Athens News: In 2010 the Greek government had to take painful decisions for the Greeks. Looking back, were there any decisions which were socially unjust or politically misguided and could have been avoided?
Theodoros Pangalos: I do agree with historians that tend to say that 2010 will be a turning point in Greek history. We now realise the results of our original sin: the system of clientelism that rules our political life and has its roots in the War of Independence, back in 1821. Greek society was at the time and for many years after exclusively rural. Poor and illiterate shepherds and peasants constituted the clientele of a small number of landowners or high-ranking civil servants who were the patrons. One can easily understand that the latter had to buy out the former’s obedience. The price has been, and still is, a position in the public sector which looked to the majority of the people like a position made in heaven.
We are now fighting against this mentality, not in a period of economic prosperity but in a period of serious economic crisis. From day one we had to deal with numerous crises, both small- and large-scale, which could at any moment have led to bankruptcy. In general, I think that we were effective in dealing with these crises. Only dead people make no mistakes.
Now, if you want me to bring up specific failures, I’m afraid I cannot, because we cannot examine the different policies separately. This might be convenient, as in that way it would be easier to spot errors. However, the government’s action plan is made up by a whole framework of actions for the rescue of the country.
The opposition accuses you of rushing into the European support mechanism and therefore not having negotiated properly specific conditions. Do you feel now that there is no room for a serious renegotiation in order to improve the [EU-IMF-ECB] Memorandum?
I guess that by referring to the opposition, you are referring to the [conservative] New Democracy (ND) party, as the leftwing parties continue to express their own, non-realistic view. Unfortunately, the leftwing parties of our country live in a world of their own – in an illusionary world. In their universe, anything is possible. They believe that they are incarnating a combination of Marx and Jesus Christ multiplying the fish.
On the other hand, I would not hesitate to say that the [far-right] Laos party, despite the great ideological differences between us, kept a totally responsible stance on major issues. Therefore, only ND is left to discuss. I wonder whether 14 months is long enough for some people to make it possible for them to give lessons of policy and strategic management with such arrogance and hypocrisy. Have they forgotten so easily the lesson that Greek people taught them both last year [in national elections] and a few months ago in regional elections?
Samaras celebrates because his party, in the worst phase of the crisis, has slightly reduced the [vote] distance from Pasok, and he only makes costless opposition. He doesn’t understand that in each election his party achieves a new record of historically low percentage and that soon enough they will probably be fighting against the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) for second place. In the last few months we took some very difficult decisions that have stricken part of the population and it is expected that our party will endure some wear.
However, when we decided to request the activation of the rescue mechanism [with the EU-IMF-ECB], we were facing a real and pressing dilemma: rescue or bankruptcy of our country. Of course, there was no other answer than inclusion in the support mechanism. That doesn’t affect the negotiating capacity of the country today.
Are you confident that you have adopted the appropriate economic formula? Many political and economic analysts suggest that there is a significant mismatch between fiscal discipline and interventions that will support growth. What is your reply?
We have acknowledged that there have been delays in the development sector. However, I don’t know if anyone can speak on this subject by referring only to the government. I believe that the debate on development is a typical example of the improvisation with which some concepts have been treated in our country during recent years.
Everybody talks about development as if it would happen by pressing a button that would trigger it or not. I have always said development – in its correct implementation – should be the product of substantial and deep transformation of the public sector, restoration of the country’s credibility and, to a large extent, changing the way the Greek citizen-consumer faces the financial situation.
The challenge now for Greece is primarily to attract potential investors, to persuade potential investors to consider investing in our country in the first place. Even a few months ago, the level of our unreliability was so high that the thought of investing in Greece wouldn’t even cross an investor’s mind. It is a major achievement of this government that we have managed to sit at the same table with large potential investors in order to design possible investments.
In any case, development is at the heart of our initiative. To this purpose the prime minister has established a specific interministerial committee, chaired by me, in order to achieve maximum coordination on this issue. Greece can be an attractive investment centre, with the government’s coordinated effort to attract new investments through legislative initiatives such as “fast track”, but also through the efforts by me and my office towards the unblocking of a number of already mature investments. These efforts will lead to development, GDP growth, new jobs and the overall recovery of the unpleasant effects of the economic crisis.
The government has declared that the extension of the repayment of the Greek loan is sufficient in order to combat the severe financial crisis. Other analysts state that the restructure of the Greek debt is almost inevitable.
I do believe that, following all the projects that we have already implemented and those that are in the process of implementation or are about to follow, we will be able to fulfil our commitments and achieve our goals.
It would be better, however, not to demonise some words. A few months ago I mentioned that debts can be restructured, and many rushed to accuse me that I opened the discussion for the restructuring of our debt. Yes, I did that. We will repay our debt over a longer period.
I don’t care what the right word is for the economists. I only care about the result. But before we get to a debt restructuring, we should deal with the public deficit. Today we are handling the debt issue systematically and in an organised way. Not with our programme alone, but also with favourable initiatives such as negotiations for the extension of the repayment period.
There has been strong criticism even from institutional players in the EU that the German policy has resulted in the marginalisation of the regional economies of the eurozone. Recently, Papandreou launched an initiative to collect one million signatures in support of the issuing of a Eurobond, an issue that was excluded from the agenda of the recent European summit. Do you think that the EU should consider an urgent rearrangement of its economic priorities?
Certainly, under the current difficult economic circumstances many of the disadvantages of the EU’s economic policy have been highlighted.
I think that member states must take initiatives towards a more solid economic policy, as it becomes obvious that a crisis in one member state can easily and immediately affect all the others. The prime minister took the recent initiatives with this rationale in mind and we are very pleased that they were met with such a positive – mainly social but also political – response. Policies do not have many chances of succeeding unless they originate directly from society itself.
The way, however, in which the EU was structured in its present form is a combination of two axes: the Franco-German that pursued both the political and economic union and the Anglo-Saxon, interested only in a loose free-trade zone. In my view, the current distortions are due to the attempt to accommodate data from both of these perceptions, thus leading to some paradoxes.
On the other hand, I believe that in these critical times the EU lacks inspirational leadership. I was the first to publicly speak about it and received criticism, but I think that my views are now vindicated. People today are more mature than ever and ready to accept sacrifices if there is a vision. This is what they expect from their leaders and not just technocratic practices.
European citizens nowadays consider themselves part of the EU more than their governments do. Hence, during the recent economic adventures of some countries, like Greece and Ireland, people were much more “open” to assisting their friends and fellow citizens than their respective states. This, in my view, demonstrates the profound solidarity between Europeans.
When should the Greek people expect good news from the economic front? Can you reassure the Greek people that during 2011 the Greek economy will be able to return to a positive cycle of development? Will the Greek economy get back to the international markets in 2011, as the ministry of finance often says?
We have stated that 2011 will be the year of major reforms so that we can achieve development in 2012 and finish with the Memorandum in 2013. The painful measures are behind us. Now we must make the fair, historical reforms that will remove privileges from corporate interests and benefit Greek society as a whole. Any intervention that benefits the community will become a reality. And all the indications so far make me believe that we shall return to the markets as we have planned.
How much stamina does the government have? You have already “lost” four members and the atmosphere within the Pasok parliamentary group predisposes the group to other similar crises. Do you feel that the members of the Pasok parliamentary group do not share your government’s effort to rescue the country or is it true that government decisions are taken behind closed doors and therefore you are asking them to simply approve measures?
The government’s limits of endurance are high and our parliamentary team is compact. The major problems that we need to handle are prompting reactions from our MPs too. The MPs are in direct contact with citizens in their constituencies and are more susceptible to the climate that prevails there. They are obliged to transfer these reactions and to defend them if they consider them fair.
During the recent budget debate such positions were expressed, but, in any case, none of them challenged the overall government guidelines. Of course, marginal viewpoints shall always exist.
The prime minister has repeatedly made calls on political forces and social partners for a consensus. Why is a consensus such a difficult target even in a situation where everyone pretty much admits that this is a national effort to save the country?
I believe that Pasok is the party of consensus in Greece. Particularly in recent years, under the leadership of Papandreou, a man who believes in open and democratic dialogue, Pasok is a pioneer in establishing common frameworks and commonly accepted bases of dialogue for all political parties.
Of course, we want the consensus and, why not, the cooperation. However, it must be clear that Pasok is the governing party and, as such, it has to deal with very specific and concrete problems every time. The citizens require solutions from Pasok, not simply the expression of ideas and theories – that is the practice of the other parties. If these parties manage to understand this and move towards a more realistic view of things, then we could have a fruitful and meaningful dialogue and consensus.
Are you concerned by the growing social unrest? Are you afraid that the specific policies undermine Pasok’s relations with social groups that traditionally support your party?
Absolutely not. Finally, social forces that require major changes have been created in our country. They would have emerged irrespective of the economic crisis. It is simply that the crisis was the occasion for their emergence. These forces include people with knowledge, skills, vision and realism, who cannot tolerate the system of clientelism and the populist voices coming from the past. Pasok followers, progressive by nature, could not remain stuck in such conservative views. On the contrary, they are pioneers in new social trends. Of course, as I said before, marginal voices will always exist.
What are the main reforms, institutional or structural, that the Greek government will promote within 2011? What is the message that you would like to send to the international community concerning the country’s future?
Our priorities were presented by the prime minister during the recent budget debate. Our first priority is building a state in the service of its citizens with one-stop e-shops, digitisation of the public administration, a citizen data card, a single payroll service for all civil servants and a receipt-recording card that will facilitate transactions and serve as a tool against tax evasion.
Our second priority is development, changing the production model. We are working to enhance the liquidity of the National Fund for Entrepreneurship and Development, we are opening the “closed” professions. By establishing an electronic system of procurements in the public sector we are addressing the waste of public funds and corruption. We go further in green investment and exploit the rich potential of the country’s renewable energies.
Our third priority is a society of justice, a new electoral law, with transparency in party funding, while we initiate consultation on the future constitutional revision. The law on liability of ministers must also be changed and it is obvious that these initiatives will strengthen an open, participatory governance.
Our fourth priority is the welfare state, with full implementation of programmes to combat unemployment, with the integration of social security units in the national health service, with information technology and with the new recording system in prescriptions, which is currently being piloted and offering great results.
Finally, our greatest priority is a Greece with an even stronger voice in the world. Greece is changing. Abroad they have already begun to understand it and congratulate our hard efforts. We are convincing our partners of our efficiency and are regaining our lost prestige.
Given that we have three years of hard work, according to the prime minister, are early elections a realistic possibility?
In my opinion, no. I should, however, inform you that you’re asking a politician who has always supported compliance with constitutional provisions. One of them is the four-year serving period of every elected government – with constitutional reservations, of course.
Today, I think that the conditions that could lead to elections are missing and that the
current situation requires the government to exhaust its four-year term.
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