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.