Lessons for the UK from the Greek referendum


Picture of Richard Rose
Richard Rose

The Greek referendum offers four lessons in how not to conduct a national referendum about a country’s relationship with the European Union. The British government’s handling of a referendum on the country’s continued EU membership shows that it has not yet fully learned three of these lessons.

1.Make the question clear. The 74-word question put before the Greek electorate was convoluted and opaque. Greeks were asked if they approved documents written in English by bankers and lawyers and past their sell-by date when the vote was held. The UK referendum bill now in Parliament is not Greek to British voters. The question posed is clear: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? The alternative answers are yes or no.

2. Don’t rush the vote. The Greek referendum was announced by its prime minister only nine days before the vote was held. Hoping to build on his general election victory, Downing Street is promoting the prospect of a ballot on EU membership being held next spring. However, David Cameron has made clear that the referendum should be on terms that he promises to negotiate with the European Union in the months ahead.

Downing Street’s desire to hold a referendum before the government loses its popularity is inconsistent with the slow tempo at which discussions normally proceed in Brussels. Moreover, saving the eurozone is now the first priority and dealing with a threatened Grexit (Greek exit from the EU) has greater priority than Brexit (British exit). For the British government to ignore how Brussels reacts to demands from a single national government is a recipe for frustration or worse.

3. One country’s vote on EU policy does not bind other EU member states. Alexis Tsipras justified his referendum on the grounds that the Greek people have a democratic right to be consulted on an agreement with the EU. However, he ignored the fact that the democratically elected governments of the other 18 eurozone countries must also approve any agreement with Greece for it to be binding.

Backbench Tory MPs can bind the Prime Minister to seek the return of EU powers to Britain, but they cannot bind 27 other national governments and supranational EU officials. Measures such as a reduction in regulatory red tape are negotiable. However demands to rewrite European Union treaties to restrict immigration from the continent or abandon the symbolic commitment to an ever closer Union politically impossible. The Prime Minister will need to rely on smoke and mirrors if he wants to claim that powers he brings back from Brussels are sufficient to make sceptical Tory MPs endorse what he has achieved.

4. From referendum to neverendum. Sunday’s ballot will not end Greek’s economic crisis: it will just open up another Pandora’s box, the contents of which will dictate how European and global institutions deal with Greece.

Holding a referendum before EU institutions have the time and inclination to undertake major alterations in their powers means that at best many British demands will be in limbo when a vote is called. At best, there will be agreements to hold discussions in which all member states can press for reforms or oppose them, as their national governments choose. A vote to stay in the EU would be followed by Tory candidates to succeed David Cameron as prime minister claiming they could achieve more than he has to reduce the EU’s influence on Westminster. If the outcome is a vote to withdraw from the EU, this will not settle the issue. Instead, it will lead to years of uncertainty while negotiations proceed with the EU about how UK could continue to enjoy benefits of EU membership and what obligations the EU would impose on the UK as a non-member state in association with it.

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