Brexit and Grexit – Britain’s referendum and Greece


Greece is at the heart of the Brexit debate currently tearing Britain apart. There is open civil war in Europe’s longest-existing political party, the Conservatives, with nearly three centuries of government experience to their name. Political friends no longer talk to each other. Their wives hurl insults of treason at political parties.

A beautiful young woman MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a political fanatic two days after she wrote a newspaper article urging a Yes vote in the referendum. Suddenly it seemed as if November 17th had opened a branch office in England.

The latest opinion polls show a 50-50 split and no-one can safely say what the result will be. If Brexit happens Prime Minister David Cameron will have lost his gamble that the British would opt for the status quo and stay in the EU. It will mean he has to resign at once. The referendum he called is now a national vote of confidence on his leadership.

Britain will be plunged into economic uncertainty, a vicious contest to choose a new prime minister and face shock and dismay from across the Atlantic and in every corner of the world. President Obama, numerous US foreign and defence policy chiefs, and every Commonwealth leader has urged the British to vote Yes to Europe.

Greece comes into play for three reasons. First, the very term Brexit is derived from the fashionable journalist term, Grexit, coined 5 years ago as debates raged over the heads of the Papandreou and Samaras governments about whether Greece should “exit” the Euro and revert to the drachma.

Second, Greece is portrayed by all the pro-Brexit camp, including many on the left, as the “victim” of wicked, malign, faceless Eurocrats who work day and night to keep Greece impoverished. Nearly all pro-Brexit speakers denounce Germany as the new hegemon that has sought to destroy Greece in order to show Germany is the new master of Europe.

It is the Varoufakis syndrome. The former Greek finance minister has been on British television and radio singing his old song that Berlin and Brussels are responsible for the state of Greece and all the Greeks are innocent victims of Europeans north of the Alps. Varoufakis does not call for a Brexit vote but his virulent denunciations of the EU encourage leftist Europhobia and many in Britain say they will vote against the EU in solidarity with the people of Greece.

Thirdly, the very idea of a referendum to try and extract concessions from the rest of Europe, the tactic used by Syriza last summer has now entered British political practice. Margaret Thatcher said referendums were the device of “dictators and demagogues”. They ran contrary to the British tradition of representative parliamentary democracy. But pro-Brexit activists like referendums. They allow power to move from parliament to the media oligarchs, to the hidden financiers of the Brexit campaign, and to the populist rhetoric of demagogic orators of left and right.

Every referendum so far this century on the European question has seen voters refuse to endorse the EU. But if Britain votes out there will be no second referendum. The European architecture put in place ever since Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe” in 1946 will have been broken.

The pound will slump and many firms will have to lay off workers and stop new hiring until economic stability returns.

Britain will no longer be able to offer jobs to young Greeks, Spaniards and Italians as well as East Europeans. British citizens will lose their automatic EU citizenship that allows them to travel, work and live anywhere in Europe. The main Brexit demand is to place immigration controls on citizens from other EU countries. Thus the prospect looms of visa, work and residence permits for Grees and nationals of EU member states who want to work or live in Britain.

Most economists agree the pound will slump and British tourists to Greece may have to think about staying at home.

An important part of Greek foreign policy is the Turkish question. Turkey has loomed large in the UK referendum debate. The Brexit camp has said that 75 million Turks are poised to join the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has been forced to respond that Turkey will not join the EU in a thousand years.

Whether or not the UK quits or remains in Europe, the taboo has been broken that Turkey was on the way, sooner or later to EU membership. For Greece and Cyprus this change of line from London, once a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU aspirations, means re-thinking how to handle the Turkey-EU question.

If Brexit is defeated there will be relief in the London establishment. But the Conservative Party will remain badly split. David Cameron has said he will retire as party leader and prime minister within the next 2-3 years. Thus the Conservatives will be consumed by a succession fight with pro- and anti-European factions fighting for leadership of the party and control of Downing Street.

A weakened David Cameron will once again sit at the council table of the EU but he is likely to revert to the old UK truculence and opposition to any moves to integrate the EU and adopts new policies to create growth, investment and jobs.

A Brexit would be the worst outcome for Greece because once the taboo has been broken that no EU member state can ever leave there will be a question over whether the EU can become smaller and more coherent rather than always and forever enlarging and bailing out weak member states unable to raise taxes properly and balance their budgets.

But even if the UK stays a member London is unlikely to propose any changes in EU policy that can help Greece out of the economic misery it has been in since the global financial crash.

*Dr Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister for Europe in the Tony Blair government. He has written two books on Brexit and writes for the American and European press on EU policy and politics. He is a senior Adviser of Avisa Partners, Brussels. He discussed Brexit at a conference in Athens organised by the UK-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.

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