Why Greeks Will Vote 'Yes' to Europe

Europeans tend to stick together when tested.

Will fear trump anger?

Photographer: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

If Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is confident he can persuade his countrymen to vote against the austerity package offered by their creditors on Sunday, he should think again: The history of referendums in the European Union is that voters have chosen to stick with Europe when the economic outlook was poor. And in Greece, it is ugly.

Tsipras and his government will certainly make powerful appeals to Greek national pride, heroism and the sense of indignity the country has suffered at the hands of the bailout as they try to get the outcome they want. But as recent research shows, referendums tend to be determined by hard economics and rational calculations, rather than emotion. Voters prefer prosperity to heroism.

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In 1975, for example, the U.K. opted to stay in the European Economic Community (the precursor of the EU). The British were in the depths of a deep recession, suffering from double-digit inflation and high unemployment. Voting for an uncertain future outside Europe was too risky, so the famously Euroskeptic Brits voted “yes,” by a ratio of 2 to 1, to stay with the continentals.

Related: Greece Default Watch

Two decades later the Swedes and the Finns were reeling after the collapse of the European Monetary System, a precursor currency board to the euro. There were soup kitchens operating in Helsinki. Both nations opted to join the EU when they voted in referendums in 1994.

Most recently, the Irish voted hugely in favor of the European Fiscal Compact, in a 2012 referendum. The circumstances facing the Irish in that vote were similar to those facing Greeks on Sunday.

All of this would seem to fly in the face of the widely held belief that voters tend vote against the European project whenever given the opportunity. That's certainly what happened in France and the Netherlands in 2005, when voters overwhelmingly rejected plans to adopt a European constitution. It happened again when the Swedes voted against joining the euro area in 2003.

Those votes, however, took place during periods of solid economic growth. In addition, there was no great risk in rejecting whatever new experiment EU leaders had come up with -- indeed sticking with the status quo may have seemed the safer option. But even those who question the idea that plebiscites are won in times of crisis (and vice versa) should note that EU referendums in any case tend to result in yes-votes.

That's because it is a general misperception that Europe's electorates are anti-European. Since 1972, there have been 39 referendums in western Europe on matters pertaining to the EU, of which 76 percent have resulted in a positive vote for the European project, according to data in a book I published with colleagues last year, called “Referendums Around the World.” If you include the latest members from eastern Europe, that proportion rises to 80 percent. This is another reason to expect an affirmative verdict Sunday.

The Greeks, of course, have been through an unusually tough period, which has broken the dominance of the mainstream political parties and driven voters to support radicals on the left and right. So all things are not equal. Even so, there is every reason to believe that Greeks will be as rational in their choice, and as driven by economic concerns, as were the voters of Finland, Ireland, Sweden and the U.K.

“You do not commit suicide if you fear death,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said Monday. Greeks have good reason to fear that by ticking the box next to “Oxi,” or “no,” they would be committing economic suicide -- so they probably won't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Matt Qvortrup at drqvortrup@gmail.com

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

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