Why Put The Bailout To A Referendum In Greece?

Nov 3, 2011
Originally published on November 3, 2011 7:19 pm
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Historian Mark Mazower has written extensively about Greece. He's also written about the perilous history of democracy in 20th century Europe, so we asked him what he made of the Greek prime minister's very democratic notion of putting his country's big decision on debt and the euro to a referendum.

MARK MAZOWER: Well, I think that it was understandable because he has a huge political problem and that was the lack of popular support for what's going on. That's part of a bigger problem in Europe, of course, which is the difficulty of making this whole process of responding to the financial crisis a democratic one. And in other circumstances, I think it might have been a very smart thing to do, but as it's now turning out, springing this idea on his own party and springing it on his main creditors was not a very smart way of bringing it about.

SIEGEL: But Professor Mazower, I'd like to hear more about the issue of doing this in a democratic fashion throughout Europe. There's something about the entire project of European integration which the occasional referendum not withstanding is very much a top-down process that's happening.

MAZOWER: Yes, there's no question about that. And, of course, in the good times, that didn't bother people very much. As the welfare state comes under threat because of the euro, then, of course, the democratic deficit becomes a real problem.

SIEGEL: It does seem that in hard economic times what might be seen as excesses of democracy, like letting the people vote about it, are less popular than the old smoke-filled room where a few powerful people can hammer this thing out together.

MAZOWER: Part of this, I think, is because of the timeframe that we are now becoming accustomed to. If we are in an age in which the markets rule and the markets are not the trading and commodities markets, but they are the financial markets, then the politicians feel that they have to respond to everything in seconds and minutes. And so, part of this is a tussle between how important decisions will be made. Will they be made by the market and on the basis of the ribbons dictated by the market, which is to say extraordinarily short-term and fluctuating?

Or will they remain in the hands of the politicians and those people who elected the politicians?

SIEGEL: You mean that the nature of European democracy is actually at stake in this process of trying to deal with the financial crises?

MAZOWER: European democracy is not under threat. I don't see alternatives of the kind that existed in the early 20th century to democracy. I discount those. But the extent to which politics remains an area for autonomous decision-making, that is very much up for grabs or will politicians simply be driven by their anxiety about the markets and how the markets will respond to this or that measure? And that is where, it seems to me, that the Franco-German axis has its interest. Because, whether or not you see Sarkozy and Merkel acting in a particularly democratic manner, they are acting as politicians in the name of the state to preserve a political enterprise.

The grand struggle, seems to me, markets versus politics. And then how democratic that politics is, well, that's the question we have to think about.

SIEGEL: As a historian whose specialty has been 20th century or contemporary Greek history, is it unfair to say the Greeks have been out in the street protesting against paying their bills?

MAZOWER: I think that's unfair, although there is a sense in which Greece has been living in a fool's paradise for the last 20 years. But therein, there is a sense in which the United States has been living in a fool's paradise for the last 20 years as well. I think that you have to see this in terms of Greek history and of the effort after 1974 to rebuild democracy in Greece and to build a welfare state in Greece very late in the day. And this was oddly possible in Greece because of the European project and that of the euro.

And the euro entering the euro as we can now see on (unintelligible) terms allowed the Greeks access to cheap credit that would allow them to build this welfare state and consolidate a democratic regime in ways that would otherwise not have been possible.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Mazower, thank you very much for talking with us.

MAZOWER: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Mark Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.