Category Archives: British politics

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.

Judgment day

Earlier this year, I landed in London a few hours before former Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to face the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. It was the first opportunity the British people had to see Blair answering questions about his deeply unpopular decision to send British troops to Iraq since he stepped down from office some three years earlier. It had all the makings of a watershed moment for British democracy: a prime minister who was perceived as mendacious being brought to account by a team of experts. The reality, though, proved much less fulfilling.

Time did not stop for Londoners, apart perhaps for the few dozen protesters outside the hearing, brandishing their “Bliar” placards, and the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq who attended the sessions. In fact, most people went about their normal business. This sense of normality on what was in many ways a historic day suggested Britons had long ago accepted Blair went into Iraq for the wrong reasons and they had since moved on with their lives. For the rest, the hope of any politician — let alone one as skilled in the art of communication as Blair — being forced into a corner by an inquiry panel had long since passed.

As Andrew Rawnsley, a political commentator for the Observer weekly, wrote at the time: “There was never a chance that the former prime minister was going to break down in a blubbering confession to atrocious errors before handing himself over to the protesters outside who had mocked up a jail for him.” The British public, just like savvy voters in many other countries, had come to accept that inquiries may embarrass and inconvenience politicians and public officials but they rarely hold them to account for their acts. However independent the hearings may be – and in Greece they are not at all, since they are carried out by sitting MPs – they exist because a prime minister or a parliament has decided that they should. Those who work with or within the political system have many faults but biting off the hand that feeds them is rarely one of them.

That’s why it was such a surprise last week that the parliamentary committee investigating the Siemens cash-for-contracts scandal should actually produce an admission of guilt from a politician. Former Transport Minister Tasos Mantelis’s admission that he accepted bribes from Siemens Hellas prompted calls for former PASOK Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who appointed and worked with Mantelis, to appear before the same parliamentary committee to answer questions about what he knew of the shady deals being done by members of his government.

This bandwagon is being driven by New Democracy, which under its new leader, Antonis Samaras, senses an opportunity to publicly haul Simitis over the coals and to establish in the public’s mind that PASOK is a deeply corrupt party. It’s a perception that could serve him well at the next general election, whenever that may be. But PASOK is not going to sit idly by and let its former leader be the one to carry the blame for years of corruption, so it has begun pushing for ex-conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to face the committee of MPs investigating the real-estate swap between the state and the Vatopedi Monastery after testimony suggested that some of his closest aides had helped set up the allegedly corrupt deal.

Simitis’s response has been a flat rejection, claiming that his appearance before the panel without evidence linking him to any wrongdoing would simply reward and fuel baseless speculation. From Karamanlis’s side there has simply been what we’ve come to expect from the former ND leader, given the pattern of his five years in office: no response at all. They both risk embarrassment if they do appear before the committees. Simitis’s premiership, perhaps the most productive of Greece’s recent history, could be reduced to nothing more than a tawdry tale of under-the-table deals and broken promises. Karamanlis, for whom the public indignation is still fresh, is in jeopardy of confirming the suspicion that he was dwarfed by the size of his task and let Greece’s hopes burn while he fiddled.

They are both aware that there is nothing more the political system could do with now than two high-profile sacrificial lambs. It would give the public an opportunity to channel their anger and the current breed of politicians of all hues to claim they are the new broom sweeping away the dirt of the past. As British historian Tristram Hunt – who himself has gone into politics as a Labour MP – put it: “Ever since the scribes of the Renaissance branded the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages,’ propagandists have deployed history to codify the future. You rubbish the past as a lost opportunity of waste, indecision and stupidity. And you celebrate the present as a blessed release from such hopelessness.”

As two of the many architects of Greece’s divisive and shambolic political system, Simitis and Karamanlis know full well what awaits them. Like the builders of a rickety summer house who have been invited for a weekend stay – they know that the knob will come off in their hand as soon as they open the door and that the whole structure will collapse on them within hours.

They clearly have a strong argument for not wanting to put themselves through this ordeal but the reasons for coming forward are even more powerful. Their refusal to attend the committee hearings would mean that Greece’s institutions are a sham and the political system is at a dead-end with little hope of finding a way out. The momentum for change has to come from somewhere and with the current government struggling to cope, it seems incapable of providing this forward movement. It’s an ideal opportunity for these two men – who led Greece for 13 years in total – to be in the vanguard of those dragging the country to more fertile pastures, rather than skulking at the back. It’s a chance for them to admit the mistakes of the past so they should not repeated in the future. It’s even a moment for them to stand up and defend themselves if necessary but it’s certainly not the time to dismiss Greece’s democracy and its institutions as tired and toothless.

Rawnsley wrote of Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry: “This was certainly not Judgment Day. Tony Blair once said that he expected to have to answer to his Maker. Assuming they ever meet, perhaps he is right.” Simitis and Karamanlis are not likely to meet their Maker soon but they will encounter a lot of people who voted for them, which may prove a much scarier prospect, given the anger that’s fermenting among disillusioned Greeks. If they ever expect to be able to look these people in the eye rather than have to turn their backs to hails of abuse, then they must appear at the committee hearings. Unlike Blair, they do not have to protect powerful international allies or colleagues still serving in government. Simitis and Karamanlis are not bound by the constraints of a system that has now catapulted them to its fringes. They should, therefore, speak up and let the people judge.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 5.

A third way

Illustration by Manos Symeonakia

A prime minister who’s abandoned his socialist roots, an opposition that doesn’t know how to profit from the failings of a beleaguered government, a terrifying deficit that will take years to tame, a staggering rate of borrowing, fear that the International Monetary Fund will have to be called in and a smaller opposition party that is threatening to shake up the established order: All of these apply to both Britain and Greece apart from the last one. Whereas the Liberal Democrats are set to capitalize on economic uncertainty and political fatigue by making a discernible impact on the May 6 general elections, Greek politics remains devoid of a credible third voice.

The way the Liberals, and particularly their leader Nick Clegg, have exploded into life during this election campaign has defied perceived political wisdom and will undoubtedly make other European parties that have struggled to make an impact sit up and take note. Before Britain’s first-ever televised leaders’ debate last Thursday, Clegg’s fieriest moment was when as a drunken 16-year-old exchange student, he set fire to a German professor’s collection of rare cacti. On Thursday, though, he lit the election campaign’s blue touch paper.

Confident, clear and coherent, Clegg captured the imagination of many of the 10 million viewers. Regardless of what questions members of the audience posed, Clegg had an underlying aim to connect with the frustration people feel about power ending up in the hands of the same two parties all the time – a sentiment Greek voters could sympathize with. “Nick Clegg possessed the great advantage of having a simple, clear message that fitted with his wider campaign,” wrote Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. “That message is that Britain has been let down for decades by the other two. His most resonant line of the night was when he said: ‘The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.’”

Clegg brought something different to the table: Labour leader Gordon Brown was the full fat milk that has turned sour, Conservative leader David Cameron was the cappuccino froth that dissolves as soon as you touch it but the Liberal Democrat was the raw carrot juice that could inject new energy into the country. Clegg’s impact was not just down to his accomplished appearance though. The essence of his popularity – which could help his party become a partner in coalition government next month – derived from the fact that the electorate was being presented with a credible alternative, one that would allow them to act on their frustrations with the two main parties but not risk putting power in the hands of an incompetent or irrelevant one instead. “The Clegg bounce seems to me to speak of an electorate that wants to change the terms of the contest they are being offered and is simply looking for a means to do it,” wrote Martin Kettle in The Guardian. “They want to show two fingers to the main parties. They want to drag them down to size, knock them off their pedestal.”

The unaligned voter is a growing phenomenon in Greece but despite the country facing many similar political and economic challenges to Britain, there is no evidence of a third party emerging as a serious player here. The Communist Party (KKE), which received the third largest share of the vote in last year’s election, is content with engaging in spoiling tactics. Exercising control over unions that punch above their weight is the limit of the Communists’ political ambition, as was evident this week when a light sprinkling of PAME members obstructed hotels in central Athens and Piraeus port.

The nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) have steadily improved their ratings in recent years but their message remains too populist, too lacking in substance and, in some instances, too hateful to carry any considerable credence. LAOS will continue to generate passionate support from a relatively small band of voters, as long as it prefers to devote itself to tittle-tattle rather than real policies.

The only party with the potential to break out of this perpetual cycle is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). At a time when jobs are at stake and quality of life is set to nosedive, a competent leftist party should be able to make itself heard. Die Linke, the emerging party of the left in Germany, has proven that the financial and economic crisis provides fertile ground for attracting supporters who are disillusioned with capitalism. Although a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats are further to left on some issues, such as taxation, than the Labour party.

So, why isn’t the formula working for SYRIZA? Because, unlike Clegg, leftist leader Alexis Tsipras chooses to ignore that in order to attract the skeptical voter, you have to go to him, not call him over to you. SYRIZA prefers to paint itself into a corner, to turn itself into an insurgent party conducting raids against the government, rather than to open its embrace and draw strength from greater numbers. A typical example came this week when, with the prospect of Greece borrowing from the IMF growing by the day, Tsipras demanded a referendum on the issue. Rather than the leader of a mature party, it made him look like a high school student calling for a vote on whether pupils should be made to sit exams. If Tsipras cannot understand that recourse to the IMF will not be a matter of choice, then he really should not be allowed anywhere near a political platform. And, if Greece were to hold this referendum, what next? Presumably, the majority of Greeks would say “no” to the IMF. Would we then hold another referendum to decide who we borrow from instead?

Tsipras’s suggestion looks like nothing more than a juvenile stunt. It ignores the fact that more than four in 10 Greeks voted PASOK into power to take decisions on their behalf. Yes, the economic situation has changed dramatically but part of a government’s mission is to adapt. What Greece’s smaller parties refuse to accept, unlike the Liberal Democrats, is that their real responsibility is to provide a credible alternative, not just channel bitterness and frustration. Political power lies in making decisions, not just in voicing your opinion. As long as KKE, LAOS and SYRIZA are content with being backseat drivers, Greek voters will not have a party with the potential to lead them along a different, third, way. And this, rather than the IMF or the public deficit, is what will make the country poorer.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 23.