Broken Europe

The Greek referendum is postmodern and I don’t mean that in a good way. The question is an ‘empty signifier’. No one can understand its literal meaning and that literal meaning is no longer relevant in any case. So you can think of referendum as a big symbol that you can fill with whatever you want; hopes, aspirations, worries, and disappointments all fit in nicely. Moreover, there is no reason any one person has to interpret the question in the same way as anyone else. On the contrary, politicians will try anything to find a hook that will pull you to their side of the issue. No wonder Greek society is evenly (if deeply) divided. Is the glass half full or half empty? Is it really a ‘glass’? What is ‘it’? Even the response assignments are counter-intuitive. According to the government, you vote ‘no’ to have a brighter future; according to the opposition, you vote ‘yes’ if you fear the unknown. What’s more the process itself is controversial. Greece’s detractors decry this whole exercise as a cynical manipulation; for Greece’s supporters, it is a celebration of democracy.

This kind of postmodern referendum sheds harsh light on what is broken in Europe. All you have to do is look at the sputtering objections and equivocations of leaders across the European continent to see that there is no straightforward vision of what European integration is all about. Moreover, this is hardly the first time we have found ourselves facing such a plebiscite. Somehow in my mind I absolve the first British referendum of the accusation of being postmodern. The 1992 Danish referendum is a better illustration. The Danish government gave everyone copies of the Maastricht Treaty — which is actually a collection of treaty amendments rather than a coherent document — to every household and asked if they were for it or against it. The Danish people said ‘no’ and so the Danish government asked them to do the whole thing all over again. Of course they pretended that they won concessions from the rest of Europe, like the ability to opt out of the single currency, but in fact those were already in the original document. Worse, the Danish central bank has ignored that opt out and acted as though it was already inside the single currency. I guess the Greeks don’t have a monopoly on cynicism.

The Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty in 2001 was another postmodern expression in democratic ‘consultation’. The Irish government failed to campaign in favour of ratification because it was piqued over a reprimand by the Council of Economics and Finance Ministers (for running too small a fiscal surplus) and so the ‘no’ camp was able to rally the electorate to vote down the treaty for a host of reasons ranging from neutrality to abortion despite the fact these had little to do with the actual document. European Commission President Romano Prodi complained soon thereafter that the Irish obviously hadn’t understood the question. After an ‘appropriate’ passage of time the Irish government went back to the people and asked them again. Alas this is not the last time the Irish went through such a process. They did much the same with the Lisbon Treaty. There is nothing more postmodern than repetition. Except repetition.

The French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty also deserve mention. Let’s ignore the reasons these referendums were organized. What is interesting is to look at the post-referendum polling done by Eurobarometer to see why people rejected that treaty in the two different countries. What you will find is that the French and the Dutch rejected the constitutional treaty for very different motivations. The French feared that the new Europe would not go far enough in taming the market; the Dutch feared that it would go too far and threaten their national autonomy. The European compromise was to give both sides roughly the same institutional architecture without referring to the document as a ‘constitutional’ treaty. This was persuasive enough to convince French and Dutch politicians not to call a second referendum.

What is lacking in all this is a clear vision of what the European Union is and how European integration relates to national democracy. That is why Europe is broken. Moreover, the Greeks are neither the first nor the largest nor the most insistent Member State in pointing out this tension at the heart of European integration — that would be the Danes, the French, and the Irish, respectively. (Though, in fairness, the Danes and the Irish are running neck-and-neck in terms of insisting on holding these postmodern referendums. If you want to know why Europe’s leaders are afraid to reform the basic treaty structures of the European Union, look no further).

The problem with the referendum in Greece is that the Greeks are holding it. If things end up going very badly, everyone else will blame it on unspecified cultural factors. I mean, what would the Greeks know about democracy or about Europe — it is not like they invented either of these concepts? Of course if the Swiss were holding it, then we could feel more comfortable. Just look at the February 2014 Swiss referendum on ‘mass immigration’. In case you were wondering, ‘immigration’ is another empty signifier.

The Greek referendum not only reveals that Europe is broken but it also gives Europeans an excuse to ignore their own failings. Indeed, that is the most postmodern characteristic of this whole process. The referendum is an empty signifier that everyone can fill with the worst of themselves and so create an artificial feeling of distance from their own problems. What the Greeks and the rest of Europe need to do is exactly the opposite. European leaders have to ‘own’ this problem — where by ‘this’ I mean not just the financial situation in Greece but the whole broken nature of European integration. If they refuse to accept that challenge, this will not be Europe’s last postmodern referendum. Just look to the United Kingdom and you will see that much worse is yet to come.


Note: I am mostly an economist and so this may seem a bit outside my territory. It is not. In addition to many other things, this essay draws on work I did writing annual reviews of European politics for the Industrial Relations Journal from 1997 to 2004. It also draws on recent analysis of the economic mythology of European integration for the Journal of Common Market Studies, identity and solidarity for the Oxford Handbook on the European Union, European populism for the SAIS Review, and the symbolism of monetary union as part of my 2002 book on The Politics of Economic and Monetary Union.