Tag Archives: David Cameron

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.

 

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.

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.

Heads up!

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Perhaps the only surprise when a statuette of a cathedral struck Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the side of the face on Sunday was that the man who launched it into the crisp Milan air had a history of mental problems and was not one of the millions of perfectly sane Italians who detest their premier.

Few democratic leaders have bred such strong contempt in a large section of their population as Berlusconi has in Italy. A banner at a protest against the Iraq War in Rome in 2003 was indicative of the hatred that has burned for the media-mogul-turned-politician throughout this decade: “Iraq, we’ll have Saddam if you take Berlusconi,” it read.

The physical attack on the 73-year-old prime minister resulted in a few scars that a bit more plastic surgery can fix but it also symbolized the dead-end to which this incessant rage against him has led. Despite opportunities to provide a credible alternative to his governments, the country’s center-left has failed to find the answers to Italy’s problems, many of which are similar to those of Greece, such as the need for widespread structural reforms. Despite the poor state of the economy, his embroilment with more women of questionable repute than Hugh Hefner and accusations of numerous corruption scandals, Berlusconi’s popularity rating remains just above 50 percent and many experts are predicting that sympathy after Sunday’s attack will help it to rise.

Although Italy is no stranger to violence being inflicted on its politicians, it has worked hard to eradicate this element from the country’s political life – the last assassination of a senior politician was in 1978. Berlusconi’s opponents are now caught between a rock and a hard alabaster souvenir as they have to continue chipping away at his surgically enhanced facade without letting their efforts be driven just by hate.

“This clearly shows the degradation of the political clash in Italy,” said Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief of Rome’s La Repubblica, of Sunday’s attack on Berlusconi. The daily newspaper has been one of the few media outlets critical of the prime minister’s tenure in office. And herein lies the problem for Berlusconi’s opponents: His iron grip on the media hardly allows them the chance to get a word in.

The premier owns the largest Italian publishing house, Mondadori, and three private Mediaset TV channels. He also exercises influence over state TV Rai as most of the broadcaster’s executives are political appointees – the 73-year-old has actually said that it is “unacceptable” for Rai to criticize the government. All this has resulted in the independent watchdog Freedom House ranking Italy 73rd for press freedom along with Tonga (Greece is ranked 63rd) out of 195 countries worldwide.

Although Berlusconi’s colorful antics sometimes make him appear like the villain in an Austin Powers movie (Dr Feelgood perhaps), his supremacy is very real in Italy and absolutely relevant beyond the country’s borders.

A mere glance around the world confirms that the dividing lines between the media and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. While Berlusconi was getting whacked in the face, center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera was winning the first round of Chile’s presidential election. Pinera is a successful businessman who owns Chile’s fourth most popular TV channel, Chilevision, which serves up a visual diet of mostly gossip shows, soap operas and news. In Britain, the Conservative Party has come under attack for an alleged secret agreement it has struck with The Sun newspaper, the UK’s most-read daily. In return for the paper’s support in the runup to next year’s general election, the Conservatives have allegedly agreed to reduce state funding for the BBC and slash regulation of private broadcasters.

In Greece, the bonds between the media and the people who run the country are there for all to see – literally – as they have often resulted in the awarding of public works contracts. Now, Prime Minister George Papandreou says he wants the two sides to stand further apart and for there to be more transparency in their dealings.

During his time in opposition as PASOK leader, he often resisted pressure from the media until opinion polls began to swing in his favor and those that had wanted to hand the reins of the party over to someone else wasted no time in jumping on the Papandreou bandwagon. But showing the same fortitude in government will be a different story, especially when events take a turn for the worse and the last thing he’ll need is extra pressure from newspapers and TV channels.

As such, it was interesting to note that the issue of media influence was not among the topics discussed at a groundbreaking meeting on corruption and transparency between parliamentary party leaders on Tuesday. Perhaps it was just an oversight – for Greece’s sake, we should hope so because, as Berlusconi has shown in Italy, when the media and the political system fuse into one, it results in something more painful for the country than just a bloody nose.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 18, 2009.