Greece: Towards the Creditors’ Constitution?

Jeremy Smith

The Eurogroup’s recent statement on ‘support’ to Greece had more than a whiff of colonialism about it, but its high water mark of external interference was the following:

 “Finally, the Eurogroup in this context welcomes the intention of the Greek authorities to introduce over the next two months in the Greek legal framework a provision ensuring that priority is granted to debt servicing payments. This provision will be introduced in the Greek constitution as soon as possible.”

 This is truly startling and worrying stuff.

It is one thing to insist on some practical conditions attached to a loan or bail-out – but quite another to interfere in the Constitutional set-up of a sovereign state, to impose a duty to pay creditors take precedence over all other human and citizen concerns, needs and rights.  Article 2.1 of the Greek Constitution currently provides, for example, that “respect and protection of the value of the human being constitute the primary obligations of the State.”  Can this survive? Or will it be revised to state that “protection of creditors constitutes the primary obligation of the State”?

Yet the last sentence of the above quote from the Eurogroup statement makes no pretence that the new constitutional provision (to place creditors’ rights above human rights) is the Greek government’s ‘intention’ – it is a bald assertion of an overriding imperial imperative.

Fortunately for Greek democracy, “as soon as possible” is not very soon. There is time to regroup and say no. The Greek Constitution, which came into force in 1975 – thus after the ousting of the right-wing military dictatorship – and last amended in 2008, has some very important protections built into it.

First, as to sovereignty. The Troika’s first stumbling block is Article 1:

 “1. The form of government of Greece is that of a parliamentary republic.

2. Popular sovereignty is the foundation of government.

3. All powers derive from the People and exist for the People and the Nation; they shall be exercised as specified by the Constitution.”

 And beware all who would seek to undermine this popular sovereignty. Article 120 provides a rather fierce rampart against “usurpation” of the Constitution, “in any way whatsoever”:

“3. Usurpation, in any way whatsoever, of popular sovereignty and of powers deriving therefrom shall be prosecuted upon restoration of the lawful authority; the limitation from which punishment for the crime is barred shall begin as of the restoration of lawful authority.

And Greeks may in some cases resist “by all possible means”:

 “4. Observance of the constitution is entrusted to the patriotism of the Greeks who shall have the right and the duty to resist by all possible means against anyone who attempts the violent abolition of the Constitution.”

 In addition, the Constitution wisely contains provisions which make impetuous revisions impossible, even (or especially) those resulting from powerful external pressures. They are set out in Article 110.

First key point, revision of the Constitution is not permitted before the lapse of five years from the completion of a previous revision.  This means no revision is permitted before 28th May 2013 (I assume that the process could be started before then by the present Parliament, but I have not confirmed this interpretation).

Second, the process and voting has to be spread over the lifetime of two Parliaments.

Third, it requires support from majorities (including at one point a super-majority) of the total number of Members of Parliament.

In outline, the process is this. Any proposal for a revision must be put forward by at least 50 MPs, and then get the support of a majority of the total number of MPs, voting twice with at least one month between.

Then, it is for the next Parliament to decide on the amendment.  If the proposal was put forward by the last Parliament with a supporting majority of three-fifths of the total number of MPs, then a simple majority of the total membership of the new Parliament will suffice.  If it had the support of a majority of MPs in the last Parliament, but less than three-fifths, then a change to the Constitution requires a three-fifths majority of the total membership of the new Parliament.

So there is still a long way to go before the Creditors’ Constitution becomes a reality in Greece. But this is not just a story for Greece – what is being tried there can be tried anywhere. It is in our common interest, as Europeans, to resist these attempts to override our democratic constitutional traditions by making protection of the rights of bankers and creditors the supreme obligation of our states.