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δημοκρατία: Democracy remains a Greek word

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Are referenda back in fashion?

The quip or blunder about whether or not the French know the meaning of the word “entrepreneur” is often attributed to George W. Bush (like so much else). By comparison, there can be less ambiguity about whether “democracy” is still a Greek word – especially after the result of last Sunday’s referendum.  European heads of state will meet tomorrow (12 July) in Brussels to negotiate over whether Greece remains in the Eurozone. Last Sunday’s referendum gave the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, the political capital he needed to gain the backing of the Greek parliament last night – having delivered a decisive “No” (60%) to the previous terms from Eurozone. 12 hours ago, the Athens Parliament gave Tsipras the authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32. Such a mandate would have been inconceivable only a week ago.

It is still anyones guess whether tomorrow will see the emergence of any new bailout offer between the Eurozone and Greece, or even whether it is in either’s interests to do so. But the referendum has unquestionably given Tsipras much greater authority – strengthening his social contract with the Greek people. The referendum was a gamble, but clearly one worth taking whatever the outcome of the bailout negotiations and Greece’s future in the Eurozone or even European Union. A deal that Tsipras could never have sold back at home would have been in no one’s interests, so the referendum is actually in the interests of his country’s creditors too – even if they did not express this sentiment at the time.

There have been plenty of other referenda in Europe over recent years, one of the most recent, before the Greek vote, being Scotland’s 2014 vote on whether it remained part of the United Kingdom (the Catalonian unofficial referendum a few months later was not recognised by the Madrid government). Recently the UK Government has confirmed that another referendum will be held in the next two years, this time about the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Union. Previously, Scandinavian countries have had referenda about whether or not to join the European Union (EU), and Ireland, France and the Netherlands have also held referenda on specific EU treaty requirements. Sometimes referenda have led to de facto changes in international boundaries – such as those in Kosovo in 1991 or Crimea in 2014 – or to legitimise existing territorial claims – such as in the Falkland Islands in 2013. In countries where referenda are a regular occurrence, such as Switzerland, they seem to be becoming more frequent with up to 10 a year now; likewise in many US states such as California and Arizona.

There are two schools of thought. Those following the social contract theories of Locke or Rousseau tend to see them as a valuable extension of democracy – in fact Rousseau’s ideal “Republic” would have a referendum on every issue (each of us would be so well informed that we could vote before coffee each morning). Others despise them, such as the former British politician and European Commissioner, Chris Patten, who stated in an interview:

“I think referendums are awful. The late and great Julian Critchley used to say that, not very surprisingly, they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians during an election campaign say oh we’re not going to talk about that, we don’t need to talk about that, that’s all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak.”

It should be noted that Chris Patten was also Britain’s last Governor to Hong Kong which was returned to China in 1997 – without a referendum. One can expect him to have strong feelings on the subject, as do many residents in Hong Kong to this day as it happens (as demonstrated during the 2014 protests). It is true that referenda have been the ally of despots to legitimise their annexation of territory but perhaps there is now more evidence, over recent years, that referenda are becoming part of the social licence of democratically elected and accountable governments – winning an election every four or five years is essential but not always sufficient when it comes to major issues of identity or self-determination. The important caveat, and it is an important one, is that law matters and when referenda run against the fundamental values of a nation, then constitutional courts can override such popular expression – as we have seen in the USA on the issue of gay marriage.

So, referenda are no silver bullet, but perhaps they are making a come back as an essential addition to the legitimacy of governments. Perhaps Rousseau was right all along.