Papandreou and the one trillion euro question

Greeks are hoping for two things: leadership and a miracle.

It is not often that a prime minister stands up to make a speech to his party's MPs only to have his finance minister, and second in command in the party ranks, follow up by saying the exact opposite. That kind of political theatre takes epic dimensions when it happens as the country is on the verge of collapse.

But that is the state of Greek politics as we await a confidence vote that will determine the PM's fate. He seems isolated, having lost the trust of his people, the opposition, his party and his EU peers in the European Council.

Domestically George Papandreou has to deal with an internal rebellion in his own party, unhappy not just about the way he announced a referendum but mostly for having to lend their support to hugely unpopular austerity measures that has gained them the fury of the electorate.

Papandreou also has to deal with an opposition that has been playing politics throughout the process, refusing to provide him with political support in the hope they can force his government to collapse.

In the international scene, his referendum move has cost him all legitimacy with his EU partners, forcing them to accept for the first time that Greece leaving the euro is a very real possibility indeed.

So what happens now? A lot depends on the kind of deal Papandreou is able to strike with his own party and the opposition.

Many in the ruling Pasok want to see him go, not least his finance minister Evangelos Venizelos. The same goes for the New Democracy opposition. They have in the past 24 hours entertained the notion of a grand coalition government only to withdraw their support for such a notion hours later and suggest a government of technocrats to ratify the new bail-out package before calling for elections.

They are adamant not to offer any political cover to the PM and they want to ensure that he is nowhere near a new government.

Having said that the outcome of tonight's confidence vote is not set in stone yet. Papandreou might just survive, in which case the question is whether he will try to get the bail-out plan through parliament with the support of his party alone, pursue a coalition government that the opposition does not want or call an election.

The problem is that nobody knows whether an election will produce a conclusive result.

Politicians' popularity is at an all time low, no matter which party they come from. So the protest vote is expected to be big and a hang parliament very likely. Which means we will have to go into another electoral contest or a coalition government, which takes us back to square one, having wasted time and recourses in a divisive election campaign with the whole world watching.

Not to mention that the next instalment of IMF money will not be released until the new bail-out programme is agreed, an important factor in the equation considering the Greeks have some expensive bills to pay by mid December. Time is off the essence.

What does all that mean for the EU and the Eurozone? Uncertainty in Greece is causing nervousness in the markets with a direct impact in the way they view Italy, the latest victim of self-fulfilling prophecies.

But in many ways, and despite the turmoil, it buys time for the eurozone leaders to iron out all the outstanding details that were left pending after the 26-27 October European Council.

The fact is that two thirds of that deal remain intact and provided EU leaders push forward with plans to recapitalise banks and strengthen the EFSF (the eurozone's bail-out pot of money) the eurozone should be sound in the short and medium term.

Returning to Greece, the one trillion euro question is whether the country will be able to salvage its eurozone membership. The stakes are high and the consequences catastrophic.

A default and a return to the drachma will see the value of the new currency fall through the floor, with the cost of the debt, which will be in euros but serviced in drachmas, going through the roof. Greeks' savings will evaporate, not that this will mater much with the banking sector collapsing all around them.

Hence it is imperative that the government (and the opposition) get hold of the situation, abandon brinkmanship and Machiavellian manoeuvring and put the wellbeing of the country first. It's is hard to predict what the next few hours will bring but everyone is hoping for two things.
Leadership and a miracle.

Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK.

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left