Tag Archives: Giorgos Petalotis

Privatization, a very public matter

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Trying to make out what’s going on with the Greek economy at the moment is much like attempting to get a good night’s sleep when there is a clutter of pregnant cats outside your window. Somewhere between Greece’s emergency lenders, its government and its opposition parties, reality has been lost and it has become difficult to judge the privatization plans – which have prompted all the scratching, biting and catcalls – on their merits, if they have any.

When he was in Athens a few months ago, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, likened himself to a doctor, called in to save the sick man of Europe: debt-ridden Greece. But recent developments suggest that what Greece really needs is not a doctor but a psychologist. More than anything else, the country is suffering from a serious case of schizophrenia. Certainly, the PASOK government and its main opposition, New Democracy, have displayed a worrying mental instability and lack of clear thinking in their reaction to the tactless statement by representatives of the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank (the troika) on February 11 about Greece needing to raise 50 billion euros over the next five years from the sale of state assets.

The government’s delayed response to the troika’s statement made it seem as if Prime Minister George Papandreou and his team had stirred from a deep slumber. It was a slow, clumsy comeback that clouded the real issue. PASOK had every reason to feel aggrieved about the troika now not only shaping but also announcing Greek economic policy, and not even paying lip service to the country’s sovereignty, as compromised as it may be. But this was a point that had to be made – as forcefully as possible – behind closed doors. Trying to play tough in public with the organizations that are lending you 110 billion euros and preventing you from going bankrupt really doesn’t cut a swath. Nobody in Greece, or anywhere else, will for a minute think that angry words via the media will shift the balance of power between the government and its creditors. It’s clear to everyone who wears the pants in this particular relationship.

The outburst that emanated first from the keyboard of government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis and then the mouths of various PASOK members had an immediate negative impact because the troika said its February 11 news conference would also be its last, meaning that its representatives would no longer have to answer questions or justify their decisions in public – hardly a victory for transparency or democracy. Beyond that, the jingoistic tone of the government’s retort, which suggested that only the Greek people had the right to order ministers around, did nothing for informing the debate over privatization.

Greece has debt of more than 300 billion euros to pay off. As of 2013 its emergency loan installments will end and it cannot expect to receive cash injections from the EU and the IMF forever. It has to find a way of tackling, on its own, the debt it built up through years of irresponsible governance. One of the options available is to seek to profit from state assets. To couch this debate in nationalist terms is irresponsible and counter-productive. Papandreou’s assertion, for instance, that the government would pass a law forbidding anyone in power from selling state land without the approval of Parliament is virtually meaningless. Apart from a token symbolic value, it has no real substance because any government at any given time, unless it’s a coalition, will have a majority in Parliament and will therefore be able to approve any sale it needs or wants.

Also, it seems a bit rich for Papandreou to make bold claims about selling public land in the same week that a think-tank named after his father, the Andreas Papandreou Institute of Strategic and Development Studies (ISTAME), said that a study it carried out found that 45 percent of the state’s land had been snatched by land-grabbers and that Greece would be lucky if it could find 100 pieces of prime real estate to sell. In Greece, it seems, it is fine for public land to be taken over by opportunists, profiteers, monasteries, or whoever else it may be, but it is anathema for it to be sold to pay off the debt that burdens every Greek taxpayer.

Determined to prove that it can beat PASOK at its game, New Democracy displayed an even more pronounced split personality by both castigating the government for being supplicant to the troika but at the same time saying that it should have started selling off state assets much sooner. This neurosis was epitomized by ND leader Antonis Samaras in his speech to the party’s political committee on Saturday when, in almost the same breath, he accused PASOK of handing the keys to Greece over to the troika and proudly reminded people that he had suggested that 50 billion euros could be earned from privatizations as far back as last summer.

ND’s consternation has combined very well with the government’s muddled thinking to leave Greeks with little idea about where the country stands, what assets it has and how they could be used to help Greece stand on its own two feet. There has been little talk of which, if any, state enterprises could be sold off, of which publicly owned companies investors might be willing to take over the management or if the ambitious 50-billion-euro target is even remotely achievable. Most importantly of all, there has been absolute silence on the question of what the drawbacks to privatization might be, whether the medicine being administered to Greece by Dr Strauss-Kahn and his associates is actually any good for the country.

Privatization may be a way of Greece taking ownership of its own debt problems and an injection of capital would allow it to buy back its own bonds at a discount, thereby helping pay off a sizable chunk of what it owes. However, this should not disguise the fact that privatization comes with many deep pitfalls. Britain, which was the first European Union country to embark on widespread sell-offs in the 1980s, is another country that has been toying with the idea of privatization over the past few days. Prime Minister David Cameron is set to present within the next two weeks proposals to allow private firms to bid for contracts to run virtually all public services.

This is light years beyond what Greece is currently considering but it’s a reminder that Britain is testament to why privatization is often not in the public’s greater interest. The first wave of sell-offs in the early 1980s included Jaguar cars, Rolls Royce, British Gas and British Steel, signaling the beginning of the end for the country’s industrial base and its potential to create jobs. This was followed up in the 1990s with the disastrous privatization of the railways, which led to a more expensive and inferior service. The Labour government of the late 1990s allowed the private sector to extend its reach through a series of Public Private Partnerships (PPP), which meant that by the beginning of the last decade key services such as healthcare and education were largely reliant on private investment, which often came with some very dangerous strings attached, such as private contractors being able to sell their contracts to build public infrastructure or run services to subcontractors. This whole process led to some firms that were particularly successful in winning these contracts transforming themselves from financial small-fry to profit-making behemoths in just a few years. From a Greek point of view, though, the most significant lesson to be drawn from the British example is the implication that the PPP schemes had for British debt. The partnerships were essentially a form of borrowing – private firms were given contracts to build or operate for a fixed-term in return for reaping the revenues from the project. In 2003, the Treasury estimated that the government had accumulated 110 billion pounds worth of debt from its PPP initiatives.

As Greece considers how to exploit its assets, its schizophrenia will only cloud its judgement. Privatization is neither a panacea for the country’s ills, nor – if approached with maturity – is it a threat to national sovereignty. It’s a policy that should not be adopted just for the sake of it, nor avoided just to make a populist gesture. It’s a strategy that should only be followed if it’s in the public interest to do so. Sadly, nothing that has happened over the last few days suggests that anyone – be it the troika, the government or New Democracy – really has the public interest at heart.

Nick Malkoutzis

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The wrong battle

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“There is no Greek-German war,” government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis said last week. “Greece and Germany are not on collision course,” said Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas. All these statements can only mean one thing: Greece and Germany are very much at loggerheads. But their dispute is not just a bilateral squabble; at its heart it’s about divergent views on how to respond to the crisis threatening the euro and, beyond that, on the very purpose of the European Union.

The frantic attempts by the government to play down any rift between Athens and Berlin came after Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided on November 15 to dust himself off, stand on the ruins of the Greek economy and hit back at German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a rebellious passion. Speaking in Paris, Papandreou accused Merkel of driving up bond yields for weaker eurozone members by insisting that private investors should foot part of the bill for a permanent mechanism to support countries with failing economies, like Greece’s. “This could create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Papandreou. “This could break backs, this could force some economies into bankruptcy.”

On the face of it, there seems little wrong with Merkel’s insistence that private bondholders should accept losses, or a “haircut,” on their investment as part of a debt crisis mechanism to be adopted by 2013. Most Europeans would accept that this would create a fairer system although, clearly, German taxpayers would benefit the most as they’re the ones who would be called on more often to bail out failing eurozone members. But the self-serving element to Merkel’s position is not what should be of most concern to Europeans. Instead, it’s the way Berlin has tried to steamroller other EU countries into accepting the inclusion of the “haircut” clause ahead of a decisive EU leaders summit in Brussels next month. It’s this lack of consultation and the absence of consideration for struggling eurozone members that is undermining the Union.

Papandreou argued that making such a big fuss about investors having to pay their share simply gave jumpy bondholders a seriously aggravated case of the jitters, pushing up the yields on government bonds for Ireland, Portugal and Spain to dangerous levels. Few EU leaders backed Papandreou openly but there is great concern about Germany’s stubbornness. “When the history of the eurozone is written, last month’s German-driven EU summit agreement to devise a crisis resolution mechanism for countries to service their debts may well be cited as the event that pushed Ireland over a cliff,” Bloxham, Ireland’s oldest stocbrockers, said last week, a few days before Dublin turned to the EU and the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.

In Germany, though, there is a different view. “If Merkel were to abandon her plans, then it would be paradise for investors and weak governments,” wrote the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper last week. “The speculators could charge higher interests on Irish or Greek bonds without any risk of losses. And the Greeks could continue with their record indebtedness because they would have no more pressure from the financial markets and in an emergency would be rescued by their euro partners.” However, this ignores that when Greece tries to go back to the international bond markets in 2013, its borrowing costs will be pushed up anyway, as investors will be wary of having to take a haircut should Athens have to revert to the permanent EU mechanism for further loans.

The Greco-German dispute is symptomatic of the differing views emerging within the EU about how to combat the debt crisis. There is a tendency for the EU to speak with two voices and to pull in two different directions. “The euro, which was supposed to make European integration irreversible, could become its undertaker,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily last week. Every day the debt crisis gnaws away at the EU’s confidence, making the Union seem an exhausted shadow of its former sprightly self. This dissipation of energy and will is leading to division and, whether through bad luck or design, Merkel is at the forefront of creating ever-deeper rifts.

Speaking at a rally of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Karlsruhe on November 15, the same day that Papandreou challenged her scheme for private investors, Merkel said her predecessor as chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder and his Finance Minister Hans Eichel had blundered when they allowed Greece to join the eurozone. “In 2000, Schroeder and Eichel couldn’t let Greece join the euro fast enough and they ignored all the warnings,” she said. “It was a political decision… political decisions are important but those which ignore the facts are irresponsible.”

It’s now obvious that Greece was not ready in 2000 to stick to the single currency’s fiscal guidelines, as prescribed by Germany. It’s also clear that allowing Greece into the eurozone was a political decision — one aimed at giving the nascent single currency numerical, if not necessarily economic strength, but also the opportunity to encourage economic reform and German-style efficiency in a sluggish European state. A decade ago, it was a convenient political decision for Germany — Greece, after all, became another market in the eurozone for its exports — but now it’s a terrible inconvenience for Berlin. But that’s the thing about political decisions: You take a risk. Sometimes you ignore the facts because you have a conviction that something greater is at stake, even if the numbers don’t back you up.

Merkel might consider, for instance, that the Marshall Plan, which ensured Germany’s post-war reconstruction and helped it become the economic powerhouse it is today, was a political decision. The United States, which led the effort, could have decided that paying to help rebuild Germany did not make economic sense but Washington chose to look at the bigger picture — the opportunity to fight “hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos” as US Secretary of State George C. Marshall said when he unveiled his plan in June 1947. Using words that are eerily relevant to today’s Europe, Marshall said: “The United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Peace in Europe is not under threat in 2010 but the EU’s faltering economic health is putting its unity at risk.

While leaders argue over bond yields, haircuts, bailouts, deficit and debt, one very important factor is being overlooked. As was the case in the Europe of 1947 before the Marshall Plan, it’s the people that are suffering. They are the ones that pay the cost of failed economic policies and soaring bond yields — people who have fulfilled the wishes of politicians and bankers by mortgaging their futures to buy houses and cars and who believed the euro would bring the permanent stability they were promised. This is why unity must be restored.

Somewhere between Papandreou’s rebelliousness and Merkel’s intransigence, we’ve forgotten that the EU and its institutions were created to improve people’s lives. Many of these people are now losing their jobs, homes and hope. That’s why, even though Greece and Germany may not be at war, their dispute is confirmation that Europe is fighting battle, but the wrong one.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 26, 2010.