Reaching the age of consensus

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was ironic that as the Greek government supposedly went in search of consensus last week, the streets of Athens should look just like the streets of other European capitals. As Prime Minister George Papandreou embarked on his doomed attempt to reach agreement with opposition party leaders, the only place where there seemed to be any unity of opinion was on the streets.

Student protestors in London raged against a coalition government pricing many of them out of university education, Italians vented their frustration at the seemingly impossible survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while in Athens private and public sector workers expressed their anger at the latest set of reforms that are changing the face of Greek society.

Amid this turmoil, like the fishing boat skipper setting out for sea as the perfect storm looms, Papandreou cast his nets in the hope of catching a public relations victory. His effort to achieve “consensus” can be seen as nothing else but a frivolous foray into the choppy waters of political gamesmanship when there are much more pressing issues to deal with, such as thousands of Greeks losing their jobs and the country going through a violent adjustment to economic reality.

At a time when Greece, as well as many other countries in Europe are beginning to resemble the fractured British society of the Margaret Thatcher years, one of the former UK prime minister’s comments comes to mind: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” It perfectly sums last week’s aborted attempt to build accord between the parties.

Ostensibly, Papandreou invited the other party leaders for talks to find common ground on the challenging reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and to adopt common positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels at the end of last week, where politicians were due to agree on the details of the permanent support mechanism for members with sovereign debt problems. In reality, though, there were no grounds for believing that any of the political leaders would agree to common positions on the reforms or on what positions Greece should adopt at the EU negotiations.

It was delusional to expect any kind of understanding on the structural changes given that they were due to be voted through Parliament a few hours after the party leaders met Papandreou. It’s no formula for success to encourage someone to join you on a journey when your bags are already packed, the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. Understandably, none of the other leaders decided to jump in the moving vehicle. As New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras pointed out, there is a world of difference between “consensus” and “consent.” None of the other parties had been consulted about the content of the bill on the restructuring of public utilities such as the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and the redrafting of labour laws. Once the legislation has been submitted to the House, the role of the opposition parties is to debate it and then vote for or against it – the time for consensus-building has passed. But even at this late stage, the government did all it could to antagonize the opposition rather than encourage unity by submitting the reforms as an emergency bill and thereby limiting debating time to an absolute minimum. It’s no surprise that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras decided to boycott the talks with Papandreou – being portrayed as an accessory to policies you do not agree with, nor have had any part in shaping is not something that any young politician wants to have on their CV.

The reasoning that Tuesday’s “consensus” talks would firm up Greece’s positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit was also feeble. Papandreou had already made his government’s ideas on some of the key issues crystal clear both at home and abroad. He had been shouting from the European rooftops for some time that Athens was in favour of the creation of a Eurobond and against private bondholders having to accept lower returns, or a “haircut”, on their investment as part of a permanent bailout scheme. It’s implausible that Papandreou would have suddenly performed a volte-face because Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga or the Popular Orthodox Rally’s (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis expressed misgivings. As it turned out, the Brussels summit was a damp squib rather than a landmark moment demanding national agreement from all of Greece’s politicians.

There is no doubt there are few choices in the sticky position Greece finds itself– there is never much wiggle room when you have been backed into a corner. But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the course being followed to get Greece out of the crisis. After all, it has never been the role of any opposition to provide the sitting government with succour. Its duty has always been to challenge the government’s policies, to highlight its failings and to offer alternatives. One area where Greece’s opposition parties can be seriously criticized is not in their inability to find common ground with PASOK but in their failure to provide plausible alternatives. Samaras developed a pie-in-the-sky scheme to wipe out Greece’s debt by the end of 2011, which was roundly rejected in the November local elections. In democracies, opposition parties have and always will be judged by the quality of their opposition, not the level of consensus they achieve with the government.

Greece is going through a period of immense upheaval, during which, as Samaras said “the terms by which millions of Greeks live are changing.” Clearly, if everybody agreed on the recipe for change, this process would be straightforward but it would also mean our living, breathing democracy would be brain dead. If people are not to question their government’s choices now, then when? Why shouldn’t voters or politicians doubt the efficacy or fairness of some of the EU-IMF-prescribed decisions?

From the latest package of reforms, for instance, few would argue with reducing wages at public enterprises, where many employees had built cash-lined fiefdoms, and cutting costs at public transport companies that are losing taxpayers’ money by the bus-load. In fact, New Democracy supported these provisions, proving that you don’t go in search of consensus; you build it around your ideas. In contrast, it was much more difficult for the opposition parties to back the articles of last week’s bill that allow companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals. This is a clear challenge to the rights of employees in the private sector, who unlike their pampered public sector counterparts have only been enjoying the protection offered by collective contracts since the 1990s. These agreements, which blossomed after Greece’s entry into the EU, are designed to give workers more reasonable pay and conditions and shelter from unscrupulous bosses, of whom there are many in Greece. As such, they are completely in keeping with the EU’s ideal of creating fairer, more socially conscious societies. To strip away these rights, which include respectable compensation deals for sacked employees, as jobs dry up and Greeks have to think about how they’re going to feed themselves and their families only increases the sense of insecurity.

Equally importantly, it’s an affront to the section of Greek society that has carried the country for the last few decades. Private sector workers, of whom there are about 2 million in Greece, have been the ones who have consistently paid their taxes and social security contributions – after all, their wages are taxed at source. Whether the employers who have withheld this money have been equally diligent is another question. Yet, despite their unswerving dedication to fairness and the advancement of national cause, it’s these workers that find themselves being punished by the latest measures, which look like a precursor to collective contracts being scrapped altogether and private sector wages being forced down.

In this climate, therefore, it seems unrealistic, almost offensive that voters and opposition politicians are being asked to give their consent without the government making any effort to win what is a crucial argument. The bypassing of Parliament and collective contracts and the mantra that “there is no alternative” does not make for a healthy democracy, or for a public that can find much good in the measures. It’s a mix that leads to people losing their belief in the political system and seeking answers, a voice and, in some cases retribution, on the streets. After all, the way things are going, this is where an increasing number of Greeks will find themselves anyway.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Kathimerini English Edition on December 20, 2010.

7 responses to “Reaching the age of consensus

  1. Sir,

    Glad to see you are still posting your pieces here after the sad demise of the Athens Plus. Great opinion piece this. I read your analysis with pleasure and agree with almost everything.

    Just one question about the collective contracts of private sector workers: I was under the impression that this bill only allows companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals when they are in grave financial trouble?! That would be a system that is functioning in The Netherlands for almost 30 years. There a company that finds itself in dire straits sits down with the unions and the OAED and hammers out a deal whereby like this. When the company survives all rights are restored. And, over the years, it saved a lot of jobs.

    A total scrapping of collective bargaining is indeed a bad idea. And that would constitute the ‘back to the Dark Ages’ like Samaras said. Although I am never to sure about making it generally binding beyond the industries for which these collective agreements are hammered out.

    Yours Sincerely
    Anton Harfst
    Xirokambi, Lakonia

    • Anton, thanks for your comment. Yes, I will continue to publish opinion pieces here and in Kathimerini English Edition. I will also try my best to get more material up on the blog in the coming months. You make a very interesting point about collective labour contracts and the system that has been employed in the Netherlands. I believe a similar process has been adopted in Germany. Ireland also based its economic growth in the 1990s on harmony between unions and employers. I would say that under normal circumstances, most Greek workers and their unions would be willing to sit down at the negotiating table to discuss an across-the-board wage reduction, for example, if it means that people do not have to lose their jobs. However, for such a discussion to take place there has to be transparency, both from the unions and the employers. I’m afraid that this doesn’t exist in Greece. The state of the unions is something I have touched on before and I’m sure we will come back to. But the key role here is played by the employers and I am sorry to say that I do not trust a lot of Greek businessmen to use these new powers fairly or transparently. The impression I have from the way a number of employers have behaved over the last few weeks is not favourable – rather than sitting down with their employees and their representatives and discussing a strategy to survive the crisis, they have been using this new law as a tool to blackmail workers into accepting what they are offered without discussion or face being fired. I hope that this is just a temporary reaction but the wording of the law, I fear, leaves the legislation open to abuse. The law neither places a time limit on how long these in-house deals can last – in fact, it says “they can be renewed” without being more specific. Also, to answer the other part of your question, it gives no specific financial parameters for when collective labour contracts can be by-passed. Again, I quote from the bill itself: “The special company labour contracts take into account the need for firms to adapt to market conditions with the aim of creating or preserving jobs and improving the productivity and competitiveness of the companies.” It seems to me that not only is this vague, it is completely open to any kind of interpretation that suits employers. I hope that I am wrong. Thanks for raising a very intersting point and sorry for the long-winded answer but I thought it was important to clarify a murky situation. Looking forward to hearing back from you.

  2. Nick, your answer was not at all “long-winded”. These are complex issues in one of the most complex societies I have ever lived in. So thank you for your detailed response.
    Your keywords are fairness, transparency, accountability and trust. If I learned one thing in the almost 5 years since I moved here and in the 2 years we founded our business in Greece, then it is the lack of those four things.
    Until you live, work and invest everything you have into this country, you absolutely don’t get any idea how Greece is functioning. And every day again I have a moment in which I stop and stare in disbelieve at something I never knew existed in a EU-country. I have seen an Italian businessman totally shocked!
    But let me not go into that. Instead let me make one observation. I have never seen a country with so many day-t0-day laws enshrined into the constitution, I have never seen so many laws period. Everybody here can tell you what their constitutional rights are, but no one knows if he or she will get what is rightfully theirs. When push comes to shove there is no legal certainty in Greece. Just a façade of justice… And parea, of course.
    And as long as we don’t find a solution to get Greece functioning like a modern society I don’t see how we can get out of this hole.

    • Anton, I think the “Greek experience” you describe will be familiar to a lot of people. Although it was one of the testing experiences of my life, I will never regret setting up my own company in Greece because it gave me such a great insight into the way that the system works, or doesn’t work. The proliferation of laws is, as you rightly point out, a huge problem. The fact that there are so many laws means that each government will introduce its own legislation, which creates a chaotic, instable environment that is certainly a deterrent to entrepreneurs and investors. Also, it allows criminals and cheats to hide behind the red tape. Thanks for sharing your experience – I’m sure it’s valuable knowledge to anyone reading this blog. Keep the comments coming.

  3. Nick, I could not agree more. Indeed, dispide everything and what might still happen, I will never regret our decission to choose to live and work in this country.
    After everything is said, it is the Greek people that make it worth wile. Greece is my home and always was. From the day I set foot in Piraeus, more than a quarter centrury ago. With all their faults… they are unique. And especially Spartans and Lacadonians. Their hospitallity is second to none. Tonight we did our last shopping in our village. The butcher cut the meat we wanted of the animals. Fresh as you never get. The baker still got a few bread left, but his mother will start baking fresh in a couple of hours. We got a call from a supplier that he delivered a huge photograph of mine (70x70cm) in the local hotel. Framed but could not find a nail to hang it. So we will go there tomorrow to hang that piece. We dropped by at one of the local tavernas to pick up 5 liters of freshly made tsipouro, just to hear he just sold our batch, but tomorrow morning we can collect our bottle. A business contact had dropped three pots of olive paste of for us, so we could collect them. And he poured us a few free large tsipouro and we toasted to our health…
    This is Greece and it is so worth to get worked up about it like we obviously both are.
    Please keep your blog entries coming, because they give an extra insight in how this devilish but so fascinating country is functioning and not functioning. This impossible country with its unique people. I hate and love them… and I care deeply. Kalo Christouyenna kai chronia polla!

    • Anton, that’s a nice snapshot of Greece – the highs and lows. I’ve always believed that this is a land of great contradictions. Let’s see what’s in store for us in 2011. A great Christmas to you and everyone else reading this.

  4. Καλά Χριστούγεννα! And yes, I can’t wait what 2011 has in store for us all. I wish you, your loved ones and everyone else all the best.

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