Greece, What is Left of Popular Sovereignty
Giancarlo Bosetti 1 July 2015

By calling upon a country, one of the smallest in the Union with its eleven million inhabitants, to express itself regards to the proposals presented by European creditors, represented by the so-called troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has thrown down the gauntlet, presenting Greek voters with a ballot card that is not easy to decipher. One question must be added to the many reasons for anxiety about the future filling the minds of Greek voters. What importance does my vote have as far as the national government is concerned? And Brussels? And Washington? What should I say or what message should I send to the left-wing government now in power and to those asking me to vote “no”? And to Juncker who is asking me to vote “yes”? And to the IMF and the rest of the world?

To this objectively difficult choice one must add the tangle of contradictions, thanks to which Syriza has requested an extension of the debt payment’s deadline, but when faced with the most recent hypotheses of comprise, the party called a referendum, almost relying on the possibility that voters may react with a “yes” while instead requesting a “no”. The party is asking voters to say “no” and should this be the outcome, its choice would be confirmed and, according to the majority of observers, this would pave the way for a probable exit from the Euro. Should the outcome be a “yes” the party will see its policies opposed, (perhaps even a vote of no confidence?), which could, however, allow negotiations to be resumed.

All this if events have not, in the meantime, gone beyond the point of no return.

Within a strictly Greek context the “yeses” and “nos” will be a way of measuring consensus for the party with a relative majority and perhaps also for Tsipras’ sympathisers across Europe.

But is this what is really at stake? That is debatable. The consequences of both outcomes do not appear to be controllable. Whatever the outcome may be, this dramatic moment marks an inevitable transformation phase for the European Union, a construction created in the middle of the ford, between different levels of sovereignty, old and robust ones (national), or new and latent ones (federal), between the risk of relegation and disintegration on the one hand and the possibility of embarking on real political integration on the other.

This state of uncertainty caused by the creation of monetary union without political union has so far been contained by the ECB’s policies which have prevented collapse, announcing unlimited buying of bonds when necessary and with Draghi thereby virtuously “simulating” a fiscal power he does not strictly have, as Jürgen Habermas has observed from these same pages.

The classic republican model of national sovereignty, the one to which the destiny of the old left and the old right was bound, as was the destiny of politics during the last century even when at its very best, has for some time been crumbling under the blows inflicted by infinite factors ruthlessly crossing borders penetrating them from all sides. These factors include economic competition, multinational companies working with state-size power and budgets, migration, terrorism, but also large international private organisations, foundations and NGOs ranging from Bill Gates to Transparency International. Then there are also supranational political, financial, trade, legal, technological, health and professional institutions, from the UN to the Red Cross, from the WTO to the WHO, which form a global ‘Loya Jirga’ as an American political analyst described it, referring, not at all in a derogatory manner, to the Afghan General Assembly based on tribes in a mix of central and peripheral powers. These are organisations that each take a slice of the power of states once gloriously sovereign.

Rousseau imagined an overall desire forming within the body of citizens that have expressed an inalienable sovereignty, also one that could not be contaminated by special or vested interests. It was in this sovereignty that he envisaged the state’s source of power, in its nature of being a pact and in the pureness and stability of a well-defined basis of participants. Today this hypothetical certainty, if it ever existed, is threatened; it has almost vanished. The creation of sovereignty relies on a changing and non-homogeneous population; quotas of sovereignty have been devolved to levels higher than the national one, separatist drives increase at lower levels. The European Union is an open workshop for this process, with no curtains, and can be analysed by everyone in its most critical moment. The “us” of the Greek citizens who will cast their vote is also to a certain extent the “us” of all other Europeans, all exposed to the variable, changing borders of their own “sovereign” identity. They may decide to continue to be part of this “us”, but they may also decide to leave.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

The Italian version of this article was published on the daily newspaper La Repubblica on June 29th, 2015

Photo credits: Getty