Rarely has the result of a confidence vote mattered less. Whether or not the government of George Papandreou wins the vote, it is almost certain to be replaced by a government of national unity. And that’s because it is a vote of confidence that is being held long after all confidence has gone. Whether he wins or loses tonight, George Papandreou is almost certain to go.
What did it for him in the end was not the rioting on the streets of Athens or bullying from Frankfurt but the impossibility of reconciling the pressures from both. For months he’s been stuck between a rock and hard place, between the austerity being urged from above and the resistance of the people below.
On Thursday he cracked.
His call for a referendum smacked of desperation, a sort of abdication of responsibility in the face of impossible and irreconcilable, upward and downward pressures. The problem being that the choice that must have appeared to him as the only way out, also happened to be the worst one possible.
It was also one that Germany and France were never going to accept. After weeks of round the clock negotiations, of grumbling at home, of putting their political capital on the line and all the while trying to patch up their differences; Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy watched on in horror as the Greek prime minister suggested giving it all up with the referendum proposal. And they both made their opinions felt quickly and forcefully. It was the euro that would be saved and not Greece, since Greece seemed unwilling to save itself.
The last few days have shown not only the cracks that have come to emerge in the eurozone, but the inadequacy of the very foundations on which it was built. They’ve also shown that the nature of Europe has changed profoundly. Those changes will now have to be digested and, no doubt, reconsidered because the problem is no longer just about currency, but about democracy.
In the end, the referendum proposal will likely cost Papandreou his job. But it has also shown Europe that power now lies beyond the grasp of national governments. It now lies with what has become the de facto government of the EU - the Franco-German couple, the leaders of just two European countries.
The ultimate irony of course being that it was by choosing to hand power to the people that Papandreou has shown just how far from them it has actually drifted.