Greece crawls to the fabled referendum. I heard many times from government officials, indeed from the prime minister himself, that this is a ‘historic’ moment. It may well be; but I know that this ‘history’ is often unkind to its suitors. In a few hours, a people is asked to choose, through a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’, between two paths that are in theory very different but also terrifyingly unknown.
I finally made peace with myself about my decision not to travel to Greece for the referendum. For days, I agonised about my responsibility as a citizen with strong views, on the one hand, and my dubious position as someone who has spent the last two decades living abroad, shielded from the everyday realities of life in Greece, on the other. Against all my rational cosmopolitanism, meticulously built over most of my adult life spent elsewhere, I discover that there is a strong residue of affinity for the country in which I grew up and whose passport I still travel with. It is my ‘history’ – one that I did not necessarily wish for or do not cherish but one that is like “[t]he intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove.”
I never understood this referendum, not in the way that it was framed. There is no equivalence between the Yes and the No. Yes means agreement on a concrete set of measures, on a series of documents with impenetrable titles in English. In the beginning, these documents were meant to be ‘proposals’ on the table. Terrible, vindictive, inhuman, you name it – but they were there. I could read them (I did not, like those irritating, incontinent ’Terms and Conditions’ internet boxes that we are asked to tick in agreement and we do, dutifully, without caring for what they say). No, on the other hand, says nothing about the day after. I more or less know what awaits Greece if Yes wins – and it is a future that depresses me, even from the luxurious position of someone who will not be directly affected by whatever harsh measures will follow. But I know nothing of what will happen if the majority vote in favour of No. Should I take at face value what the prime minister and finance minister are saying? That a new, better agreement will come after a No vote in a couple of days and the banks will re-open bursting with €20 notes and the ‘creditors’ will rush to the table, humiliated and repentant, to offer a deal that is fairer? I could (I don’t). But this is beside the point. What No may bring has become an article of faith for either camp. I watched too much Greek TV in the past few days to realise this.
Since that first day, of course, the ‘proposals’ are no longer on the table, rightly or wrongly. Greece should have been given at least a lifeline from the ECB – but it was not. Life is not a moral tale. Those who have the power wield it, often very insensitively. The ‘proposals’ – withdrawn. The bailout – expired. The banks – closed. The negotiations – frozen. The collegiality and willingness to collaborate between the two sides – exhausted. The referendum’s question should have been restated as “would you have accepted the ‘proposals’ you will never read if they were still on the table but they are not?”, which of course is a rather tenuous basis on which to consult the people, reminding them at the same time that their vote holds so much significance for the future. Instead, the Greek government pressed on with the referendum (absolutely their very honourable right) and campaigned for a No vote from the first moment (again, their political privilege).
I would have accepted a government that, after a long negotiation, would have refused to sign an agreement presented to them that they found unacceptable. It is, what, five months since the elections that gave this same government a very strong mandate to change course. I would have been far happier if this government had alerted their interlocutors, weeks earlier, that they planned to consult the Greek people if they felt that the ‘proposals’ on offer were unacceptable, with the luxury of time and without the Damocles sword of a soon-to-expire deal that kept the banks running and the state just about working and the economy crawling. But no. The government negotiated with schizophrenic incongruousness and no sense of self-critique whatsoever. I wonder – if the ‘proposals’ that were forged after so many weeks of wrangling, so many Eurogroup meetings, so many trips and conference calls, are so terrible, what does this say also about the negotiating strategy of the Greek team?
Could it be that the ‘creditors’ are wholly to blame for this shipwreck? Maybe. But a big part of me has always wondered whether this strange Greek exceptionalism, of the most against us and us alone, says something very dark about this country’s inability to engage with the concept of compromise itself, as a journey of dialogue, of mutual concessions, and very often of accepting a sub-optimal (for both sides) conclusion. I know it sounds very noble and moving to say that certain principles are non-negotiable and worthy of a fight with potentially terrible consequences. I am no hero – not a very honourable stance but one that remains my prerogative as well. I do not like staring at a dark abyss with the sole consolation coming from the wishful thinking of those who, rightly or wrongly, in spite or because of their efforts, brought me on the precipice.
A referendum should signal a rational political process, with arguments for and against, with time to reflect, with a sensible and real basis to debate, with theoretically equivalent positions in terms of cause and effect. I want to know what happens is Yes or No wins. As things stand, unless I take the musings of the Greek finance minister at face value (and I don’t, I am sorry), I know nothing about what means or follows No. I do not understand how he thinks with such certitude that a better deal will ensue almost immediately after the rejection of the ‘proposals’ that are no longer an option anyway. I cannot comprehend how he reassures everyone that banks will re-open next week. I do not know from where he draws the conviction that the ‘creditors’ have been bluffing all the time and will acquiesce in the end. He may be right. But I do not fancy crossing a motorway believing that all these drivers will slow down and let me walk to the other side. I simply trust neither myself nor the others. And when the odds seem so overwhelmingly against me, I walk away.
I could not vote No. There is no agency in that No, only the momentary illusion of popular sanction and the political cowardice of those seeking it. The dilemma is false, manipulative, expired before it was even artificially posed. The presumed message from a No vote, symbolic rather than political, has no afterlife. It can only empower a political class to continue to behave even more erratically, irresponsibly, incongruously. It can only vindicate a strategy that has so far been ludicrously irrational and muddled, not to mention ineffective. I wish I could believe even for a moment that No means beginning to construct ‘a new European home’, bringing relief to a tortured and tired people, shining even a dim light over so many lives consumed by the fire of austerity. I wish, but I don’t. I perfectly understand why so many people desperately cling to it, for the alternative is the familiar flat line of the dying. But this is not enough for me. No means nothing beyond a stillborn carnival of merriment before the stark morning after.
And yet, two negations do not make an affirmation in this case. I could not cast a vote with Yes written on it. To vote Yes would be to sanction a monumental failure of political will and strategy, depending on what side one is referring to. No one really wants to vote Yes. Yes is asphyxiating and lifeless and repulsive. Who can even feign a drop of excitement for such a victory? In its own way, Yes too means nothing for it guarantees nothing worth hoping or fighting for. It is a desperate affirmation of something that no one could possibly believe in, let alone desire. It is a sad, frightened whimper, not an angry and passionate cry.
It has then come down to this – a battle of faiths for a dubious promise of an afterlife that neither can deliver. This referendum never aimed to foster debate and allow time for calm reflection but presented its own cynical ultimatum to the people. It asks questions that it can never answer, even as it pretends to offer an avalanche of ‘historic’ agency. This is a counterfeit “choice of pyre or pyre”. Thank-you but I shall pass.