The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Greek crisis a reminder that the European Union was a terrible idea to begin with

A woman holds a Greek flag as people celebrate after early results showed those who rejected further austerity measures in a crucial bailout referendum were poised to win. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

When Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras decided to call a referendum on a bailout offer from Greece's creditors — an offer that expired before Sunday's referendum — he informed the Greek nation in a televised speech. At 1 a.m.

Mediterranean lifestyles are different. Greece’s chosen style of living is dependent on others’ choices.

Tsipras is a peculiar phenomenon, a defiant mendicant. He urged voters to do what they did. In voting "no," they asserted that Greece's dignity is incompatible with loans that come with conditions attached. Tsipras's Syriza Party insists, however, that dignity is compatible with perpetual dependency on the forbearance and productivity of others.

Karl Marx, an intellectual for whom labor as most 19th-century people experienced it was only a rumor, detested the division of labor because it "alienated" workers. But although Syriza partakes of the European left's unending romance with Marxism, its program requires a particular division of labor: Greece will live better than its economic productivity can sustain, and more productive Europeans will pay the difference. Until socialism arrives, Marx said, "the worker . . . is only himself when he does not work," a sentiment many Greeks embrace by retiring on government pensions at age 50.

Left-wing parties in other southern European countries — Portugal, Spain, Italy — are watching to see if Greece can turn weakness, indeed prostration, into strength: Continue to rescue us or we will collapse into a contagious mess. Actually, the risk of economic contagion is slight: Greece's economy is about the size of Louisiana's, and is 2 percent of the euro zone's, and markets have discounted a Greek default. The real danger is a political contagion — a flight from free-market reforms elsewhere.

What Greece looks like today

People stand in a queue to use an ATM of a bank as a person begs for alms, in Athens, Monday, July 13, 2015. Greece reached a deal with its European creditors Monday, pledging stringent austerity to avoid an exit from the euro. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

It is said that the European Union is a splendid idea but that the euro — the common currency — is a bad idea. Actually, the euro is a bad idea that is the logical application of an even worse idea — the European Union.

By the middle of the 20th century, after the Somme and the Holocaust, Europeans were terrified of themselves. This propelled the movement toward European unity, yet another of Europe’s misbegotten enthusiasms.

One from which Margaret Thatcher, a daughter of the "Mother of Parliaments," quickly recoiled. In 1988, she said: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels." In the general election campaign earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on British membership in the E.U. It will be more important than this year's parliamentary elections because it will determine whether future parliamentary elections will matter.

The E.U. exists to require nations to "pool" their sovereignties in unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies. The retrograde point of the E.U. is to leech from national parliaments powers that were hard-won over many centuries of struggle. National governments rendered unserious by the E.U. are apt to regress to adolescence, as with Syriza's referendum — a tantrum masquerading as governance.

Seventy years after the guns fell silent, the drive to turn “Europe” from a geographic into a political expression lacks the excuse of preventing continental convulsions caused by nationalistic militarisms. Now, the drive for “ever closer union” — which means ever-more attenuated democracy — is fueled by the traditional socialist (and, in the United States, the progressive) goal of expanding the reach of a mandarin class of supposed experts in social rationality.

Today, the European Parliament has 24 official languages, and the fate of "Europe" is said to be linked to the future of ramshackle Greece. There, on Sunday night, people poured into Athens's Syntagma Square to celebrate having told the creditors to send more money with fewer strings attached. Many celebrants came to the square by subway, which did not charge riders because capital controls, a consequence of five years of negotiations with creditors and evasions of reality, had made currency scarce.

On Sept. 30, 1938, when French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier's plane bringing him back from the Munich conference was landing in Paris, he feared that the crowd gathered at the airport would be furious because of the concessions that had been made to Hitler. When Daladier saw that the crowd was cheering, he reportedly said: "The bloody fools." After the 61 percent "no" vote was announced in Sunday's referendum, there was dancing in the streets of Athens.

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