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03 July 2015

OMFIF: What’s at stake in the referendum

(3rd July) Why Greeks must say Yes to a European future.

Professor Loukas Tsoukalis is President of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

In these difficult days, Greek people need to take stock of what has happened in recent months. The government of Alexis Tsipras was elected on promises that had absolutely no chance of being realised. It was not of course the first to make such promises.

When it came to power, the Tsipras government began negotiations with Greece’s partners and creditors with some solid arguments. These focused on the non-sustainability of the debt and the negative consequences of long and excessive austerity.

Initially such arguments found wide support at home and abroad. The new government managed, however, to destroy everything with a lethal combination of arrogance and the diplomatic grace of an elephant. Uniting the other 18 countries of the euro area against you, especially at the level of finance ministers, is an accomplishment that guarantees you a place in history.

There is now a critical mass of powerful political and economic actors in Europe who believe that Greece should be driven out of the single currency. They appear to believe, too, that the cost of Greece’s departure would be easily manageable for the rest.

For us Greeks, they propose to offer humanitarian aid as they do to countries that have suffered a major catastrophe.

The list of those wishing Greece out of the euro includes dogmatic believers in austerity, those who would like to use the present Greek government as an example to avoid, and all those who are convinced that the country cannot fulfil the requirements of a well-functioning currency union.

This list has grown in recent months as the result of the irresponsible policy of the government. The proposals that creditors have put on the table suggest they have learned hardly anything from the mistakes of the past. Yet, unfortunately, the dogmatism of those now calling the shots has been reinforced by the Greeks’ own irresponsibility.

The question to the voters in the referendum is clearly misleading. That is an understatement. One could also talk about a deliberate attempt to deceive the Greek people.

The real issue is not the proposal of the creditors, which anyway is no longer on the table. It is instead Greece’s continued membership of the euro.

The present government will not strengthen its negotiating power with a No, because it has run out of time and credibility abroad. The Greek banking system has suffered injuries that will be difficult to heal.

Those who see the future in a return to the drachma must answer the question of what kind of institutions and people they envisage to accompany the transition back to the national currency. Such a transition would constitute a very challenging task even for countries with strong institutions and experienced politicians. And that is precisely what we do not have today.

Even at the last minute, I hope there will be some compromise with our European partners to avoid the referendum and the possible consequences: a deep polarisation of Greek society, followed by economic disaster.

Alas, I know that calling off the referendum is not very likely. But if we are finally led to the polls, we must say a resounding Yes to Greece’s European future.

The Greek people must essentially refuse to answer the specific question posed to us, because it is a false question.

And the day after, we should pick up the pieces and begin the process of reconstruction, but not as we did before. Accumulated mistakes of several decades have brought our country to where it is today. We need to draw some hard lessons from these mistakes. Otherwise there will be absolutely no hope for the future.

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