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

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue