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Mythbust

EU doesn’t engineer coups

by Hugo Dixon | 25.04.2016

Myth: EU brought down Berlusconi and Papandreou, and tried to get rid of Tsipras.

InFact: Both Berlusconi and Papandreou lost the confidence of their parliaments. Hardly an EU coup. Tsipras had to abandon his electoral pledge to end austerity. This was because he was a demagogue who had made wild promises and was then forced to face reality.

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Brexiteers say the EU engineers coups. They typically point to three examples: Berlusconi’s departure in Italy, George Papandreou’s resignation as Greek premier at roughly the same time, and Alexis Tsipras’s inability to get rid of austerity policies after he was elected Greek prime minister last year.

Although the EU certainly played a role in each of these situations, none meets the definition of a coup.

Look first at Berlusconi. By autumn 2011, he had already lost the confidence of the Italian people because of sex and judicial scandals. Meanwhile, his coalition splintered and as a result was on a wafer-thin majority.

Then the government’s borrowing costs started rising after Berlusconi refused to implement retrenchment policies advocated by his finance minister. Italy was on the verge of bankruptcy when the premier was hounded out of office. Sure, Berlusconi also lost the confidence of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then president. But the main factor behind his resignation was that “his majority was not there any more”, says Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of political science at Luiss university in Rome.

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The Papandreou story was in some ways similar. He decided to hold a referendum on a bailout plan he had negotiated with Greece’s eurozone creditors. But he failed to tell in advance either those creditors or senior members of his own party, including Evangelos Venizelos, his finance minister and deputy prime minister. Merkel and Sarkozy were certainly unhappy. But Papandreou could still have hung on to power if his own MPs hadn’t turned against him.

When a prime minister loses the confidence of his parliament that surely cannot be called a coup – even if foreign heads of government are pleased with the outcome.

The Tsipras situation is different because he managed to keep the confidence of the Greek people and parliament. The issue, rather, is that he wasn’t allowed to get rid of the conditions set by the country’s creditors, despite promising the electorate that he would do so. But when a country borrows a vast sum of money, it obviously comes with strings attached. Tsipras made wild promises he couldn’t hope to keep. What happened wasn’t a coup: it was the case of a demagogue being forced to face reality.

This article is an adaptation of a piece that previously appeared in the Guardian and on InFacts. It is re-published here with permission

Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

Edited by Hugo Dixon