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What Greece's 'No' Referendum Vote Means for Britain and Europe

Is the beginning of the end for neo-liberalism in Europe?

by Aaron Bastani
07 July 2015, 5:00am

Jubilant "No" voters celebrating in the streets of Athens on Sunday night (Photo by Panagiotis Maidis)

In voting "No" to the the most recent offer from the "Troika" on Sunday, the Greek people refused to agree to more of the same medicine – austerity – which has led to 50 percent youth unemployment and a 25 percent fall in average wages. The "No" camp's victory means that the Greek anti-austerity movement is more than just a combination of radicals on the country's left – it is now the dominant force in the nation's politics.

While people are elated right now, the vote probably changes very little in relation to any bailout agreement. After all, the Troika, as well as the German government, have repeatedly made clear that they don't really care what the average Greek has to say about their country's predicament. So, despite Sunday's decisive vote, an equally decisive response from the Troika is unlikely to be forthcoming. They will see pesky old public opinion as an irritation rather than an intractable problem, although deposing the now hugely popular Syriza – as Brussels did in Greece and Italy in 2011 with the imposition of the interim administrations of Papademos and Monti – is no longer an option.

Such fanaticism was best captured when Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, told France's Le Figaro in January that, "there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties". No matter how many referenda or elections show that ordinary Greeks have had enough of austerity, the European institutions will remain stubborn and pig-headed. They are, to put it bluntly, extremists. It is that zeal which will be the undoing of the Euro.

But while Brussels is unlikely to make major compromises, Sunday's vote could be transformational for the politics of the whole continent.

Channel 4 News's Paul Mason put it well when he spoke of how the result represented "the first time in the history of the Eurozone [that] people power has happened". That will have consequences for those other member-states across the Eurozone which have suffered since the crisis began: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and France.

All of these countries, with the exception of Ireland, are facing problems similar to those of Greece: high unemployment, sclerotic growth, stagnant wages and, most importantly, a commonly-held view that the politics of yesterday are unfit for the challenges of the present.

From the Parti Socialiste and the UMP in France to Spain's PSOE and Partido Popular, the supposedly distinct parties of the last several decades increasingly look like one-party systems. That is creating space for new actors.

Last month saw radical mayors elected in four of Spain's five biggest cities. If Syriza have landed the first few blows on the austerity consensus in the EU, it could be Spain's turn next, with general elections there this December. The Greek government will now be viewed across Europe as having punctured the myth that "there is no alternative" to austerity. They have shown that you can defy the continent's masters in Brussels and Berlin. They have built a national consensus in the process, and that could well be repeated across the rest of Europe's south in the coming months and years.

Risk can be contagious in the networked capitalism of the 21st Century, but so is hope. People in different countries have access, like never before – through their televisions, phones and computers – to political events and conversations. It is these portals which feed into offline discussion in bars and pubs, beginning conversations like, "the Greeks have had enough, so have we". If that sentiment is as strong in Spain as the polls suggest, then Podemos – an insurgent party of the radical left – could well head up a government of some kind before the end of the year.

But what does all of this mean for Britain?

Firstly, the "No" vote and the large social base behind it, shows that the potential exit of any member from the Eurozone will almost certainly come on the back of popular social movements, rather than decision-making by the EU's elite. We are perhaps closer to the moment a country leaves the Euro than we think.

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While initially cataclysmic, leaving the Euro and returning to their old currencies would give Europe's south a model for export-oriented growth and job creation to – eventually – get their economies back on track. However, the messier the process, the more likely it will lead to a lengthy economic downturn – things could get worse before they get better.

Already some are comparing the idiocy of the Troika to those behind the fateful Treaty of Versailles in 1919 – a document which humiliated the Germans and which was a major factor behind the rise of Nazism. Britain wasn't insulated from events then and it won't be insulated now. Any social or economic tumult in Europe would be felt here.

The second point is perhaps even more important with Sunday's result strengthening a view some have whispered in recent months: that with the election of Syriza in January and radical politicians across Spain in May, 2015 is the year that a consensus around neoliberalism – at least in Europe – began to die. It is increasingly clear to publics across the continent that the powers that be – finance, big business and centrist technocracy – has little to offer them.

In Britain, that zeitgeist could effect the referendum over membership of the European Union. This presents a challenge to the left, which is wedded to EU membership. For now, the EU is a rich-man's club, annihilating the economies of its south while pushing through trade liberalisation deals at odds with the interests of the non-rich majority. Even though that's not really why UKIP and the Tory right want to leave, they'll certainly be able to play on that theme.

If Brits are going to vote to stay in, it will be because of a positive story about what the EU could become, rather than defending the status quo which is looking pretty bust at the moment. There's certainly a progressive case for staying in to be made, but it will have to start with admitting the union's present failings and outlining a radical, democratic alternative.

Sunday showed that populism is back, to an extent unseen in Europe since before the Second World War. Even if you have the media, the money and the backing of the most "credible" institutions – as the referendum's "yes" campaign did – that doesn't matter in the face of popular anger.

That will almost certainly fuel the rise of the left across the continent, with others eager to imitate the success of Syriza and Spain's movements which are now in local government. Until now, those same energies have been limited in the UK to the rise of the SNP and, to a lesser extent, UKIP and the Green Party. That is likely to change with the same holding true in Britain as it does elsewhere: whether you vote for the Conservatives or Labour you get austerity. Across Europe, that is being undone, and in the long-term there is no reason why Britain should be an exception.

@AaronBastani

More from Greece:

Explaining Yanis Varoufakis: Greece's Anti-Austerity "Rock Star"

A Brief History of Greek Debt

We Partied with Defiant Greek "No" Voters in the Streets of Athens Last Night