The 2016 referendum may have worked out so differently if it had not been for the role that Greece played in the unfolding drama of the EU. Greece stood as the epitome of how the launch of the single currency was a triumph of political integration over economic sense, but also of how southern Europe was financially cut adrift in an effort to protect the German banks that had given out the loans that led those governments to over extend themselves. The reaction of German politicians, and Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble in particular, was to punish Greece rather than their own banks. This fed into a British narrative since the 2008 crash that bankers cause the problems and then are protected from the consequences as the poor of Europe pay the price instead. The treatment of Greece by Germany led to a negative reaction from a country that experienced a brutal German occupation in the 1940s and raised issues about the whole EU project, as it was supposed to prevent German dominance, not facilitate it. The final act of the Greek tragedy was when the violent collapse of Libya led people smugglers to switch their trade to the Aegean Sea route between Turkey and the Greek islands. Merkel's overbearing response triggered a mass migration north from Greece, further tragic deaths in the Aegean Sea, and the re-imposition of border check points across the EU. It was a Greek tragedy stamped Made in Germany and it was one of the worst contexts for a British prime minister to hold a referendum on remaining a member of a German dominated EU.
British attitudes to Germany are very mixed with Germany reflecting both the enemy against which the British alone in Europe stood defiantly against and the country that became the frontline for the British Army's resistance to the threat of the Warsaw Pact. To that longer running conflict was added the people power that triggered the collapse of communism through the bringing down of the Berlin Wall. The re-unified Germany has generally been seen as a sign of hope and the final victory of freedom over tyranny, but aggressive micro management of the EU by Angela Merkel since the eurozone sovereign debt crisis arose in 2011 has stoked old fears that lay buried just below the surface of British society. There was a lot of talk about xenophobia during the referendum campaign, but it mostly focused on citizens of former communist countries such as Poland or Romania. The dormant xenophobia that lay behind a lot of voters' minds was that old distrust of a resurgent Germany.
Merkel was in many senses the wrong leader for the wrong time. As an East German she lacked the experience of the caution of not triggering old fears in West Germany and in that respect stands in stark contrast to the reunification chancellor Helmut Kohl, who pushed ahead quicker with the European integrationist project to counter worries about the power of a now much bigger Germany. That East German upbringing may also lie behind her failure to maintain the balance of power between France and Germany that had lain at the very foundations of the EU project. She also shifted to a Germany first attitude in her defence of German banks in first the financial crash of 2008 and then the eurozone crisis that has been ongoing since 2011. That led to the stringent imposition of austerity on the Greek government that in the minds of many British voters will have raised questions as to whether the sacrifice of sovereignty to the EU had been a betrayal of the wartime generation, who had stood bravely against German dominance of their European neighbours. For further exploration of anti-German sentiment in British culture see the chapter on Xenophobia.
Even for those British voters with generally positive views about Germany prior to the Greek debt crisis of 2015 the image of the EU telling Greece to sell off its assets and slash pensions even further was not a good image. The timing could not have been any worse as the very day that the media was reporting David Cameron first bringing news of his referendum plans to the European Council (the EU heads of government meeting) saw such harsh further austerity measures imposed on Greece that its prime minister Alexis Tsipras called a referendum on the terms of the bailout deal. He cited the fact that his government had been elected on a manifesto to end austerity and needed the electorate's permission, but then he advocated a vote against accepting the bailout terms. On 5 July 61% of the electorate agreed and voted against the bailout, but after a further week of negotiations Tsipras signed up to similar bailout terms.
The UK is not part of the eurozone and so was not directly affected by these discussions, but Cameron's referendum was impacted by the Greek one. Any referendum to accept a renegotiated UK membership would be hampered by yet further evidence that the EU ignores any referendums that produce a result that they do not like. Previously Denmark had been asked to vote a second time on the Maastricht Treaty, Ireland voted a second time on the Nice Treaty, while the French and Dutch rejections of the EU constitution was ignored and the Lisbon Treaty negotiated instead. The only referendum result that the EU could not thwart was one to leave as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (on which the Irish also voted twice) allowed a guaranteed departure after two years of negotiations. This would place the remain side in a difficult situation during the campaign as voted for the renegotiated package was no guarantee that the package would be implemented, especially as it would have to be approved by the European Parliament.
More particularly there was a problem for progressive parties, who almost all officially supported a remain vote, because the treatment of the left wing Greek government by the EU was a cause of much anger. There was limited attention paid to Greece during the campaign, but that was probably on similar grounds to the remain campaign ignoring immigration, in that it was an argument that the progressives were doomed to lose. Early in their campaigns both the SNP's leader Nicola Sturgeon and Labour's leader Jeremy Corbyn had acknowledged the unfortunate treatment of Greece, but in general the topic was ignored.
Greece was forced back onto the agenda one month before the UK's referendum was to take place. Another bailout deadline was looming and Greece was being assessed on how well it was complying with the terms of the deal. On 24 May 2016 the Eurogroup (the meeting of EU members of the eurozone) approved Greece for further payments from the bailout package. This was unfortunate for the remain campaign as it was a reminder of the continuing crisis in the eurozone and the heavy-handed treatment of Greece.
A positive for the remain cause was that it was supported by Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister at the time of their referendum on the 2015 bailout terms. He was very familiar with the UK as he had gained an economics doctorate from Essex University. He used the referendum campaign to promote his Democracy in Europe Movement, which endeavours to bring more democracy into the workings of the EU. He acknowledged that the EU was unstable, but pleaded with the UK to vote to remain inside it and reform it from within. Varoufakis was better placed than most to persuade progressive voters to vote remain, despite the treatment of Greece, and although he did not help the remain side avoid defeat he may have contributed to it achieving 48% of the vote.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved