Category Archives: Diplomacy

Like a rolling stone

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When she contested the German chancellorship in 2005, Angela Merkel angered the Rolling Stones by using their 1973 hit “Angie” as her campaign theme without the band’s permission. Her dominant role during last week’s negotiations in Brussels, where the eurozone members agreed on financial assistance for Greece, has prompted concern throughout Europe that Merkel is going to make a habit of ignoring others’ wishes.

Apart from the connection with her Christian name, “Angie” was a strange song for Merkel’s campaign team to pick. Maybe they just took a calculated gamble that few Germans would pay attention to lyrics such as: “With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats/You can’t say we’re satisfied,” or “All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke.”

These words, however, had a particular resonance over the last few days as Europe appeared to wake up to a new reality in which Germany is no longer willing, as German daily Bild put it, to be “Europe’s paymaster” without shaping the policies that govern how that money is spent. As the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel explained, Merkel’s stubbornness represented a “paradigm shift” for a country that has always been at the heart of European affairs and whose main goal has been not to isolate itself. “Merkel has made it clear that there are German interests and European interests, and that they are not necessarily the same.”

Greece, without any money in its coat, certainly found that Merkel was short of loving in her soul. The German chancellor was adamant that Athens should not be given a cash injection unless it was teetering on the precipice and that the International Monetary Fund should be involved in the bailout. Merkel got her way, and it wasn’t just Greek dreams that went up in smoke. The French had perhaps most cause to be frustrated with her intransigent stance. President Nicolas Sarkozy had been hoping he could lead the EU to new territory – land on which the Europeans could regulate their economic and financial affairs without the help of the Washington-based IMF or anyone else.

The only thing Sarkozy managed to rescue from the dying embers of this grand vision was a commitment for the EU to begin thinking about how the bloc’s economic affairs could be managed centrally. However, even his desire for a so-called EU “economic government” was watered down to “economic governance” in the English wording of the text, largely at the behest of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who has a May general election to fight and does not want to incur the wrath of British euroskeptics. Sarkozy admitted the plan unveiled in Paris last week was the product of “compromise” but it’s clear he was the one doing most of the compromising. The view in France, where Sarkozy is already on shaky ground, especially after his recent drubbing in regional elections, is that Paris failed to defend its vision of Europe. As leading French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi told Le Monde daily: “This plan tells the world that Europe does not want to settle its affairs on its own.”

Even in Germany there were some dissenting voices, unhappy that their country had played tug-of-war with other EU members rather than toeing its usual European line. “Up to recently, Merkel has come across as Dame Europe,” said former Vice-Chancellor Joschka Fischer. “Now she seems to have transformed herself into Frau Germania.” But Fischer finds himself in a minority if the reaction of the German press is anything to go by. For most of the media Merkel was neither dame nor Frau but simply Super Angie. “Merkel has won against all odds… the power play has done Europe a favor, putting the profligate on notice that they have to do their homework and at last impose fiscal discipline rather than counting on Europe to keep them in the style to which they are accustomed,” wrote Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the weekly Die Zeit.

Paul Taylor, an astute observer of European affairs for Reuters, went a step further in analyzing the impact of Merkel’s victory. “The masks have fallen,” he wrote. “From now on, we will all be living in a more German Europe, with economic policy driven by Berlin’s hair-shirt export-or-die model.”

There is no doubt that Merkel’s line in the sand is a significant moment in European affairs but rather than the death-knell for solidarity and cooperation, which it clearly isn’t, we should perhaps see it as another chapter in the ongoing existential tussle that underpins the EU. Since its inception, every single member state, every single leader has had to wrestle with the idea of how much authority, sovereignty and responsibility to hand over from national to European Union hands. No country, not even Germany, is yet comfortable with the idea of sacrificing national interests for European ones. No leader is yet in a position to put the European agenda above a domestic one. Just as Sarkozy and Brown had personal concerns going into last week’s talks, so Merkel needed to stand her ground for domestic reasons. Her center-right coalition’s majority in the upper house is at stake in a May 9 state election in North Rhine-Westphalia and opinion polls have not been favorable.

So, rather than look upon last week’s agreement as a boon for Greece, a defeat for France and a victory for Germany, we should view it as the imperfect but nevertheless tangible outcome of a democratic process the scale of which is unrivalled anywhere in the world. As Lorenzo Bini Smaghi – a member of the European Central Bank’s executive board – admitted, the involvement of the IMF in the aid package was not ideal but was the product of “real politics.” “We live in a world in which second-best solutions are sometimes the most realistic ones,” he said.

It may have been an outcome of an unequal compromise driven by national interests, it may have given the IMF a role in European affairs when it wasn’t absolutely necessary and it may have brought only a vague commitment for better coordinated EU economic management but the Brussels plan is a step toward greater understanding and cooperation between the 27 member states. In a relatively short space of time, the EU has shown it can adapt to fluctuating situations and that there is awareness within the Union that tomorrow’s challenges are likely to require more imaginative thinking and bolder decision-making. Above all though, the commitment made to Greece last week underlines that the EU is still a work in progress – sometimes that progress will be slow, even torturous, but it’s forward motion. And, after all, a rolling stone gathers no moss. Isn’t that right Angie?

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 2.

Unbelievable? Not anymore

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Brussels – The British indie dance band EMF had only one hit. It was with their first release in 1990, a single called “Unbelievable.” Twenty years on, the possible existence, let alone success of another EMF, the European Monetary Fund, seemed scarcely believable. But Greece’s descent into fiscal hell over the last few months has changed all that and on Monday the European Union essentially took its first, albeit tentative step, toward constructing its own version of the International Monetary Fund.

As far as historic moments go, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who also heads the Eurogroup, and European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn, did their best to make their announcement that the other 15 euozone members had agreed to provide Greece with financial assistance as underwhelming as possible. The briefing room at Justus Lipsius building in Brussels must rarely have been as packed for a monthly Eurogroup news conference as it was on March 15 when journalists gathered to hear that eight years after the euro went into circulation and almost two decades since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that laid the foundations for the single currency, those using it accepted that the framework needs to be strengthened.

 

Juncker and Rehn announced that a procedure had been put together by which a eurozone member in economic trouble, in this case Greece, would be able to rely on financial backing from its partners. From being one of the European members of the so-called PIGS economies, Greece could soon be handed the key to the EU piggy bank. The EU is not an organization that adapts particularly quickly to changing landscapes but Greece’s plight has caused a seismic shift that puts the very viability of the euro at stake. So, the Union has decided it needs to update its tools to ensure it’s not lost in this new financial geography.

Juncker and Rehn did not reveal exactly how the scheme, which bypasses the “no bailout” clause in the Maastricht Treaty, would work although it appears that it will take the form of bilateral or multilateral loans from other eurozone members or banks in those countries that will be funneled through the European Commission. Strangely, for a measure designed to ward off speculators who think they can still make a quick buck off Greece’s economic weakness, Rehn played down the landmark moment, speaking of “coordinated assistance” which “could be activated if needed” while underlining that any action would be in line with the “treaty framework” and “national law.” 

The EU specializes in technocratic double speak but this time there was a good reason for obfuscating. Any deal relies on the acquiescence of Germany, the eurozone’s most powerful and healthiest economy. Beyond any qualms that the Germans may have about giving cash to a country that has so flagrantly ignored the currency’s rules, the government is concerned about telling the country’s taxpayers they might have to cough up for Greece’s recklessness. Chancellor Angela Merkel leads a three-party coalition of her own Christian Democratic Union, the liberal Free Democratic Party and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union. Elected to power only last year, the so-called “black and yellow” coalition is suffering. Its popularity in opinion polls is sinking faster than Greece’s credibility on international markets and the FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who is vice-chancellor and foreign minister is pursuing a populist agenda that makes it difficult for Merkel to consider Germany’s participation in an emergency fund for Greece.

This might explain why less than 24 hours after the meeting of EU financial ministers in Brussels, when the bailout was again given approval, Merkel was telling Germany’s Parliament: “We do not need a solution that helps in the short run but weakens the euro in the long run.” This double talk is part of the cat-and-mouse game that Merkel is playing with German voters but also reflects Berlin’s determination not to commit to the financial package before it is absolutely necessary as it fears setting a precedent that would make it easier for another struggling member – Portugal or Spain maybe – to call for assistance in the near future rather than itself taking measures to fix its public finances.

But in essence, the precedent was set on Monday night with the landmark breakthrough in the eurozone, which brought the creation of a European Monetary Fund a step closer. The EMF may be several years away because changes to the EU’s treaties are first needed but it appears to be a natural continuation of what was agreed this week.

Given the financial turbulence of the last couple of years, it makes absolute sense for the EU countries to have a fund that they can rely on to rectify economic problems. It means that the option of the IMF would be off the table and Europeans could be true masters of their own destinies. The IMF, in the view of many economists, provides a one-size-fits-all solution that does more damage than good in many of the countries that call on its help. With the EMF, the EU could adopt a more tailor-made approach based on European economic and social particularities. Also, the idea of each member state contributing toward this fund on an annual basis would make them real stakeholders in the future of the Union and take the EU closer to a more complete economic and political union.

The economic crisis has brought the EU to the point of no return. If Greece doesn’t get the financial help it needs and turns instead to the IMF, as it has threatened to do, then hopes that the Union could stand for more than a collection of common goals and practices would be in tatters. If Germany were to decide that it has had enough of the economic shenanigans of countries like Greece and considers reintroducing the Deutschmark, which would please some in Berlin, then the effect would be even more devastating.

Giving Greece a cash injection is a logical short-term decision to help it and the EU ride the current storm but if the Union is to safely navigate through this crisis then a more substantial solution is needed for the long-term. For all the coyness and brinkmanship on all sides, it is patently obvious that there are still powerful common interests at the EU’s heart and that its future depends on these outweighing individual designs or whims. That’s why the idea of an EMF is not so unbelievable anymore.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on March 19.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

In times of crisis, when the issues that our leaders have to deal with become infinitely more complex, our expectations of them become very simple. As the pressure is ratcheted up, we like our decision-makers to fall into one of two broad categories: either Mr Nice Guy or Mr Tough Guy. Greece embarked on its current treacherous journey with a prime minister that appeared more nice than tough, but George Papandreou increasingly looks like he’s steeled for the struggle.

If this metamorphosis is successful, apart from leading Greece out of the economic wilderness, Papandreou will also cause a reordering in the minds of most Greeks, whose default position during testing times is to pine for a tough guy, a man who will stand up for the country and put the others in their place, someone who will be unswerving in his attempt to reach a specific goal.

So, it was no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, speaking to the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant, took a meaty swipe at the caliber of European Union leaders. He reminisced about a time when Europe was led by political heavyweights, such as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, not technocratic lightweights. “This is another level of leadership which we don’t have today. The quality of leadership today in the Union is very, very poor indeed,” he said.

There is no doubt that Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand provided era-defining leadership but they did so in completely different circumstances. They were political giants who roamed lands whose destiny could still be shaped, where national interest could still come first and in which they could rely on the unflinching support of a section of society. None of these conditions exist today: In an increasingly competitive world, there is little room or time to reshape a country; in an expanding European Union, collective interest often prevails; and in the age of “undecideds” or middle-ground voters, politicians have an ever-shrinking base of support to call on.

The sweeping transformation of Europe’s political and economic landscape since the 1980s to one where right and left, capitalism and socialism, have all been damaged, means that although the lessons learned from their time in power will always be relevant, longing for another Thatcher, Kohl or Mitterrand to make the ground shake is like wishing the dinosaurs would roam the earth again. Pangalos, an intelligent, outspoken politician who gives no quarter to the opposition and couldn’t give two hoots about what others think of his views, is a man of this bygone generation. But while Pangalosaurus Rex may miss running with the other political beasts, today’s leaders have to contend with a whole different set of challenges.

That’s not to say Papandreou and his peers cannot learn from what those who went before them got right and what they did wrong. But while Pangalos invokes the spirit of the loud, the proud, the dominant, perhaps the Greek prime minister should instead examine the achievements as well as the failings of a more quiet and unassuming political character: Michael Foot.

Foot, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, died last week at the age of 96. For someone who led the party to one of its heaviest ever election defeats, Foot was remembered with surprising passion. The fondness that many within, and beyond, the Labour Party have for him is kindled by the rare qualities he brought to politics: high principles, independent thinking and exquisite oratory skills that drew heavily on his love of literature.

It was Foot’s insistence on existing above politics, rather than sinking into its mire, that meant he stuck by ideas he felt to be morally correct rather than politically expedient. He kept to these principles when compiling Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 election, prompting one of his aides to call the program “the longest suicide note in history.” The Conservatives blew Foot’s party out of the water, Thatcher swept to 10 Downing Street and Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, course shifted in a new direction.

Foot actually produced the most eloquent put-down of Thatcher ever uttered by a rival politician: “She has no imagination and that means no compassion.” Foot had plenty of both and although his manifesto in 1983 proved to be a disaster, looking back on it now, he appears much more imaginative and less of an idealistic dreamer than once thought. In fact, some of his policy proposals – increased public spending to ease an economic recession, greater control over the financial system, energy conservation and corporate regulation — are actually being implemented now by governments in Britain and elsewhere. Interestingly, the manifesto called for the return of exchange controls to “counter currency speculation” – the 1980s equivalent of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which Papandreou has been touring the world trying to prevent. As he does so, Greece’s premier might want to consider that one of Foot’s greatest failings was that despite his unique grasp of the English language, he was unable to communicate his ideas convincingly.

Another of Foot’s failures was his inability to keep his party united – a problem that is already starting to rear its head at PASOK, as the party’s old, socialist guard attempts to resist Papandreou’s austerity measures. Foot found himself unable to bridge the gap between Labour’s left, which was still committed to the socialist policies that were torn apart when the International Monetary Fund imposed drastic spending cuts on Britain in the late 1970s (sound familiar?), and the more centrist wing, which eventually broke away to form a new party, the SDP. Foot was never able to get in step with the party’s base, tap into society’s sources of power or develop a strategy that would broaden Labour’s appeal. That’s why Foot was essentially a wonderful caretaker rather than a true leader. These are all aspects for Greece’s prime minister to ponder as he tries to balance harmony within his own party with the arduous changes being demanded of the country.

But if Papandreou is to take just one thing from Foot’s legacy, then it should be the words that he spoke in his final speech as Labour’s chief. Quoting from Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon,” a story of a steamer encountering treacherous conditions in the South China Sea, he told his audience: “The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery… the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through.” Forget nice guys and tough guys, that’s what leadership is all about.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 12, 2010.

And now, for my next trick…

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

To many people, the European Union is a fantasyland whose very existence and enduring success defy logic. It’s like an old magic trick that continues to captivate audiences, even though everyone’s seen it many times before. But the EU does what all good tricks do: It encourages onlookers to suspend their disbelief and look at the bigger picture rather than the details.

This unique quality was underlined on January 1, when Spain, a country whose economy is disintegrating, took over the presidency of the 27-nation bloc in the middle of a staggering financial crisis with the promise that it would lead the EU to recovery. The spell which the EU has cast over its audience was highlighted by the fact that hardly anyone batted an eyelid at the incongruousness of this situation.

A number of years ago, a Nigerian general whose army had just invaded another African nation appeared live on the BBC World Service to declare that his soldiers had “brought democracy” to the country in question. “That’s great, will you now bring it to Nigeria as well?” was the sharp response from the radio presenter.

Something similar comes to mind when reading the message posted on the official website of the Spanish EU presidency. The country’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says Spain’s main challenge will be to help Europe build an economy that is “more productive, innovative and sustainable.” But surely if the Spaniards knew how to do that, they would already be applying it to their own economy.

While we in Greece are caught up in our own economic crisis, it’s easy to overlook the dramas being played out in other EU countries, such as Spain. The country’s public deficit for 2009 exceeded 70 billion euros – five times as much as the previous year – to stand at 6.79 percent of gross domestic product. It’s still only about half of Greece’s but nevertheless up 1.2 percent on the 2008 figure.

And like Greece, Spain recently had its credit rating downgraded. Standard and Poor’s lowered the country’s rating from “stable” to “negative” and warned that it faced a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth. But Spain’s most dramatic problem, and an area where even Greece’s disaster of an economy cannot match it yet, is unemployment. The jobless rate stood at almost 20 percent at the end of last year, which is the second-highest in the EU after Latvia. Incredibly for Europe’s fifth-largest economy, unemployment among Spaniards aged 16-24 has reached 42 percent.

All this makes Spain’s task of providing leadership on economic recovery seem far beyond its capability, while its promises of guiding the EU onto the path of financial security ring hollow. Zapatero’s announcement on December 30 that he was introducing a package of measures to help ailing farmers in his own country will have been of interest to our prime minister, George Papandreou — who faces the threat of farmers blocking highways this month — but is unlikely to have convinced Europe’s economic giants that Spain has creative answers to the Union’s economic dilemmas.

In fact, Spain’s challenge is even more complex than it first appears. During its presidency, the Union needs to agree on a replacement for the bloc’s long-term growth strategy, known as the Lisbon Agenda. The plan was meant have made the EU the world’s most competitive economy by this year. It has patently failed and a new 10-year plan, known as the 2020 strategy, is likely to be adopted at an EU leaders’ summit in March.

Before then, on February 11, the EU will hold a special summit on the economy, when Greece’s crisis and the danger it poses to the euro will be at the forefront of discussions. It’s then that Zapatero and his government will truly be tested, since, beyond having to solve economic riddles at a time of extreme turbulence, Spain will have to deal with an institutional conundrum as well. Its presidency is the first since the Lisbon Treaty took effect last month, creating the posts of President of the European Council, which has gone to former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, and Foreign Policy Chief, which is being filled by British politician Catherine Ashton.

Normally, Zapatero, who is experiencing his toughest year since taking office in 2004, would be looking forward to taking over the EU presidency, as it gives him the opportunity to boost his plummeting popularity at home and cultivate his image of being Europe’s Barack Obama – a title several of his EU colleagues, including Papandreou, have staked a claim to. But the fact that he and his foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, now have to tread a fine line between asserting Spain’s will on the EU and conceding ground to Van Rompuy and Ashton, means the Iberians could lose more than they will gain over the next six months.

Moratinos has pledged that Spain will fulfil its role with “modesty and discretion” but it already appears that Madrid is determined to shape events over the next six months according to its aims and needs. For instance, the Zapatero government has already organized seven summits between the EU and international partners, most of which have a clear relevance to Spanish interests: North Africa (Morocco on March 7-8 and Egypt on June 5), Central and South America (Mexico on May 15-16 and Latin American and Caribbean countries May 18-19) and with Mediterranean countries on June 7.

By using its unique position in the world to bridge the gap between Europe and other regions, Spain is in a sense augmenting the rotating presidency and underlining the value of having different member states set the EU agenda. However, the new institutional setup means Madrid may have set itself on a collision course with the EU’s supremos.

Although Van Rompuy is meant to represent the EU in international meetings at head-of-state or government level, all the summits mentioned earlier will be held in Spain, so Zapatero will undoubtedly want to play a significant role. Likewise, Moratinos has organized an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Cordoba on March 5-6 even though foreign policy is now Ashton’s responsibility.

Furthermore, despite the introduction of an EU president and foreign policy chief, the country holding the rotating presidency still retains significant influence: It continues to chair the weekly meetings of EU ambassadors, when the groundwork for many policies is carried out, and it presides over many committees that prepare Union initiatives in a range of fields.

If the EU magic trick is to continue wowing audiences and not to be exposed as a cheap stunt, Zapatero will need to display immense skill to ensure that Spain’s role dovetails with those of Van Rompuy and Ashton. Managing this while also reviving his country’s economy and getting 27 member states to agree on a common strategy for future growth requires a sleight of hand that seems too incredible even for the fantastic world of the European Union.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on January 8, 2010.

Bringing down the walls

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s one of life’s great ironies that the people who would derive most satisfaction from anniversary celebrations are rarely around to enjoy them. So, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel took ex-Polish President Lech Walesa and former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the hand for a walk through a unified Berlin on Monday to mark 20 years since the fall of the Wall, several key figures were absent.

Late US President John F. Kennedy, who made it clear that America would stand by West Berlin with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 is an obvious absentee. But perhaps the person that would have enjoyed Monday’s proceedings most was a man who shared the platform with Kennedy on that June afternoon: the late mayor of West Berlin and subsequent Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt.

Brandt was one of the architects behind the wall’s collapse. As mayor he ensured his city was a beacon of freedom, as chancellor he used this freedom to unite people. Upon being elected West German leader in 1969, he embarked on a policy of “Ostpolitik,” which sought closer relations with East Germany, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. While some of his compatriots and many in the West saw this as appeasement of totalitarian regimes, Brandt realized that bringing people closer together would help obliterate the barriers, the walls, between them.

One of Brandt’s defining moments came in 1970 when he spontaneously knelt at a memorial to victims of the Second World War’s Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The gesture didn’t go down well with some Germans but won him many friends in Poland. “His courage was his biggest political asset, his greatest personal characteristic, and was based on deep moral and political convictions,” says Jens Bastian, senior economic research fellow for southeast Europe at ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for Foreign and European Policy). “Such politicians don’t grow on trees, neither in Germany, nor in Greece.”

Brandt’s gesture in Warsaw sent a clear message: we must embrace our past but not let it hold us back. “The future will not be mastered by those who dwell on the past,” he said. His comment came to mind this week when switching attention from events in Berlin to those in Greece, where politicians like Brandt certainly don’t grow on trees. Anyone looking at Greece would gain the impression of a country condemned to live in the past rather than looking to the future.

10_okv_The dispute at the port of Piraeus, for example, had on the one side the dockworkers behaving like extras in the Marlon Brando classic “On the Waterfront,” while on the other a government treading on eggshells for fear of triggering a popular revolution – scenes of industrial relations from a bygone era.

At least in the case of the police, Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis was honest enough to admit that the force is “stuck in the 1950s” as he announced a raft of changes. These came as officers made plans for policing the November 17 protest march that marks the 1973 student uprising against the junta. The event epitomizes how Greeks are so obsessed with the past that they want to keep recreating it: each generation of students feels they have to prove themselves like those of 1973 and even teenagers will talk about an oppressive state when they live in what is possibly the most anarchic country in the European Union.

But even if they want to escape the past, they can’t. The media fuel this obsession with history. They say journalism is the first draft of history but in Greece the media serve as history’s photocopying machine, constantly rehashing, regurgitating and reheating the events of the past through features, supplements and DVDs.

At the center of this historical vortex is the country’s political scene. As the New Democracy leadership contest between Dora Bakoyannis and Antonis Samaras becomes closer, what divides them is not the direction in which they will take the country but what happened in the past – namely, Samaras’s decision to quit the ND government in the early 1990s when Bakoyannis’s father was prime minister.

It’s ironic that Greece’s hopes for breaking the chains of history currently rest with George Papandreou, who wouldn’t even be in this position were it not for the legacy of his father and grandfather. Papandreou is no Willy Brandt but following in the German’s footsteps might prevent Greece from slipping further into history’s quicksand. “Brandt’s idea of democratic renewal after he took office in 1969 was to “dare democracy”, in other words to make West German society more tolerant, open, accountable and democratic,” says Bastian.

George Papandreou’s domestic agenda also reflects a desire for more openness. There are similarities in foreign policy as well. “Papandreou’s openings toward Turkey and Skopje are a reflection of his intention to exit from the past, to understand the past, but not be tied by it,” said Bastian. “In other words, Papandreou’s version of Ostpolitik is his foreign policy courage in Greece’s immediate neighborhood – the Balkans, Cyprus and Turkey.”

Papandreou’s efforts to achieve transparency may be arriving a quarter of a century after Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” and his attempts at rapprochement may be a pale imitation of Brandt’s risky diplomacy but they give the impression of the first, tentative steps toward changing the course of history.

Looking back on the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years later, it might appear that it had been inevitable, but that’s just a trick that time plays on us. The Wall’s collapse was more revolution than evolution. As German daily Die Welt wrote on Monday: “The Wall didn’t fall, it was brought down.”

The walls that hold Greece back won’t fall on their own, they too must be brought down. Papandreou has the task of toppling them. We can only hope he has Brandt’s strength of conviction and that he will finally be the one to master the future rather than dwell on the past.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 13, 2009.