by both Greece and Europe as a whole after you leave us.
All efforts to reform governance in Greece will have been in vain: ridding the country of corruption, improving attitudes towards taxation, building the structures necessary for a modern body politic like a functioning land registry office, a national health service that really deserves the name, the accountability of regional politics – all of this is hard and little progress has been made so far. It will be that much harder to accomplish all this outside the Eurozone.
As time passes, it is likely that the old structures that so paralyzed Greece under the Papandreou and Karamanlis clans’ rule will again raise their ugly heads. At the same time immigration from across the Mediterranean will continue to overcharge your borders, bringing a strain on population and resources that is almost insurmountable for the Greek state alone.
Unprotected by its association with Europe, Greece will become a plaything on a global stage, not only to European interests, but also to Chinese, American, and especially Russian ambitions. If you think you have given up too much sovereignty now, you have no idea what is waiting for you outside of the House of Europe.
Finally please consider this: by voting No you would do a great disservice to Europe as whole, in one stroke you could gamble away all we together could soon achieve. Remember, Schäuble will not be here forever! And neither will the economic ideology that currently rules the Eurozone. The single currency is deeply flawed. It cannot and will not continue existing unchanged.
You know of course that it is not only Greece facing economic hardship to the point of near breakdown. Portugal is in a similar position, and when Greece leaves it will quickly take its place as the weakest link in the chain. The logic of relative competitiveness, that turns weaker members – trapped in the single currency with Germany and other northern economic powerhouses – into constant candidates for attack, will continue on. Irrespective of whether you leave or not, we will have to change the way the single currency works. For if we don’t, after Portugal has left and after Spain has given up, it will be Italy’s turn, and on and on.
Staying in the Eurozone, therefore, does not necessarily mean staying in the Eurozone as it is right now. There is another way and we need your help, the help of those who best know the errors of our current system, to transform it into something that does justice to the European promise. You shouldn’t deny yourselves – especially the younger generations – the possibility be part of the stronger, more unified and truly democratic Europe that will eventually emerge from this crisis.
So please have a little more patience, endure the hardships for a little longer. Don’t gamble away Europe’s future in the heat of the moment. Vote Yes on Sunday. We know it’s a lot to ask: Μείνετε σας παρακαλούμε!
Image ‘Athens’ courtesy of Juan Salmora ´lvia Flickr, released under Creative Commons