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Beware Greeks threatening referendums

Papandreou | Beware Greeks threatening referendums Anthony Harrington

When Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided to tweak the noses of the French President and the German Chancellor with the completely unexpected and unlooked for announcement that Greece was to hold a referendum in January 2012 on the EU’s bail-out conditions, what on earth was going through his mind?

He could not possibly have been in ignorance of the fact that Greece has some 8 billion euros of sovereign debt to renew in December and that his country’s only possible chance of meeting that debt lay with the tranche of bail-out money, comprising some 8 billion euros, already voted to Greece by the EU, but not, as yet, delivered. By the same token, it must have occurred to him that the easily-annoyed Nicolas Sarkozy and the long-suffering Mrs. Merkel would (a) thump him about the ears for his temerity in blowing the agenda for the Cannes G20 meeting out the water without so much as a by-your-leave, and (b) that they would very obviously threaten to withdraw the promised 8 billion and all the remaining bail-out funds for good and all if Greece did not return to the official script post haste.

In his address to the Greek Parliament on Thursday 3 November – a day that will in all probability become something of a legend among Greek Parliamentarians for its extraordinary twists and turns -  Papandreou explicitly called his idea of a referendum a stratagem for bouncing his fellow politicians into forming a considerably more united front as far as their acceptance of the EU’s austerity deal is concerned. He calmly announced that he was scrapping the referendum since the new spirit of agreement in the Greek Parliament made it unnecessary. Given that the Greek Parliament was, by this stage, a total shambles, Papandreou’s words seemed to be coming from a man inhabiting a parallel universe.

His words left the leader of the Greek Opposition scratching his head. Summing up, Antonis Samaris said: “So Mr. Papandreou has brought Europe, the euro and the financial markets to the edge of catastrophe simply in order to get my agreement to something - what exactly is not very clear…” At the time of going to press, late Thursday night, it seemed unlikely that the Greek PM would survive his brilliant stratagem. Even his own party was calling on him to relinquish his post in the interests of a government of national unity.

One possible explanation for Papandreou’s extraordinary behaviour is that the situation simply became too much for him on a personal level. Opting for a referendum is a classic political ploy for shifting the blame for any subsequent fall out from the issue concerned, away from particular politicians and on to the shoulders of the people. However, Papandreou’s extraordinary on-off Referendum, conjured from nowhere on Tuesday and consigned to oblivion on Thursday with a wave of his hand, leaving the wreckage of the G20 in its wake, is surely unique.

Struggling under the weight of it all?

When a respected senior politician behaves in such a remarkably unpredictable way, their mental balance comes into question. The Greek PM has been under extraordinary pressure from all sides. Rioters on the streets of Athens have been calling for his resignation and backing their calls with bricks and Molotov cocktails. His fellow politicians, even in his own party, have been trying to distance themselves from every austerity pledge he has made to the EU, even as they welcomed the bail-out cash. His reputation, once glittering, as a man who sought rapprochement between Greeks and Turks, now lies in ruins. And as every commentator on the Greek crisis has pointed out, the road he has put his country on can have only one end, since Greece has more debt than it can service and more austerity only makes things worse.

Given that combination of circumstances, small wonder then that the Greek Prime Minister should suddenly start making some really odd decisions. Whatever else happens, he has left us with a truly amazing spectacle, namely, the leaders of the 20 most powerful economies in the world, all furtively turning aside from hugely important discussions through a long Thursday in Cannes, in order to scan their smart phone screens for the latest Tweets concerning the extraordinary goings on in the tiny Athenian Parliament… This Greek Drama still has a few acts to play out and what the denouement will be God alone knows.

Further reading on the Eurozone:

Tags: Angela Merkel , bail out , bail outs , Cannes G20 meeting , EU , european debt crisis , European Union , eurozone , George Papandreou , Greece , Greece default , Greek bail-out , Greek debt , Greek default , Greek Parliament , Greek Referendum , Nicolas Sarkozy , sovereign debt
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