Tag Archives: Gordon Brown

While you were sleeping

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.