Not understanding Greece

Two images of anti-austerity protests in Greece in 2010 and 2011
2011 protests in Greece, from the Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE: April 2022. It’s kind of embarrassing reading this 11 year-old blog post now. It seems callous and ignorant. But then thinking about it, the post dates from before we knew the extent of the brutalisation of the Greek people that the ‘troika’ had in mind, before we understood the EU elite’s readiness to visit essentially unlimited suffering on the people of a member nation in order to protect the ‘integrity’ of the currency and the legitimacy of the ruling powers and from four years before the extraordinary referendum in which Greeks courageously voted against austerity and immiseration (only to have both imposed on them anyway).

This crisis (I’ll call it that. There are better words but this one has a Greek origin) makes you think doesn’t it? It makes you think, among other things, about what a country is, how we see other countries, how they see us. For example, the massive, inarticulate bloody-mindedness of the Greek protestors looks, well, bloody-minded. Also hopeless, doomed, pathetic (in the strict sense). But similar protests here in Britain look more complex, less random, less counterproductive (also more polite, of course – the Greeks look less inclined to line their tents up tidily when asked).

But there’s the point, of course. My perception of the Greeks in crisis is faulty – partial, unhelpful. And it’s likely that the Greek perspective on the British response to the crisis and on our rather decorous ‘occupy’ movement (feature in yesterday’s Standard about an occupy protester who commutes from her tent to a job at Harper’s Bazaar) is just as screwed up.

So, whatever you say about the decades of ‘creeping federalism’, one thing it hasn’t achieved is any measure of mutual understanding between the partner nations.

For all our economic interdependence and our unlimited interconnection, we know as little about each other as we did when the ‘European project’ was mostly about not being eaten by a bear while foraging for berries in the great continental forest.

And anyway, these countries we’re obsessed with are probably the wrong unit of human culture to be thinking about. Jane Jacobs, brilliant urbanist and self-taught economist of cities (also a kind of neoliberal siren, adored by localists, communitarians and globalising predators), was convinced that the deepening decline she observed in the developed economies up till her death in 1984 (that’s the decline that we thought was gone for good until about three years ago) was the result of our fixation on the nation state.

Nations are political and military entities, and so are blocs of nations. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for the rise and decline of wealth. Indeed the failure of national governments and blocs of nations to force economic life to do their bidding suggests some form of essential irrelevance. It also affronts common sense, if nothing else, to think of units as disparate as, say, Singapore and the United States, or Ecuador and the Soviet Union, or the Netherlands and Canada, as economic common denominators. All they really have in common is the political fact of sovereignty.

From Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life

It looks like tieing together a bloc of impossibly different nations – nations which were already arbitrary fusions of regional and city economies – to make a continuous economic entity has failed, producing the ghastly brutalisation and immiseration of the Greek people by the Euro-elite and now the desparate fantasy that going back to the old, equally irrelevant national sovereignties will in some way help.

Explaining the inexplicable

Tories, pop media and now Labour rebels want us to vote on a European Treaty that’s barely readable, largely incomprehensible and hardly consequential. Why?

UK Legislators have got the referendum bug again. Nothing wrong with that: asking your electorate to decide on really big questions has a long and noble history. This referendum, though, if it happens, will be a travesty of democracy. The problem is that no one in the electorate understands the treaty we’re asked to vote on (I blogged about this before).

The Lisbon Treaty is not wicked or dangerous. It won’t undermine our democracy and it won’t smear the States of old Europe into a single, continent-wide suburb of Brussels. It is a mess, though: it’s shabby, incoherent and compromised. The whole thing feels arbitrary and reeks of political contingency. People close to its drafting have even said that it’s been written in this awkward, occluded way deliberately because the lofty, Napoleonic terms of the constitution it replaces obviously stuck in the throats of quite a lot of ordinary Europeans.

And it’s on this compromised, difficult document that the Tories (and their new friends on the Labour back benches) want us to vote. They want us to absorb and understand the European Treaty which, in its amended form runs to over 330 pages. This, of course, is ridiculous. It’s worse: it’s anti-democratic. It says “screw democracy. We’re looking for some short-term electoral advantage.”

The Liberals, it pains me to say, have responded to this difficulty in a rather creative way. They say we shouldn’t be required to vote on the treaty itself but rather on the simpler (and obviously much larger) issue of whether we should stay in the EU at all.

So we have some options: the government’s approach, which is to rely on the mechanisms of representative democracy and shoo the thing through parliament in 12 days of debate; the Tories’ approach, which is to hold a meaningless referendum on a topic that’s essentially too complicated to understand or the Liberal approach, which is to sidestep the treaty and vote on Europe itself.

Or, it occurs to me, we could treat this is a genuine and quite exciting opportunity to produce some democratic engagement and explain the bloody treaty

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

Oi! referendum monkeys!

The political classes and the media should seize on the reform treaty referendum as an opportunity to spread understanding and get people talking.

I’ll keep this brief (my wife says my blog is the most boring in Britain. She may have a point). A referendum is a deliberative device. It only works if voters understand the proposition they’re asked to vote on. In fact votes solicited by politicians or lobbyists in a referendum are democratically valueless if the voters don’t understand the issue.

This brings me to my questions for you referendum monkeys. First, have you read the draft treaty? Second, do you understand it? Third, if you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, could you explain the treaty to another grown-up?

If those who want a referendum get their way we have a real democratic problem on our hands. We’ll have a few months (I assume) to get every elector up to speed on the reform treaty ready for the vote. The draft treaty runs to 253 pages.

There are plenty of summaries online. The Telegraph has a handy, and obviously rather partial, Q&A and a brief survey of attitudes to the treaty elsewhere in Europe. The Government’s own summary is useful but you’d be entitled to regard it as partial in the other direction (especially when read with its companion EU reform treaty myths).

The Guardian’s Q&A is a bit thin to be honest and there’s surprisingly little going on at the Centre for European Reform, apart from this think piece by Hugo Brady. The BBC’s ‘A close look at the reform treaty‘ by Stephen Mulvey wins the helpful summary competition hands down. The comedy prize goes to this mendacious ‘look back from the year 2020’ by Andrew Roberts in The Mail.

The Sun (and Girls Aloud) are running a campaign. You’ll probably want to read the treaty too, won’t you. It’s in four parts (PDFs): draft preamble, articles 1-7, protocols and draft declaration and doesn’t stoop to providing any kind of summary of its own, leaving that, I assume, to member governments and the media.

My own summary: a referendum held without wide public understanding of the treaty’s purpose and likely effects would be a travesty, a democratic pantomime. I don’t think of this as a reason to pass on a referendum, though, but rather as an unprecedented opportunity to actually explain the treaty.

A national effort with major government and media investment to summarise and explain the document while providing tools for debate and deliberation would be a wonderful thing. I can see a competition, for instance, to produce the best online explanatory tool, the best schools’ information pack, the best newspaper pull-out or the best unorthodox outreach method (Catherine Tate? Dizzee Rascal? Balamory?). Let’s see if we can’t turn this messy episode into a shining example of deliberative democracy in action.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

Europe 2.0?

It’s an epic defeat for the European establishment but that doesn’t make it a victory for the isolationists and sceptics. Once the dust settles, once Giscard’s Napoleonic (and paralysingly boring) constitution has been abandoned, this moment might just look like a real opportunity for the radical European middle. For people, like me, who believe in a Europe of social solidarity, peace and economic cooperation, built on the consent of its citizens, but who don’t want a monolithic, State-like entity at the centre and don’t want it to have a constitution at all. Constitutions are for States (and Bowls clubs). The EU wants to be a State. It’s probably inevitable that any big, trans-national institution will aspire to Statehood but it’s the job of the National component parts to counter this accretion of power and ambition at the centre.

These edge-and-centre disputes are as old as the nation state and the cyclical shift of power from imperial centre to ragged edge and back again is the historic norm. Since the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes, we’ve already heard Euro legislators and national leaders saying things like ‘one way or another, this treaty must be enacted’. That’s not only undemocratic, it’s a short-sighted refusal of the opportunity to re-engineer the EU as a 21st Century alliance of States, regions and communities, organised like a network and governed, from its edges, by its people.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

Titter ye not

Can’t beat a 21st Century Eurovision Song Contest for lessons on the dynamics of the new Europe. Talk about New vs. Old. Fringe vs. centre. East vs. West. Anyway, the fringe is obviously where it’s at now. Those picturesque Eastern European capitals with their glistening waterfronts and their pretty mediaeval old towns and their flat taxes are the new centre.

Slow, old, slow growth Western Europe nicely filled out the bottom four places (Britain at least made it off the bottom). Swirling, folk-inflected ‘Eastern’ sounds dominated the competition, from Greece to Moldova. Self-confident, good looking, aspirational, enthusiastically-English speaking artists made all the running. Greece may have won but the real competition was between the new nations of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Get your hat, Europe’s going East.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged