Tag Archives: Jean-Claude Juncker

Disposable heroes of hypocrisy

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

Is Greece corrupt? If it’s possible to quantify such things, as the graft watchdog Transparency International does regularly, then the answer is yes. Does that make all Greeks corrupt? Emphatically, no. Does it mean that Greece is forever destined to walk Europe’s corridors of power feeling like an inbred among lots of thoroughbreds? Again, absolutely not. It’s really as simple as that. But over the past few days, much of the media and political world — no strangers to the odd corrupt moment themselves — decided it would be more fun to muddy the waters. At a time when thousands of people’s jobs are on the line and the country’s immediate future still hangs in the balance, they chose to play a childish game of pinning blame for the corrupt image that haunts Greece.

At the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting in Washington last Friday, the head of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, held a news conference. During this session, which was not attended by any Greek journalists, Juncker referred to a Greek prime minister openly admitting that his country was corrupt. When his comments were later reported second- and third-hand, it sparked faux moral anguish from scores of politicians and journalists. Suddenly, there was a hunt on to uncover this dastardly Greek premier, who so heartlessly sold his country down the river to snobbish European bureaucrats. It was a game that PASOK and New Democracy played with glee.

Forgotten for the past few months in the fusty attic that politics reserves for retired leaders, Costas Simitis sprang into life like a well-oiled jack-in-the-box to vehemently deny he’d ever claimed Greece was corrupt — even though this was the same Simitis who, as prime minister, in a frank assessment of his nation’s deep-rooted incompetence following the sinking of the Samina Express passenger ferry in September 2000 had said: “That’s Greece.” Another ex-premier, Costas Karamanlis, the talking bear whose pull string no longer works, also let it be known via his friends that he would never bring such shame on the country he served for five and a half years — even though this was the same Karamanlis who six months after coming to power in 2004 had told a select group of MPs over souvlaki and beer that he was determined to confront corruption by taking on the “five pimps” (industrialists and publishers) that controlled the country.

As it turned out, Juncker had not recounted a private conversation with either of these premiers. The head of the group of 16 countries that use the euro currency had simply referred to one of several public comments over the last 12 months by current Prime Minister George Papandreou about his country’s unsuccessful battle against graft. This appeared to settle the dispute but, aided by compliant members of the media, ND and PASOK tried to squeeze a little more playtime out of the affair, launching claims and counterclaims at each other. Oblivious to the hypocrisy of it all, ND even demanded an apology from PASOK on behalf of Karamanlis for implicating the ex-prime minister. Meanwhile, nobody spared a thought for the Greek people, who were the ones really deserving of an apology.
All this flapping over trivialities meant that an added, more important dimension to Juncker’s comments went largely unnoticed in Greece. The Luxembourg prime minister said he’d known for some time that the Greek economy would hit a brick wall but he “could not go public with the knowledge.” The crisis could have been avoided, in Juncker’s opinion, if Greece had adopted different policies in the past. “It was clear that this problem would occur,” he said, according to the Irish Times, which was actually at his news conference. “We knew it would, because we were discussing it among the Germans, the French and myself.”

How gratifying it is to know that Greece’s failed policies, for which the same Greek taxpayers have been paying for so many years, provided a hot topic for conversation between our continental partners — partners who, for reasons that Juncker did not clarify, decided to remain silent about these catastrophic shortcomings. Could it be that as long as Greece was useful to Germany and France as an importer of goods and purchaser of weapons, nobody wanted to rock the boat? Or, was it that they feared the impact on the single currency if widespread corruption and mismanagement was uncovered in one of the eurozone’s member states? Maybe Juncker will eventually reveal what prevented Europe’s big players from enforcing the strict terms of monetary union and forcing Greece to put its house in order, allowing instead one of the members of what was once known as a “community” and now as a “union” to dig an ever deeper hole for itself as they looked on in silence.

Of course, Juncker and other European leaders would argue that they cajoled their Greek counterparts in a way that avoided publicity so as to minimize the damage to the country’s credibility. Presumably, they would also argue that, ultimately, it was Greece’s responsibility to implement the changes its eurozone peers had recommended. Both arguments are valid. After all, it would be a serious dereliction of duty if a country’s leader consistently ignored warnings that disaster would strike unless specific measures were taken, wouldn’t it?

It was illuminating, therefore, to read Tony Barber’s account in the Financial Times last week about how European leaders arrived in April and May at the decision to provide, with the assistance of the IMF, 110 billion euros of emergency loans to Greece and then set up a 750-billion-euro “stabilization mechanism” for the other eurozone countries. Barber describes how on May 7 in Brussels, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, spoke bluntly to the leaders of eurozone countries about the dangers to the single currency. “Mr Trichet told the leaders that the crisis was partly their own fault because they had too often turned a deaf ear to ECB appeals for fiscal discipline after the euro’s launch,” writes Barber. “The ECB, he said, had repeatedly warned of the need for strict control of public borrowing and spending.”

Well, what do you know? Could it be that at the same time Greek leaders were unwilling to heed advice because it involved taking non-politically expedient measures, their European counterparts were doing exactly the same thing?

The furor over Juncker’s comments should not disguise that Greece has a serious corruption problem, which is clear to all regardless of whether our leaders admit it publicly or not. But the dust that’s been kicked up this week by politicians and journalists should also not cloud the fact that although hypocrisy is a Greek word, it’s not an exclusively Greek trait.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 15, 2010.

Sovereign territory

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Sovereignty is rather like virginity: You either have it or you don’t,” a wise man told me some years ago. If this is the case, then, in an age when sexual morals are more lax, it seems fitting that there are only few, if any, states that can truly claim to be sovereign.

For the last few decades, a number of transnational factors — capital, migration, environmental degradation, communication, technology and even terrorism — have chipped away at states’ sovereignty. Rather than a case of “wham bam thank you ma’am,” it’s been a series of long, complicated dates that have led to the same, inevitable outcome.

Of course, there are still moments when sovereignty can be lost in a flash — for example, when Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive last Friday transferred operations at the airport in Port-au-Prince to the USA to speed up the earthquake relief effort. The scale of the disaster that hit the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation meant that Bellerive had little choice than to put his faith in the Americans. Nevertheless, handing control of your country’s airport and air space to another state is a landmark moment when one assesses the withering sovereignty of nations.

Greece is inextricably linked to Haiti, as the island state was the first to recognize the Hellenic Republic as an independent country in 1822. But over the past few days, the two countries have had something else in common: Greece also saw its sovereignty vanish, albeit under less horrific circumstances.

While preparing its Stability and Growth Program, which was officially presented to eurozone members on Monday, Greece essentially gave up control of its economy, and therefore its sovereignty. The measures that Athens intends to adopt as part of the four-year economic recovery plan were written here but they were dictated from other European capitals, even though the onus is on Greece to solve the problem on its own. “It would be wrong to presume or let Greece presume that the other countries could solve its problems,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the chairman of eurozone finance ministers or Eurogroup.

The death stare that Juncker fixed on Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou during Monday’s eurozone meeting was both humiliating and frightening. It was confirmation that Juncker, a career politician who has been at the heart of EU developments for many years, intends to watch the Greek government like a hawk. But he won’t be satisfied with just monitoring Athens’s movements. He’s already shown he’ll test the limits of Greek sovereignty. It was Juncker, rather than Papaconstantinou, who last week got in touch with International Monetary Fund (IMF) Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn to discuss whether Greece could use some financial help. “We think IMF assistance to Greece would not be opportune or welcome,” said Juncker after the chat.

“It’s nice of him to let us know,” the Greek minister might have thought. Well, he’d better get used to it because Juncker won a fresh 30-month mandate as the Eurogroup chief on Monday and the 55-year-old is the kind of technocrat who believes Europe’s strength lies in closer integration, a concept that allows little prospect for EU member states to make decisions independently. In a letter circulated to the eurozone finance ministers this week, the Luxembourger said he wants the Eurogroup “to pursue broader economic surveillance” of its 16 members. Greece’s recklessness and untrustworthiness means other countries could soon suffer the ignominy of outside interference in their economies.

Getting its figures right, cutting costs and generating revenues were never Greece’s strengths — but even so, relying on its European friends to prescribe a way out of this mess seems a high price to pay. It’s difficult to know what’s more galling: the fact that Greece’s ministers are being hauled before Juncker and similar EU officials like errant schoolboys or that it’s now been confirmed in black and white, in page after page of reports, that Greeks are truly incapable of exercising their sovereignty.

If we are to take anything positive from this sobering experience it’s the hope that our European partners have a better idea of what to do than we ever did but, more importantly, that we now have a chance to regain trust and rebuild confidence. Although there are many trials and tribulations that come with a loss of sovereignty or virginity, a loss of dignity will always be more painful. But, unlike virginity and possibly sovereignty, dignity can be restored.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on January 22, 2010.

The ditch Blair project

Tony_blair_witch Project_a.jpg

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Tony Blair must be getting used to rejection by now. He left office in 2007 unloved and unwanted after 10 years as British prime minister. His attempt to win back some respectability as an international statesman by becoming a Middle East envoy has been a damp squib. And now his voyage to become the Europe’s first president appears to have foundered on the EU’s perennial rock of uncertainty.

In hushed tones and behind closed doors, European leaders last week seemed to reject the idea of Blair being appointed president of the European Council, a position created by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 EU member states.

Blair has some characteristics that would make him a suitable candidate for the role (charisma, valuable political experience, good communication skills, the ability to lead and diplomatic presence) but for many these are outweighed by the baggage he would bring with him (the Iraq War, his close ties to George W. Bush, his unpopularity in his own country, a pending investigation into whether he lied to his people and parliament and a fraught relationship with the EU in the past).

The fallout from the Iraq War is the biggest elephant in the room blocking Blair’s path to the presidency. The decision to hitch his wagon to George W. Bush’s lone star is something Europeans cannot overlook easily. But given the chance, Blair would probably explain that as the British prime minister, he had to make a decision – a very wrong one as it turned out – about whether to take part in a war. Had he been the prime minister of Belgium or Luxembourg, for example, perhaps his toughest foreign policy choice would have been what color bunting to get out when dignitaries visit from abroad.

Blair might even argue that having been through such a maelstrom and suffered the political consequences of his choices, he has the ideal experience to now be a unifying rather than a divisive figure. But even this does not dispel the dark cloud of mendacity that hangs over him. The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in the Iraq War will hopefully establish beyond doubt what Blair knew and what he told MPs and the public before committing troops to that conflict. The fact he’s due to face such an investigation appears to undermine his bid to become EU president. To risk having the first person in such a high-profile role publicly exposed as a liar would damage the Union. Of course, there would be more than a hint of hypocrisy in the air if he is rejected on this basis alone: Few of the 27 leaders who decide who fills the role are paragons of virtue themselves – any group that has Silvio Berlusconi as one of its most prominent decision-makers can hardly claim the moral high ground.

Perhaps that’s why some of them decided to suddenly create new criteria for any presidential candidate: his country would have to be a member of the eurozone and part of the Schengen Agreement – Britain is neither. If the EU’s aim is to appoint the best person for the job, then this shifting of the goalposts is preposterous. Theoretically, the EU president should be someone that’s transnational, not national, federal, not feudal. If he or she subscribes to the European project, then their homeland’s policy should be irrelevant.

10_okOf course, Blair’s critics would argue that he’s always been at loggerheads with the Union, typified by his stance in 2003 in the buildup to the Iraq War, which was widely interpreted as an effort to split the bloc. However, Blair has engaged with the EU in more constructive ways as well. One of his first acts after being voted into power in 1997 was to abolish Britain’s opt-out of the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Protocol. He was also one of the proponents in 1998 of giving the EU a role in defense policy and was a champion of the bloc’s enlargement. He was the first British prime minister to put the UK’s budget rebate up for discussion in 2005, when he urged member states to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and cut the extensive waste and laziness that it leads to, as we are well aware of in Greece.

In June of that year, Blair stood before the members of the European Parliament and set out a vision for a less bureaucratic, more liberal and modern Europe. “The people of Europe are speaking to us,” he said of citizens’ waning interest in the EU. “They are posing the questions. They want our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.” More than four years on, that leadership is still absent and, as the turnout in June’s European Parliament elections indicated, interest in the EU is flimsy. These are issues that, theoretically, a European president could address.

The role has been created so that someone can preside over the European Council – the regular summits between the 27 heads of government – and coordinate its work. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the president should also “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy.”

Yet, what we have seen over the last couple of weeks is a climb down from this position. The message from Brussels last week was that it would be preferable for the president to come from one of the smaller member states, that he or she should be able to strengthen Europe from within, not necessarily give it a presence on the world stage, and be willing to play second fiddle to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the 27 leaders.

“There is an argument that a political star as a president of the EU would lead to trouble with the president of the Commission and other leaders,” Robert Goebbels, the Luxembourg MEP who has launched a petition to stop Blair from being considered for the job, told Athens Plus.

It would be one of the EU’s more quixotic moments should it create an opening for a figurehead who could use diplomatic and communication skills to promote the Union to an increasingly apathetic public and give it a greater presence on the global stage only to then shackle him or her for fear of upsetting internal balances.

As the Dutch daily De Volkskrant put it in a recent headline: “Europe chooses: chief or messenger boy.” Given some of the names that have been mentioned as alternatives to Blair – Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Tapio Lipponen, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga – it seems the EU has decided there are too many indians to have a chief.

Presumably some of these politicians, if not all, are who The Economist had in mind when it referred to “the usual Europygmies.” Maybe, it’s a harsh assessment of men and women who are capable politicians in their domains, although hardly singular figures, but it underlines the challenge the EU now faces in trying to select someone to fulfill a role whose purpose remains unclear and undefined.

At least something is much clearer now: rejecting Blair was the easy part, too easy perhaps.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 6, 2009.