Saturday 20 December 2014

Maeve Dineen: Papandreou's recklessness puts democracy back on agenda

Published 07/11/2011 | 05:00

THERE is a very good chance that by the time you are reading this, George Papandreou will have been forced to step down as Greek prime minister.

Papandreou may have gained the parliamentary confidence vote early on Saturday, but he was by no means in the clear when I wrote this yesterday.

Papandreou spent most of yesterday locked in crisis talks with his cabinet as senior Greek politicians, businessmen and lobbyists held discussions to identify candidates who would hold cabinet jobs in a national unity government. It is hoped they will launch a new €130bn rescue package, then take the country to elections early next year. While he has behaved recklessly at certain times during this crisis, I hold some sympathy for the man who has brought Europe to the brink and here are the reasons why.

•He threw his full weight behind austerity. Public sector wages are to be cut by 20-30pc Thousands of civil servants are to be sacked. Taxes on gas, cigarettes and alcohol will increase by one-third. Monthly pensions above €1,000 will be cut by 20-40pc. Health spending is to be cut by €310m by the end of this year and a further €1.8bn between 2012 and 2015. Education spending is to be trimmed through merg-ing or closing of 1,976 scho-ols. A "solidarity levy" of bet- ween 1pc and 5pc per house-hold is to be applied, which will be raised twice in 2012.

•With the entire eurozone teetering on the brink, his call for a referendum on the Greek bailout was also a statement that people as well as markets have rights. Papandreou raised the only real question; what do people think of the brutal austerity cure that will befall them? Greece is a democracy and it would have been the right thing for the people to be consulted.

•Some sources fear that if the Greek prime minister -- whoever that may be over the coming months -- tries to force through the bailout without a clear mandate, then Greece may become ungovernable. Papandreou appeared to be acutely aware of this.

•He is honest. When he was finally elected, he was open about the problems he inherited from his predecessors. He told the rest of the EU that the Greek deficit was twice as high as previously reported, that the country's finances were a mess and corruption was widespread.

•He inherited this mess. He did not create it.

l His sang froid. The man has style. Despite the most outrageous pressure he still manages to look comfortable in his skin, relaxed and in charge. There is something deeply admirable about a leader who can smile despite all the slings and arrows.

•Papandreou is a liberal who has helped a lot of minorities including Muslims and Jews. He introduced affirmative action to help Muslims and has won awards for fighting anti-Semitism.

•He has had the courage to moderate his father's hard-core anti-Turkish policy which had destabilised the entire region.

•He has felt fear and oppression unlike most politicians. Barely a teenager, he felt the cold muzzle of a pistol being placed at his temple when the secret police, in hot pursuit of his father, stormed the family home in Athens within hours of the 1967 Colonels' coup.

•Angela Merkel, who can barely stand the sight of Nicolas Sarkozy, is for once in full agreement with the French president -- they both believe that the Greeks were particularly ungracious towards German and French taxpayers who will have to fund most of the bailout. But for 48 hours last week, Papandreou finally made Sarkozy and Merkel focus on the crisis. Everybody else has failed to make them to that until now.

The European Comm-ission, the other member states -- they all failed to really engage until last Monday. Whatever happens next, Papandreou has done Europe some service by placing the question of democratic legitimacy back on the table and attempting to narrow Europe's democratic deficit along with the Greek fiscal deficit.

Irish Independent

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