Grand gestures, empty gestures

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There was some important news relating to Greece on Monday. The European
Commission’s statistics agency, Eurostat, unveiled EU unemployment figures that showed the jobless rate in Greece has risen to a painful 17.6 percent. Given
that unemployment has been rising incessantly over the last couple of years,
these are the kind of figures that should set alarm bells ringing. Instead, the
panic button was pressed for a very different reason.

We might not discover for some time what really prompted Prime Minister
George Papandreou to call for a referendum on whether Greece should accept the latest eurozone debt deal. A number of theories have been put forward:
Papandreou is unhappy with some aspects of the agreement and wants to use the
referendum as leverage to force a better one or the prime minister was jolted by
the strong reaction of protesters during the October 28 parades or he wants to
buy some time and goodwill for his beleaguered government by avoiding elections or he wants to find a heroic end to the dead-end he’s trapped in.

Each and all of these scenarios are possible but also puzzling. If Papandreou
wanted to strengthen his negotiating hand, surely the wiser tactic would have
been to tell his EU counterparts before the latest negotiations of his intention
to hold a referendum. If his decision was prompted by Friday’s protests – as
powerful symbolic as they were – then it would suggest that the premier has not
read a newspaper, listened to the radio or watched TV over the last few months.
If his aim is to buy his government some time, then this assumes confidence in
winning the referendum, which simply cannot be justified under the current
circumstances. Were Papandreou looking for a way to sign off with his head held
high, then surely delivering the haircut and walking off into the sunset of his
own accord would have been a much more fitting moment than being booted out at the ballot box.

In fact, there is very little that is logical about calling a referendum at
this point. The inability of the Greek people to express politically their view
on the way this crisis is being handled has undoubtedly fanned the flames of
protest but that leaves the government with two choices: either to weather the
storm because its relying on its mandate from the 2009 poll and feels that what
it’s doing is right or it calls elections and lets voters reshuffle the parliamentary deck based on what policies each party proposes.

Instead, what is being proposed is a potentially dangerous half-way house.
Under normal circumstances, a referendum would be a cause to celebrate – after
all, it would be the first time since 1974, when Greeks voted to send their
royal family to exile, to directly express an opinion on an issue of utmost
importance. However, in this case, such a reaffirmation of democracy would be a
path fraught with dangers that might lead to the very ability to decide their
fate being whipped away from the Greek people and their Parliament. For
instance, it is quite possible the International Monetary Fund’s executive board
will sit in Washington over the next few days and vote not to release any more
loans for Greece, pending the outcome of a referendum vote. Greece’s eurozone
partners may follow suit. This would leave Greece unable to meet its remaining
commitments this year. The decision to plunge the country – barring a miraculous intervention – into bankruptcy would be signed, sealed and delivered to the door of an outgoing prime minister. Equally, the banks that provisionally agreed last week to a 50 percent haircut would be left with little motive to finalize that deal given that the Greeks could reject it in January anyway.

Nobody can argue against giving the Greek people a say – after all, the
October 26 deal means that their country will be under the supervision of others
for the next decade – but what they would be asked to decide on is unlikely to
exist by January. It’s a supreme irony that Papandreou seems to have scuppered
Greeks’ opportunity to have their say by actually calling for a vote but it’s in
keeping with the mixed messages and twisted thinking that has accompanied the
prime minister’s doomed attempt at democratic gymnastics.

After all, it was only a few days ago that Papandreou defended the deal in a
televised address, arguing that it made Greece’s debt sustainable. To propose a
referendum on the agreement a few days later suggests that as the country’s
elected leader he did not have confidence in the agreement from the start.

However, the hypocrisy has not only been on Papandreou’s part. It has been
revealing how quick opponents of the deal and those skeptical about Greece’s
heightened state of supervision Greece have reacted to the possibility of the
agreement being rejected at the ballot box. New Democracy, which made much of the sovereignty issue last week, is now worried that the referendum would lead to Greece’s exit from the euro and the EU. The Coalition of the Radical Left
(SYRIZA), which had called for the initial loan deal to be put to a referendum,
now insists only elections would.

In fact, the only good thing that would have come from the referendum would
have been that it would have forced all those who have stood on the sidelines
shouting about easy solutions to come onto the field of play and defend their
theories in front of the Greek people. But this won’t happen now. The referendum has been overtaken by the prospect of national elections, where voters will have a different chance to gauge the sincerity of their politicians.

The question they will have to ask of their leaders and parties is not who
will be able to provide more of the grand gestures of mock leadership that
Papandreou made his trademark in the past years – Greece has been abundantly
blessed with those in the past – but who, if anyone, can tackle the real
problems the country faces. Combating unemployment might be a good start – jobs are something that Greece is in desperate need of.

Nick Malkoutzis

One response to “Grand gestures, empty gestures

  1. EU-elites must be having a bad morning today after hearing about Mr. Papandreou’s bombshell of a plebiscite. No need to feel pity for them! Perhaps that will motivate them to start thinking what “real help” for Greece would be instead of only focusing on what help for banks is.

    Obviously, to actually hold a plebiscite is nonsense. What would it achieve? If the result were “yes”, there would still be close to 50% of the people vehemently opposed to the government’s plan. And if it were “no”, it would be a fast route to poverty and perhaps even anarchy. Apart from the fact that one cannot even envisage what question the voters should be asked.

    However, the threat of a plebiscite which would bring down the stage of a carefully crafted bank rescue plan for which Greece would be making available her balance sheet is an excellent negotiating tool. Congratulations on that, Mr. Prime Minister!

    The big shortfall of all measures to date is that the Greek government is being forced to radically reduce its expenditures without, at the same time, implementing measures to stimulate growth in the economy. The expense cutting on the part of the public sector cannot be avoided. When the public sector shrinks, the rest of the economy must grow in order to keep the overall result bearable for the population.

    So the stage is set for a wonderful new approach: the EU has become accustomed to throwing around 3-digit billion EUR numbers in connection with what they call “help for Greece”. With those dimensions, it would truly be “chickenfeed” to throw in, say, another 10 billion EUR for growth projects in the Greek economy. While the 3-digit billion numbers don’t do Greece any good, 10 billion EUR for the Greek economy, if invested well, would produce wonders.

    The question would be how that 10 billion EUR are best spent in such a way that one gets “most bang for the buck”; i. e. the maximum number of new jobs and new income for Greeks out of productive activities. If the monies are handled by public entities (be that the EU or the Greek government), the risk is that they may to a large degree end up in the wrong pockets. The ultimate test of what a good investment is is whether or not a private investor would also make it voluntarily.

    The EU should consider the following: make the 10 billion EUR available to serious investors (inside and outside of Greece) who have convincing investment plans for value-generating new investments in Greece which create jobs and income for Greeks (and income taxes for the Greek government).

    And when the EU has finally decided to help the Greek economy, the plebiscite can be called off.

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