These days the word ‘democracy’ has become ubiquitous. It’s used to justify everything from toppling bothersome regimes to occupying St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s meaning has become as empty as a Greek tax return.
If the hapless Greek prime minister George Papandreou gets away with defying diktats from Brussels, Paris and Berlin by calling a referendum on acceptance of the EU’s bail-out terms, it will not be a noble accession to people power. He’s a politician and he has an ulterior motive. Under increasing pressure from rioters, strikers and political opponents, he wants to shift the responsibility for the austerity measures away from his own shoulders. “The referendum will be a clear mandate and a clear message in and outside Greece on our European course and participation in the euro,” he said.
Coincidentally, the word ‘democracy’ is a composite of the ancient Greek words demos (common people) and kratos (rule). In contemporary Greece, along with all other civilised western countries, the word has come to mean rule by a political elite so long as it has been elected by popular vote. We’re always told we live in a democracy here in Britain, but judging by the way all three British party leaders whipped against an EU referendum proposal last week, this sometimes doesn’t even extend to elected MPs participating in the government of the country. As 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out: “The English nation thinks it is free, but is greatly mistaken, for it is so only during the election of members of Parliament; as soon as they are elected, it is enslaved and counts for nothing.”
Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy reacted with horror to the Greek PM’s call for a referendum. Democracy is fine as long as it doesn’t mean the Greek people actually participating in economic decision making. When Papandreou sits down with Merkel and Sarkozy in Cannes later today, it will be the proverbial two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. The single currency project never really had any democratic legitimacy. One way or another, it just created a massive captive export market for Germany.
For Greece, devaluation is inevitable. It must choose to default on sovereign debt and devalue its new currency, or kow-tow to Brussels and devalue the concept of democracy still further.