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The limits of democracy

How far can you push a Parliamentary system before it ceases to be recognisable as a functioning democracy? We may be about to find out. Europe, or more accurately Germany, is making demands on the Greek Government that would turn it into little more than a protectorate of the EU and the IMF.

The whole process has become something of a soap opera, and not a very edifying one at that. For many weeks now the Greek Government has been locked in talks with the ‘Troika’, representatives of the European Central Bank, the EU and the IMF, on the terms and conditions of the latest bailout money. Every day there is a fresh twist in the plot, the latest today being that Greece’s Finance Minister Yannis Stouranas has been rushed to hospital suffering from exhaustion and a viral infection.

Greek protester push a police barricade outside the parliament during a violent protest against the visit of Angela Merkel this month Credit: Reuters

But there is, thankfully, a deadline - November 18th - when Athens says it will have run out of money unless it gets the promised cash injection from Europe. And before that happens it will have had to get some very tough medicine indeed through Parliament. That task has not been made any easier by extraordinary new German demands for control of economic policy in Greece under what it euphemistically calls “Enhanced Governance and Control Mechanisms”.

Under Berlin’s plans, Greek politicians will have no control over the money they are going to be lent. It will all go straight into a ‘Trust’ account, supervised by the Troika, that can only be spent on repaying debt. If that was not bad enough, any extra money Greece is able to make in its budget, any surplus of taxation over public expenditure, will also have to go into this account, and for good measure, any slippage from financial targets imposed by Brussels will automatically trigger cuts in all Government budgets. The take-over will be complete.

Berlin's plans will see Greece have little control over its own purse strings Credit: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Socialist Party leader Evangelos Venizelos has declared that, “we are not a protectorate,” but it is very hard to see what he is going to do about it. Without the bailout money, predicts the Prime Minister, there will be widespread social breakdown and hunger on the streets. He may be right, in which case how is the Greek Parliament able to do anything but accept the terms dictated to it?

And this is where we get to the limits of democracy. At what point do you push a democratic system so far that it suffers a breakdown, and goes all Howard Beale with a cry of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more”? Who knows, but consider this: even before the next round of cuts (€13.5bn), it is now predicted that the Greek economy will contract by more than 6% this year and 4.25% in 2013. Just 5 months ago they were predicting a contraction of 0% next year - that is how fast things are deteriorating in Greece.

Already parts of the Greek coalition Government are saying that they cannot and will not vote for parts of the Troika plans. Even the Prime Minister’s own party is expelling members for simply threatening to rebel. The political system is stretching, bulging, quivering, ready to blow. If the explosion happens the centre ground will be utterly shattered, tarred by have co-operated for so long with those who placed such demands on a free people. And then all that will be left are the extremists.