Saturday 29 June 2013

Of Pygmies and Politicians, or why Europe Fails

I read with great amusement of the latest “spat” between French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq and European Commission President Manuel Barroso. According to the Financial Times, Madame Bricq is quoted as saying that Mr. Barroso had “done nothing during his term”.
Mr. Barroso, a modest man with much to be modest about, responded in a press conference that:

“There are some comments that deserve no comment, ... While some people were making comments I was working with every [EU] head of government to deliver growth and jobs.”

With people like this in charge, it is not surprising that Europe is in a terrible mess.

According to her Wikipedia profile, Ms. Bricq earned a second-rate law degree in France, and is a career politician who became First Secretary in the Federation of Paris of the French Socialist Party in early 1980s. Her entire career has been a rotation of technical appointments, as well as election to Parliament in 1997.

While she certainly has a strong grasp of how the French Socialist Party works, I doubt she has ever struggled to make payroll or bid to win an export contract in her life. She has been feeding at the public trough for the past 33 years, which is an extremely lucrative profession in France. What professional qualification or practical experience she has in trade or commerce is unknown.

The similarities with Mr. Barroso are astounding. He earned a law degree, and later an economics degree. He was a Maoist in the late 1970s, then a Communist, then a Socialist. One difference with Ms. Bricq is that he became Prime Minister of his country. Another is that he was an assistant professor of law in a state university, a sinecure from which socialism is easy.  

In the typical lowest-common-denominator politically-correct selection that dominates the European Union, he was elected President of the European Commission.

Like Minister Bricq, in other words, he has spent his entire life feasting at the public trough. He has never delivered growth and jobs in his life, except by spending other people’s money. He has never managed a small enterprise, never sold a product or service, never stayed up at night unable to sleep because of how his company is doing.

He has apparently never even practised law – the profession he studied and later taught.

It should come as absolutely no surprise, then, that Europe finds itself in a grinding economic, demographic and social crisis.

Economic, because it has promised cradle-to-grave welfare which originated in post-Word War II boom, but which has not been financially sustainable for the past 20 years in light of globalisation and competition.

Demographic, because birthrates and populations are falling in nearly all countries, or are marginally positive due to immigrant populations which have been expensive or impossible to integrate. At current demographic trends, most European social security systems are no longer self-sustaining without extra budgetary contributions, while the ratio of employed workers to pensioners was below 4 in 2010, and is forecast below 2 in 2050.

Social, because since the end of the Cold War, Europe has failed to provide any sort of vision for the future capable of capturing the imagination and commitment of its population, and particularly its legions of disaffected youth. It is precisely this youth who in its majority today faces a basic choice between a lifetime of starvation wages followed by a starvation pension, or emigration. They have almost nothing invested in a European future. Most cannot afford to live a reasonable existence in their respective capital cities—and most will never be able to.  

Having attended any number of conferences in Brussels, one of the first things that strikes me is the presence of the same type of people—lifetime public sector workers, typically academics or employees of some ministry or quango—all speaking in politically-correct code.

These are people who preach innovation without every having developed anything innovative in their lives. They talk about employment, but have never had to deal with the reality of making payroll, hiring or firing. They pontificate about enterprises and competitiveness, but have no idea of what this means.

Somewhere along the way, the political class in Europe has become entirely divorced from reality. Voters have become tranquilised by empty promises and hollow ideology, but as the economic tide runs out, find themselves wondering why they can no longer pay the rent. And the media, sadly, has chosen to accept the political classes’ bromides, rather than asking the difficult questions and challenging the absolutely useless assumptions and forecasts put out by Brussels and most national governments.

Moreover, the characteristics necessary to succeed in the political system are now totally inadequate to the task of succeeding in the real world. A career politician must have longevity, must toe the party line, must pay his dues at hundreds of party conferences, make hundreds of pointless speeches which deliver nothing of practical value. He may lie at will, spinning and smearing—without consequence for the cold light of day. It is difficult to imagine a more useless profession. I would not accept most politicians in my home.

The result is what we see today: massive youth unemployment, growing structural unemployment, impoverished people working at minimum wage or “mini jobs”, embedded welfare system dependence, tangled and pointless bureaucracy, a total lack of work ethic or accountability, legions of university graduates without any real skills. Growing disaffection and disengagement at every level of society.

One natural reaction to this anomy has been the rise of the far right or the far left. The far right peddles the ideology of vapid nationalism and division, which is pointless in the integrated, globalised world we have become. The far left peddles a saccharine utopia which can never be paid for, and will lead to economic ruin. And the centre simply has no solutions to offer.

At which point will European voters realise that the political system which gives rise to this class is no longer suitable or sustainable?

At which point will the media begin playing their proper role as the fourth estate and begin challenging the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of this kind of politics? Why has the coverage of so many elections, and so many events such as this ridiculous Bricq-Barroso spat been so anodyne?

How long will it take for voters and their elected representatives to understand that Europe is rapidly becoming comically and unaffordably irrelevant?

Minister Bricq accuses President Barroso of having done nothing during his term. Has she?

© Philip Ammerman, 2013

Tuesday 25 June 2013

The Cabinet "Reshuffle" in Athens

“Like gravity, karma is so basic we often don't even notice it.”

It is difficult to observe the events surrounding the non-closure of ERT and the cabinet reshuffle in Greece with anything other that a sense of awed despair. Awe, because it is clear just how elegantly history repeats itself. Despair, because that is the only emotion this continual reshuffling of political failures in Greece merits.

Last week, the Democratic Left party withdrew from government, leading Mr. Samaras’ New Democracy (ND) – Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) coalition with 153 seats in Parliament. Many people must remember that in 1992, Antonis Samaras was removed as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Mitsotakis government, and in 1993 formed “Politiki Anoixi”, leaving the ND government with a 150 seat majority in 1993. This led to new elections, which PASOK, under Andreas Papandreou, won. Ironically, the reasons Mr. Samaras left the government were the issue of FYROM and the privatisation of OTE, the national telecom. 

Call this history repeating itself, call it karma: Mr. Samaras is now faced with the same slim majority in the Parliament. And with the need to privatise even more state organisations before him.

The reshuffle is also a source of despair. In order to retain the government he has literally spent his life trying to lead, Mr. Samaras has been forced to give Mr. Venizelos several new places in Cabinet in an attempt to keep PASOK MPs on side. This is exceptionally ironic to anyone remembering Mr. Samaras’ virulent attacks on PASOK in the 2012 election campaign: Xrissi Avgi has posted a useful excerpt here.

The PASOK that Mr. Samaras spent all 2011 and 2012 condemning as a party of special interests, corruption, and people whom he couldn’t possibly work with, is now the source of his political survival. PASOK polls between 4-6%.

The other source of despair is the fact that the faces in government represent political failures of a magnitude inconceivable in a normal democracy.

Mr. Venizelos becomes Minister of Foreign Affairs. It is difficult to describe how much “Benny” is a source of ridicule in Greece. Perhaps the only other people more derided are George Papandreou, Mr. Venizelos’ predecessor as head of PASOK, or Mr. Theodoros Pangalos, a previous foreign minister who’s gargantuan appetites are rivalled only by his florid prose. Mr. Venizelos turned the Eurozone finance ministers against him in 2011 and actively campaigned for George Papandreou’s downfall; we know that he will be entirely absorbed with domestic political events; we know that Greece needs a real foreign minister, not a placeholder.

Mr. Simos Kedikoglou, the Government Spokesperson, retains his seat. In any normal democracy, a government spokesman who managed to turn Europe and 65% of Greek public opinion against him through the illegal closure of the public broadcaster would have the good sense to resign and head home in abject failure. Not Mr. Kedikoglou. He retains his seat and perquisites, and will continue to lecture us about corporate restructurings that he knows nothing about.

Mr. Adonis Georgiades, a former deputy for LAOS who was absorbed into New Democracy in the recent electoral crisis, was nominated Minister of Public Health. Mr. Adonis is familiar for his rants on TeleAsty in which he would sell literature like a shoe salesman. To put it mildly, he has as much understanding of running the bankrupt Public Health ministry as I have of piloting the space shuttle. He will have to deal with thousands of highly qualified doctors and specialists, who are at the front line of the social collapse in Greece, for whom he has absolutely no empathy, and whom he will not be able to lead. He will have to continue reforms in the public procurement system, which is dominated by special interests and corruption. This is not a post where you learn on the job.

And in an inexplicable decision, Mr. Pantelis Kapsis, a journalist for the MEGA TV station owned by a major public works oligarch, has been appointed deputy minister for the restructuring of the public broadcaster. While I have nothing against Mr. Kapsis personally, it is simply inconceivable how a journalist working for a channel like MEGA, or indeed any private sector channel in Greece, can be appointed to restructure the public broadcaster.

This cabinet reshuffle exhibits all the signs of the political pathologies that affect Greece. Ministers have been appointed who have a record of political failure or of conflicts of interest in an attempt to consolidate internal political support. Its raison d’etre is internal political survival of two literally bankrupt political parties, who live in their own bubble and cannot possibly understand the real challenges of Greek society and the economy.

Its leaders, with few exceptions, are career politicians or from the tangled web of media and the public sector. Many only know politics: Mr. Samaras finished his Harvard degree in 1977, returned to Greece, and entered politics in an inherited seat in Messinia. Mr. Venizelos made his political bones defending Andreas Papandreou in the latter’s corruption trial in the Greek parliament. 

It fails to create any sign of hope or inspiration that this government has a plan to reverse the decline. It is marked by choices of desperation rather than the true political courage needed to handle the issues at hand.

Mr. Samaras bought the survival of his government and his current term as prime minister. Mr. Venizelos bought the survival of his political party, which is on the brink of collapse and expulsion from Parliament. Both share in the spoils of government for a few more months.

Few foreign observers, and certainly few voters, understand the real reasons why the vaunted “Greek reform programme” is failing. But anyone with a real understanding of who makes the decisions, and how these decisions are made, cannot fail to comprehend this. The choice of the present cabinet is a case in point. And the future of the country is preordained.

© Philip Ammerman, 2013

Tuesday 18 June 2013

The ERT Litmus Test

Much has been said and written about the closure of the Greek broadcaster (ERT), the opening of a new, “transparent and axiocratic” one (NERIT), and the need for “reform” over the past week.

Everyone understands that ERT is over-staffed, has seen a “mission creep” in which it developed repetitive functions and invested in questionable assets and activities, and is corrupt, in that high salaries and questionable procurement contracts have been given to undeserving political appointees over decades. 

Moreover, everyone understands that these same problems are emblematic of the wider Greek public sector. Ironically, there is not a single Greek politician of any ideological stripe who has not condemned waste, corruption, nepotism, and a clientistic public sector. And yet both major parties (PASOK and ND) have looted the Greek public sector in the same manner. 

What Greek citizens and taxpayers (and their creditors) are waiting to see is whether this will change.

With the closing of ERT and the opening of NERIT, the Greek political system has a chance to put its heaving rhetoric into practise.

An external observer will be able to test the politicians by monitoring four simple issues:

a.     Who will Mr. Venizelos and Mr. Kouvelis appoint to lead ERT until NERIT is launched? Will this be a party hack with no relevant experience? Or will it be someone qualified to shape the difficult closure and liquidation fairly and transparently, and assure the launch of NERIT?

b.     What terms of reference will be granted to the European public broadcaster that will be hired to draft the NERIT strategic and operating plan? Will the broadcaster be given the resources and time to engage in a proper consultation, or will this be a “copy-paste” project like so many others? Will the recommendations be implemented in practise, e.g. in drafting the new NERIT law? Or will they, like so many other recommendations, collect dust on a shelf somewhere?

c.     What will be done to safeguard ERT's assets? Will asset stripping occur, as has occurred with so many other public organisations, or will a fair sales value be achieved? What steps will ERT/NERIT take to properly register and value all assets and record all transactions, e.g. on the internet, so that the public can see that fair value has been achieved?

d.     Who will New Democracy, PASOK and DIMAR appoint to the new Governing Council of NERIT once it is ready for operation? Will these be “new people”, or will they be the tired, mediocre faces of old who already pollute the Greek public sector, and who have characterised this coalition’s choices to date?

So far, the government has gotten the process and the politics of restructuring ERT wrong. Theoretically, they now have the chance to correct it. The next step is to see whether this correction occurs, and if the right people are appointed to lead it.

Somehow, I wouldn’t like to bet on that outcome.

© Philip Ammerman, 2013
12 June 2013
15 June 2013
17 June 2013 

Monday 17 June 2013

ERT to re-open; yet another Political Fiasco in Greece

(written on Monday, 17 July at 22:20)

Press reports indicate that Greece’s Superior Court has ruled that ERT, the public broadcaster, must re-open pending the development of a new public broadcaster. The final decision will be published tomorrow (Tuesday 17 June).

The reaction at the ERT headquarters on Messogheion Street is one of jubilation. The message here is interesting: commentators, apparently drawn from a Communist Party protest and members of the ERT union, are claiming a victory for justice, “the struggle”, and many other causes. This is the first public reaction, and together with Alexi Tsipras’ political rally in Constitution Square, will allow the current staff of ERT, as well as the broader left to define the debate on this issue.

It remains to be seen what the final decisions are.

In parallel, Skai News has published a plan proposed by Prime Minister Mr. Samaras for the restructuring of ERT (i.e. establishing NERIT, the new public broadcaster):

1.     Improving the cooperation of the three political parties in order to continue the current government and not to endanger the bail-out programme, the tourist season, the attraction of investment, and the investigation of issues such as the Lagarde List.

2.     Immediate constitution of a commonly-accepted Governing Committee to undertake the organisation and transmission of the TV signal until the new broadcaster can be constituted.

3.    Immediate vote on the NERIT law by the Parliament.

4.     Rapid implementation of staff recruitment measures in social sectors (hospitals, social structures, citizen service centres) to recruit the staff fired from ERT.

5.     Reaching an agreement with the BBC or other European public broadcaster to develop the strategic and operational plan of the New Greek Broadcaster.

6.    Nomination of a deputy minister exclusively responsible for the New Broadcaster, to be chosen by Mr. Venizelos and Mr. Kouvelis. Mr. Simos Kedikoglou remains as Government Spokesman and Vice Minister of Media.

7.     Restructuring of the Cabinet after the New Democracy party conference on 28-30 June.

8.    Updating the policy programme between the three political parties which comprise the government.

9.    Adapting procedures for the better coordination of the three parties, and the correct implementation of agreed policies.

If these points are true, and are implemented, then this can only be characterised as yet another very expensive fiasco for the credibility of the country, as well as Mr. Samaras personally.

On the one hand, everyone agrees ERT needs to reform. The uncertainty has always been about what constitute a “good” reform, given the tremendous, bipartisan corruption engendered by both PASOK and New Democracy during their various administrations over the past 35 years.

The fact that Mr. Samaras proceeded to liquidate ERT, forcing it off the air with less than 12 hours notice, is unprecedented and highly undemocratic. The fact that he did this without a replacement plan in place sufficient to convince a majority of the population that reform would work is nothing short of criminal folly.

This is confirmed by several points:

·       According to opinion polls, 65% of Greeks disagreed with the decision to disband ERT in the way it occurred

·       There is still no plan for the new broadcaster—the BBC or another public broadcaster will  be hired to draft one

·       The financial numbers bandied about by Mr. Kedikoglou made absolutely no sense to determining the future costs of NERIT, and how it would be funded

·       The international reaction against the manner of the ERT closure has been nothing short of unanimous against the decision. Greece’s international reputation has once again been dragged through the mud, thanks to the hooliganism of her political leadership.

The points published by Skai leave many points unanswered—chief of which is point 4, which I confess I do not fully understand. If I read it correctly, it means that the staff fired from ERT will be recruited by other public organisations.

If this is true, it is a decision of disastrous magnitude. It sends the message that (a) organised political occupation and protest will be sufficient to block any reform measures, no matter how well they are organised, and (b) it will be impossible to reduce the Greek public sector in any meaningful way.

And this is the point I have been trying to make over the past week: by launching on a haphazard, unprepared political adventure, Mr. Samaras has weakened his own standing as well as the cause of real reform.

The burden of proof has already been on the government (composed as it is of New Democracy and PASOK, who have done so much to ruin Greece in the past) to provide that it can operate in a sustainable, strategic and transparent way. Without this, the sacrifices made by millions of Greek citizens to cope with economic depression and high taxes are impossible. 

Yet once again, we see that both parties have failed entirely to provide a reasonable, cost-effective method of “reform”.

While I hope this lesson will have been taken to heart and that further efforts will be better prepared, there is regrettably little in recent Greek political history to provide evidence in support.

© Philip Ammerman, 2013

Related posts:
12 June 2013
15 June 2013