Uncomfortable parallels: The Greek and British referendums

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

Despite the circumstances being dissimilar and the timeframe involved being substantially different, there are a lot of parallels between Greece’s referendum last July and the June 23 vote in the UK on European Union membership.

In both cases, reason has collided with emotion. Just as in Greece last year, when it was much easier for those arguing that voters should say “no,” so in the UK, those backing the Leave campaign have had a straightforward task, a simple message to convey. In Greece, voters were told that they needed to take a stand, to show that others should not be allowed to make decisions for them, to take their country back. This is exactly what Britons have been told over the last few weeks by the Leave camp.

“We all know what ‘getting our country back’ means,” wrote British critic AA Gill in a recent Sunday Times article. “It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty.”

Last year in Greece, many politicians appealed to some supposed idyllic moment in the country’s past, when troika was a word hardly known outside Russia, to stir voters. Never mind that this past was full of economic catastrophe, war, civil conflict, dictatorship and low standards of living.

These raw, and often shameless, appeals to emotion carry immense power. As we saw last year in Greece, with the overwhelming win for the “no” camp, and as may happen in the UK, with “Leave” leading in many opinion polls, tapping into emotions means that those making the argument do not necessarily have to back up what they say with facts. In this era of so-called “post-truth politics”, it has become standard practice for some politicians to flick voters’ emotional switches to “On” by breaking the circuit and doing away with the annoying details of reality, what the experts says and what the numbers point to.

“So what?” UKIP leader Nigel Farage said recently when questioned about the possibility that the value of the pound could plunge on foreign exchange markets. “Even if sterling were to fall a few percentage points, so be it: we have a floating currency, and it would be good for exports.”

Such comments are reminiscent of the flippancy that many SYRIZA and Independent Greeks MPs showed last year when they dismissed the dangers of Greece turning down the offer on the table for a third bailout even though the country faced the possibility of being forced to leave the euro. The same politicians who underestimated the determination of Greece’s lenders and the key role of the European Central Bank (a failing they now freely accept) tried to convince voters that their reading of the looming dangers being exaggerated was correct.

Many voters bought the argument, though, and one of the reasons was that the politicians arguing for “No” convinced them that “the system” was trying to scare them into voting “Yes” because it wanted to protect its interests.

The same argument has been made in the UK, where one of the Conservative politicians in favour of leaving the EU, Michael Gove, argued that Britons “have had enough of experts”. Polling data suggests that as glib as Gove’s comment may appear, it reflects the prevailing mood. According to YouGov, Leave supporters show a sizable level of distrust, even edging above 80 percent in one case, for everyone from academics to world leaders.

In Greece, as perhaps in Britain, this lack of trust was exacerbated by focussing mostly on the potential negatives of the “No” vote (which was certainly true of the mainstream Greek media) and not doing a convincing job of backing up the arguments for “Yes”.

David Cameron’s recent claim that the Remain campaign in the UK has been “hugely optimistic and positive” was perhaps an acknowledgement that it has been far from that.

One of the other similarities between the Greek and British referendums is the way in which Cameron is now being forced to defend the EU and how that echoes the way in which Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has had to argue in favour of agreeing and implementing a third bailout. For so long, the EU was a convenient punch bag for Cameron, who often arrived at European Council meetings with a constipated look on his face that was meant a sign of determination to exact more concessions from his EU partners. These constant attempts to score political points at home was not too much unlike how Tsipras built his rise on the incessant criticism of Greece’s adjustment programmes and the country’s creditors.

When they were on the other side of the fence, though, both leaders were happy to allow misinformation to spread. They painted black and white pictures of the situations faced by their respective countries, whether this was on immigration, economic policy or the role of the EU on general. In both cases, they are now reaping the damaging effects of what they sowed. In the UK, recent research shows that there is a wide gap between Britons’ perception of EU-related issues and their reality. For instance, on average British people think EU citizens make up 15 percent of the total UK population when it is actually around 5 percent. Britons also vastly overestimate how much the UK transfers to the EU and underestimate how much EU countries invest in the UK. Amazingly, four in 10 British voters are not aware that MEPs are elected.

Greece has also seen high levels of misunderstanding about the euro, its lenders and the EU as a result – to a large extent – of the myths that politicians have only been too happy to allow to flourish because at some point it served their political purposes. This has seriously undermined political cohesion and the country’s efforts to exit the crisis, at much costs to average citizens.

Perhaps if we are to draw just one parallel between the British and Greek referendums, it is that this practice of allowing division, animosity and anger to fester is one of the worst offenses that elected politicians can commit against the democracies they are elected to serve. It is too late for Cameron and Tsipras now but one can only hope that in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder, the British MP’s assertion in her maiden speech in Parliament last June that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us” will act as inspiration to politicians in the future to appeal to the better angels of our nature rather than to seek to rouse our inner demons. Recent political developments mean that this cannot be some utopian fantasy. Reality means that it is an urgent necessity.

You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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