Category Archives: British politics

Why are you afraid of the Greeks, Mr Cameron?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

British Prime Minister David Cameron is a worried man these days. He has every right to be. An opinion poll earlier this month gave the Labour Party a 14-point lead over the Conservatives, the largest for Cameron’s rivals since 2002. The strains in his coalition with the Liberal Democrats are showing as the public questions his government’s austerity policies, welfare cuts and vapid initiatives, such as the Big Society. The UK economy is in its second recession in four years, the country’s longest slump since the 1930s. And, one of the UK’s largest banks, Barclays, has just been fined for trying to manipulate the Libor rate for inter-bank lending.

On Tuesday, Cameron set aside these worries and discussed with a House of Commons committee a completely different set of concerns, the most significant of which was what Britain would do if Greece were to exit the eurozone. “I would be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep our country safe, to keep our banking system strong, to keep our economy robust. At the end of the day, as prime minister, that is your first and foremost duty,” he told MPs from all parties.

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London calling. Listening, Athens?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

On the day London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, we played The Clash’s “London Calling” on a radio show I co-hosted in Athens. The song — about a world slipping toward some kind of destruction — was played by a lone guitarist at a recent event to mark the one-year countdown to the English capital hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. A few days later, its lyrics — such as “London calling to the underworld/Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls” — proved an appropriate soundtrack to possibly the worst civil unrest, rioting and looting the city has ever seen.

It seemed a delicious irony that an e-mail informing me about ticketing arrangements for the 2012 Olympics should arrive in my in-box on Tuesday afternoon, as London and other cities braced for a fourth night of rioting. But there is nothing amusing in seeing the city you were born in being ripped apart a few weeks after the city you live in suffered the same fate. I can feel nothing but sadness at seeing areas I know well, places where friends live and a neighborhood where my father ran a business for more than two decades being decimated by youths who appear to have no comprehension of the damage they are wreaking on communities.

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Don’t blame it on the Greeks

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Greece’s debt crisis has given people license to blame its inhabitants for all kinds of things, so it was heartening last week to hear a leading European politician say, “You can’t blame the Greeks.” The comment by Ed Miliband, the British Labour Party’s leader, was for domestic consumption, as part of an attack on his country’s Conservative government, rather than as an expression of support for his fellow socialists at PASOK. But it was a timely reminder that the Greek crisis is not taking place in a vacuum and that the country’s experiences and dilemmas are being replicated in other parts of the world.

“Your austerity rhetoric has led to the lowest levels of consumer confidence in history in this country,” Miliband told British Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament after he revealed that the economy had grown by just 0.5 percent of gross domestic product during the first quarter of the year. “You’ve been prime minister for a year,” the Labour leader added. “You can’t blame the Greeks, you can’t blame the Bank of England, you can’t blame the last government, you can’t even blame the snow.”

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Democracy’s last laugh

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Ahead of the May general elections in the UK, Liberal Democrat leader — and soon-to-be British deputy prime minister – Nick Clegg said the UK faced Greek-style “economic, political and social disruption” if the new government could not “find a way to persuade people” to accept drastic public spending cuts. He made a lot of people laugh then. Last week, a large group of students took over the complex housing the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the coalition government, to protest the sharp rise in university tuition fees triggered by the cuts Clegg had spoken about. Nobody’s laughing now.

Greece is acutely familiar with student protests and arguments about the cost of tertiary education but there are several elements to the British youngsters’ action that should make Greeks sit up and think.

About 50,000 students took to London’s streets last Wednesday to protest the Conservative-Liberal government’s decision to raise the ceiling on annual university fees from about 3,000 pounds (3,500 euros) a year to 9,000 pounds (10,600 euros). Students were enraged first of all by the enormity of the rise – to put things into perspective, graduates in the late 1990s didn’t have to pay a penny for tuition. Just over a decade later, they face the prospect of leaving university with debts of almost 30,000 pounds (35,000) euros. The British government’s scheme to allow graduates to pay this through an extra tax that will be levied once they find permanent employment is little comfort to today’s teenagers and 20-somethings: Given the current economic conditions, the prospects of finding such a job are diminishing rapidly. The coalition government’s public spending cuts will lead to almost 500,000 civil servants losing their jobs over the next few years and the situation in the private sector is not encouraging either.

In Greece, the prospect of discussing any kind of financial contribution by university and technical college (TEI) students toward their fees was impossible at the best of times, let alone now that the education budget is being slashed. Here, however, the argument is dominated by sanctimonious academics and bloody-minded student groups who refuse to accept that scant funding is just one of many problems afflicting Greek institutions, none of which made the list of the world’s top 200 universities published by The Times last week. The British students’ fight seems more inspiring compared to the entrenchment of those who hold tertiary education hostage in Greece, as it’s about competing for a better future rather than refusing to let go of a mediocre past.

The British complain, for instance, that they’re being asked to pay three times as much for their education at a time when the state, which last year provided 8 billion pounds (9.4 billion euros) of funding for universities, is slashing its investment in the sector. In other words, they’ll have to pay more for an inferior product. So, it’s difficult for young people to accept they have to do their bit for fiscal discipline. “There is an appetite for financial rigor, so long as it reinforces recognizable moral principles,” claims Charles Moore of the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, but there doesn’t seem to be anything very moral or principled about putting tertiary education – one of the main arteries pumping new blood to the heart of the economy – beyond the reach of the less wealthy.

It can only be galling for students struggling to put themselves through university to hear Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, claim: “We’re all in this together” when they talk about their drastic cuts. The students ask: How can Cameron, Osborne or any of the 22 of 29 cabinet ministers who are millionaires feel any solidarity with those who have to deal with the impact of their austerity measures? Echoing the feeling of complete detachment between politicians and the public that has become familiar in Greece, British daily The Independent wrote in its editorial of the student protest: “The fury on display seemed to contain other strands, such as a sense of ‘them and us,’ and the conviction that direct action was the only way to convey the desired message to those in power.”

Despite the siege of Conservative Pary headquarters, the main target of the students’ anger was Clegg, who had warned of a fierce reaction to unfair cuts but seemed incapable of heeding his own advice. Students were enraged by the Lib Dem leader, because he made tuition fees one of the top issues in his election campaign. He promised he would “implacably oppose” any attempt to increase the cost of studying but his supposed principled stand buckled soon after the students helped put him in office. Last week’s protest was the just the beginning of an effort to remind Clegg and his colleagues of elected officials’ obligations. “This was the first step in holding politicians to account and using the democratic powers in our control in order to win our case,” said Aaron Porter, the head of the National Union of Students (NUS).

The NUS has indicated it will adopt a so-called “decapitation” strategy, which will see students target the constituencies of Clegg and other Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the next elections with the aim of unseating them. It’s in their embracing of the potency of democracy and their determination to invert the pyramid, so the real power lies with those who cast the ballots, not those who amass them, that the British students demand Greeks’ attention. Greek voters got a taste last Sunday of what it feels like to no longer accept politicking, when independent candidates Giorgos Kaminis and Yiannis Boutaris were elected mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, respectively. Although they were endorsed by PASOK, the ruling party’s support was so feeble it actually helped both men appear true lone riders promising a different set of values rather than members of the traditional political herd who are bound by commitments to the party.

The British students, aided by the verve of youth, have reacted to betrayal in an instant. For Greek voters, disorientated and disenfranchised by blind party allegiances and years of broken promises, the process has been much slower. Yet the victories of Kaminis and Boutaris are signs that a new way of thinking can emerge: one that dispenses with the constraints of the past and the fear of the unknown and which imbues voters with the belief that they have the power to punish the layabouts, the liars and the crooks. So, the British students and the Greek people face the same challenge: to find a way of soaking up this moment of enlightment and harnessing the power of democracy. If they manage it, they could have the last laugh.

 

While you were sleeping

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

As Monday night turned from the Night of the Long Knives that some had expected into the Night of the Long Wait that everyone dreaded, and as the reshuffle began to resemble more an open-house barbecue than a precision-timed cull of inefficient ministers, one member of government was likely to have slept through the whole affair much more soundly than any other: Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos.

The 72-year-old is one of those rare political beasts that seem untouched by time or the events that unfold around them and who become forces of nature that others have difficulty dealing with. Pangalos had made it very clear to the media in the runup to the reshuffle that he would not be going anywhere. He also informed journalists there was no way he would accept anyone being made his superior, taking over his role of watching over ministers and making sure they were not lollygagging.

It was a typical show of bravado from a politician who has become known for his bold, abrupt and sometimes callous statements. It was also a reflection of the political chicanery that Pangalos has become so adept at in the 50 years since he first stood for office. If there had been any thoughts flitting about in Prime Minister George Papandreou’s mind about prizing Pangalos out of his office, then the implicit threat in his statements – that he would not go quietly – were enough to convince him to play musical chairs with other ministers’ seats. It also meant the government played down one of the most significant aspects of the reshuffle – the appointment of Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis as the central policy coordinator of a small team of ministers that will meet regularly with Papandreou. Maybe they were hoping that if they didn’t say it too loudly, Pangalos would not notice someone had been given a very similar remit to his.

If all other things were equal, though, Pangalos would have little cause for complaint had he been one of those to lose their jobs on reshuffle night. He was given one task and one task only when appointed last October: to watch over ministers like a hawk, make sure that they were not falling behind with their workload and, if necessary, knock some heads together. Yet, 11 months later, the Cabinet has been overhauled mainly because there was a lack of coordination within government ranks and too many projects were slipping behind schedule.

In other words, it appeared that Pangalos was not up to the task. His chosen method for proving that progress was being monitored was the slacker’s ultimate decoy tool: the excel spreadsheet. Anybody logging on to the deputy prime minister’s website (http://antiproedros.gov.gr) can open the regularly updated tables which indicate how closely ministers are keeping to the timetables they have been assigned for various projects. It’s embarrassing that in a government as technologically savvy as Papandreou’s is supposed to be and for a man as intelligent and authoritative as Pangalos, all he has to show after 11 months, during which some phenomenally challenging reforms were undertaken by those around him, are a collection of measly spreadsheets. It brings to mind the late US comedian George Carlin’s comment about God being unable to do anything about, among other things, war, disease, destruction, hunger, poverty, torture and corruption. “Something is definitely wrong, this is not good work,” he said. “Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of thing you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.”

Nevertheless, these shortcomings have to be weighed against what Papandreou gains by including the 72-year-old in his government. Pangalos, who, like all true Socialists was once a member of the Communist Party, has earned his leftist spurs. He had his Greek nationality stripped from him for opposing the military junta and has stood for election since 1981 in the working class district of Elefsina, west of Athens. This has won him the respect of his party’s left wing and old-timers. At a time when Papandreou and his team have to take thoroughly unsocialist decisions, such as cutting wages and adjusting pension requirements, it’s useful to have a revered leftist voice within the party telling people how painful but necessary these choices are for PASOK.

Also, having a man of Pangalos’s intelligence and experience in its ranks helps give the government added gravitas. Pangalos studied and later researched and taught at the Sorbonne University. He’s also held three ministerial posts. He’s the type of politician who commands people’s attention when he speaks, not just because he has no qualms about being controversial but also because he often has something thought-provoking to say, as opposed to the politician-speak-for-dummies that many of his colleagues opt for.

It became clear this week that the reasons that convinced Papandreou to include Pangalos in his Cabinet are the same ones that prevented him from removing him. His qualities imbue him with more power than his deficiencies detract from him. Pangalos has carved out a niche similar to the fiefdom created by Gordon Brown when he was the British chancellor. You can imagine Papandreou saying about Pangalos some of the things former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote about Brown, who he described as “someone of extraordinary ability and capacity,” in his newly published autobiography, “A Journey.”

Blair’s self-declared “difficult” relationship with Brown and the anguish he suffered over whether to sack him or not will be familiar to Papandreou and gives us a good indication of why politicians like Pangalos are such survivors. “When it’s said that I should have sacked him, or demoted him, this takes no account of the fact that had I done so, the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilized,” writes Blair. “I came to the conclusion that having him inside and constrained was better than outside and let loose or, worse, becoming the figurehead of a far more damaging force well to the left,” he adds.

The reality for Papandreou is that he cannot afford to leave Pangalos outside the city walls, free to take potshots at his government’s crumbling defenses. It’s for this reason that in this week’s reshuffle he included in his new Cabinet several MPs – such as Dimitris Kouselas, Michalis Timosidis, Yiannis Koutsoukos and Manolis Othonas – who had been critical of the government’s choices over the previous 11 months. It’s one of the strange quirks of politics that those with the bluntest opinions and loudest voices are the ones who have the least to worry about, while those with the task of working with them face plenty of sleepless nights.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 10, 2010.

A dangerous game

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If you typed the word “Greece” into an Internet search engine a few weeks ago, all you would have got in return were stories about the economic crisis. If you conducted the same search over the past few days, those reports would have been about the national team’s involvement in the World Cup. That’s the power of sport – it doesn’t always write history but it defines the present and that’s the hard currency the world’s politicians increasingly deal in, which is why they both love and fear sport, especially its most popular exponent, football.

Sport has a unique ability to unite disparate sections of society in a way that politicians can only dream of. No amount of slick campaigning or spin doctoring can give leaders the kind of universal appeal they get by associating themselves with successful sportsmen or teams. No amount of populist rhetoric and analysis of focus group statistics can help politicians connect with the public in the way that relating to sport can.

“You can occupy a cathedral and you will have upset Catholics, a fringe of approving dissidents, an indulgent left wing, while the secular parties will be (secretly) happy. You can occupy a party’s headquarters, and other parties, with or without a show of solidarity, will think it serves them right,” wrote Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco. “But if a football stadium is occupied, the disclaiming of responsibility will be total: Church, Left, Right, State, Judiciary, Divorce League, anarchist unions, all will send the criminals to the pillory.”

An example of how football can lure politicians who want to bask in its glory came at the beginning of this week when Prime Minister George Papandreou, who hitherto had not shown any interest in sport beyond jogging and going to the gym, lauded Greece for its 2-1 win over Nigeria at the World Cup and suggested it should serve as an example for his government. “The Greek national football team won because the players displayed team spirit, which is something that Greece needs if it is to overcome the economic crisis,” he said.

Interestingly, the prime minister had not commented on Greece’s 2-0 defeat to South Korea in the opening game, when the team’s disjointed performance would presumably have served as an even timelier reminder that his government will have difficulty getting anything done if it remains as divided as it is now. Equally, the 2-0 loss against Argentina might suggest that a lack of decisiveness in the face of powerful forces will lead to the country’s ultimate failure.

Politicians toy with sport at their peril – its outcome cannot be predicted by an opinion poll and it has an uncanny knack of refusing to conform. Papandreou joins a long line of his political colleagues that have hoped a positive result on the field of play would lead to favorable developments off it. Most of them end up being deeply disappointed.

In 1970, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been hoping that a rousing display by England at that summer’s World Cup in Mexico would help his Labour Party be reelected. But England, then world champions, suffered a shock 3-2 defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals despite having led their opponents 2-0 late in the game. Four days later, on June 18, Wilson and Labour suffered an unexpected loss of their own at the ballot box despite having held a 7.5 percent lead in the opinion polls three weeks earlier. Wilson denied any connection between the two events. “Governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures,” he said. But the memoirs of top officials published in later years revealed that strategy meetings had been held when the elections were called to discuss the possible impact of an England defeat.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest leader to reap the ill-wind of a sporting disaster after his country’s national team imploded in the most spectacular way at the World Cup. The decision of striker Nicolas Anelka to cast aspersions about the sexual habits of unpopular coach Raymond Domenech’s mother during a half-time team talk sparked an almighty crisis of confidence within the team and crisis of conscience at home. Anelka was expelled by France’s soccer federation after the content of his outburst was leaked to the press. The players refused to train the following day in protest at his dismissal.

Sarkozy dispatched his Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to try and smooth things over. Bachelot said that she and the president shared “the indignation of the French people” and called for “dignity and responsibility”. Back in France, the squad’s disintegration was seen as reflecting a failed society and a failing president. “Soccer should be exemplary, but instead it has become a symptom of everything that is wrong with France: the lack of respect pupils have towards their teachers, contempt for authority, civil disobedience,” said Parisian Left Bank philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.

“We take them to be role models for kids who lost their way in life, but in reality they are just bling bling merchants for a sport which yesterday lost a lot of credit in France,” wrote daily Liberation of the players. The newspaper’s choice of words was probably no coincidence given that Sarkozy is also known as “President Bling Bling” for his showy, sometimes lavish, style.

“The shipwreck of the French team tells us something about the weaknesses of France, of a model of society that is based above all on money, which is adulated,” said Francois Bayrou, president of the centrist Union for French Democracy. Socialist deputy Jerome Cahuzac went even further. “The atmosphere that prevails in the French team is one that Nicolas Sarkozy exults – it’s all about individualism, egotism, everyone for themselves, and the only way to judge human success is the check you get at the end of the month,” he said.

A public relations disaster of this magnitude is the last thing a president with declining ratings wants to deal with. Yet, this is exactly what Sarkozy has been forced to do. After an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Francois Fillon at the Elysee Palace on Wednesday, the president was due to meet star striker Thierry Henry on Thursday. The latter meeting was taking place at the request of the player, underlining just how sport has the power to master politics and not the other way around.

Sarkozy’s travails are a far cry from the summer of 1998 when France won the World Cup on home soil with a squad known as the “Blacks, Blancs, Beurs” (Blacks, Whites, Arabs) that was the epitome of racial harmony and social cohesion. Then, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin enjoyed a double digit surge in their poll ratings. It helps explain why for decades, politicians have tried to harness sport’s positive power and deflect its negative energy. But ultimately, sport, particularly football, has proved too raw, too elusive and too ephemeral for politics to capture and tame. The politicians that remain in the hunt are clearly playing a dangerous game. 

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 25, 2010.

Life, but not as we know it

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s a scene that is becoming very familiar to people across Europe: A newly elected leader addresses his nation and blames the previous government for its “total irresponsibility” which has left a “terrible legacy” of seriously compromised public finances, which are in an “even worse state than we thought” and which will require “painful” but absolutely necessary cuts. Earlier this year, it was George Papandreou delivering this stark message — British Prime Minister David Cameron reprised the role this week.

A few days earlier, the scene had been repeated in Hungary, which, like Greece, has borrowed money from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The claims by government officials in Budapest that the previous administration had disguised the poor state of the local economy and that the public deficit would be bigger than expected, sent the type of shockwaves across the continent and international financial markets that only Athens had been capable of until recently, as concerns about a Hungarian default stoked another round of fear about the future of the euro and the EU.

Apart from Greece, Britain and Hungary, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have all had to take steps – albeit less austere than the Greek ones – to rescue their public finances. Even Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse and the metronome for stability within the Union, announced this week that it’s seeking to make more than 80 billion euros in cuts over the next few years. Until now, there has been unease about European countries being too disparate in economic terms but, ironically, the current debt crisis has suddenly given them common points of reference. It’s causing people across the continent to ask two key questions: “Why are we in this position?” and “How do we get out of it?”

There are two aspects to why so many European countries find themselves in a mess: the economic and the political. In terms of the economic failings, the EU simply found itself unprepared for the consequences of the financial crisis that began in the United States two years ago. A failure to reduce debt when European economies were booming meant that the onset of recession — which also coincided with the use of public money to prop up the private sector, especially banks — has saddled many countries with unprecedented debt and exposed an Achilles’ heel that speculators can exploit.

“The banking crisis has mutated into a sovereign debt crisis; the weakest members of the eurozone are targeted because the euro is a comparatively new currency lacking sufficiently strong institutional foundations, and because markets doubt the ability of the weaker countries to manage their debt problems,” the editorial director or the European Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas Klau, told Athens Plus.

This implies that the real roots of the crisis lie in the political arena. Just as governments across Europe have tried to mask the real size of the problem, often leaving it for the next administration to deal with, so for a number of years, the politicians of various ideological persuasions that held power found it easier to go with the flow rather than develop a long-term plan. Instead of making hay while the sun shone, they simply sat back and soaked up the rays. What happened in Greece, more than anywhere else, has driven this point home. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility or whose governments pretend that difficult decisions can somehow be avoided,” Cameron said this week.

There are few who would argue with him. “I think that the political inadequacies are most pronounced in the Greek case and to a lesser extent in Portugal,” Professor Iain Begg of the European Institute at the London School of Economics told Athens Plus. “In the other cases, it is more that – as with banks like Northern Rock or Lehman Brothers – the business model is no longer as viable as it used to be and that has fueled market scepticism. Let’s not forget that Spain actually scored pretty well in relation to the fiscal rules, even if, with hindsight, we can now say that it ought to have been running a budget surplus.”

These inadequacies, which an unnamed German official described to the International Herald Tribune’s John Vinocur as “a decade wasted through a lack of frankness and realism,” have left many European countries, the single currency and millions of people at the mercy of markets, which have now become the sole judges of economic policy. The response to this situation, therefore, must be one that is deeply political and carries serious conviction. “Because EU members were caught misrepresenting their finances with the passive acceptance of France and Germany for a decade, no response or solution that is based on a statement of intention rather than a legally binding undertaking is likely to lead the markets away from their hair-trigger surveillance of the euro and Europe’s solidity,” wrote Vinocur in the IHT this week.

The political solution to this problem must first come at an individual state level. “In the UK, the problem, I suspect will prove to be reasonably easy to manage but in Greece, the whole approach to the public sector needs radical change,” says Begg. “In Spain and Italy, labor market and welfare reforms will require political courage and leadership.”

This decisiveness then has to be replicated on a collective level as well. The IMF said as much in its report on the European debt crisis this week. “Crisis management is not an alternative to corrective policy actions and fundamental reforms needed to reinforce the foundation of the European Monetary Union,” the Washington-based fund said in the wake of European finance ministers agreeing to commit 440 billion euros to a rescue fund for debt-ridden EU members, which the IMF will also participate in.

In practical terms, it means that common policies and instruments must be devised along with checks that it is in everyone’s interest to adhere to. “What this crisis has shown is that the euro countries must accept a much stronger degree of shared sovereignty over their public finances and economic policy to ensure the long-term survival of their currency,” says Klau. “A monetary union needs a political union, as the Bundesbank wrote 20 years ago.”

Instilling this level of togetherness is going to be a massive challenge. If controling their debt in the midst of a recession appears an elusive goal for EU countries, then getting them to work in harmony toward this will seem like trying to pin down a greased greyhound during a torrential rainstorm. Already this week, Britain has rejected the notion of presenting its national budget to Brussels before submitting it to its own Parliament. The newness of the debt crisis means that political leadership and consensus will take some time to emerge but recent history indicates our futures depend on it eventually shining through.

“The decisions we make will affect every single person in our country, and the effects of these decisions will stay with us for years and decades to come,” Cameron told his audience this week as his government began reviewing its planned spending cuts. “How we deal with these things will affect our economy, our society, indeed our whole way of life,” he added. The Conservative Party leader will probably never utter more accurate words during his premiership. In fact, our way of life is already being transformed. What it changes into will depend on the political decisions taken over the next few months.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 11.