Interview of George A. Papandreou President of PASOK by Sir David Frost (Frost Over the World) on Al Jazeera
David Frost: But we begin with Greece. This week, the European Central Bank agreed to lend the European banks EUR 529 billion. However, it said it would no longer accept Greece’s bonds as collateral for loans, after the country was downgraded to a default rating. So have political leaders been too tough, then, on Greece? And should the Greeks have their right to their say in a referendum? One man, who is perfectly placed to answer the question, is the one who lost his job after he floated the idea of a referendum last year, the former Greek Prime Minister, the leader still of the PASOK party, George A. Papandreou. Mr. Papandreou, it’s so good to have you with us. Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister, this week called for a referendum in Ireland. What are your feelings now about whether the Greeks deserve a referendum? In addition to everything else, do they deserve a referendum?
George A. Papandreou: I think that the idea of a referendum was the right decision then. I believe that it was wrongly criticised, both from a number of European leaders, but also wrongly criticised by a number of leaders inside Greece and even by a lot of the media, because the referendum basically was saying we give the chance to the Greek people to own this process, the process of change, take on the responsibility, the responsibility that many of the people in the elite in Greece and a lot of the oligarchic – if you like – clientelistic system, did not want to take on this responsibility.
And I believed we had to put the dilemma directly to the Greek people. And I was of the opinion that this would have been a positive vote for Greece remaining in the euro, but also for the Greeks to say “yes, we will sustain the pain as long as we can make the changes, the bigger changes we want, to make Greece a viable economy.”
People feel disempowered. People, citizens, feel they don’t have a say. People are turning their backs towards our political system. And one of the reasons is that they feel that even governments are powerless in this globalised financial system, which has much more money, much more power, much more concentration of power, than what elected governments have.
And this is why I think a referendum would also have been symbolically very important for Europe. And the fact that Ireland has made this decision, I think only enhances, strengthens, my conviction on the necessity to have had a referendum in Greece.
David Frost: So how much of your views changed, then? Quite a bit.
George A. Papandreou: I would say that I have strengthened my view. I feel stronger about my view, much stronger than I did then, which was of course a strong view at that time, too.
And I believe that, sooner or later, not only Greece, but other countries will be asking for stronger democratic procedures in Europe.
Let me just put this in a wider context. We in Europe are unique. We are pooling our sovereignty. And we are unique, because this is the only such experiment, historically, which has been done in a peaceful way. There have been poolings of sovereignties through civil wars, or through wars, where the United States for example created its federation, basically strengthened its government after a civil war.
We didn’t have that. We decided that we would pool our sovereignties in a peaceful way. Why do we do this? To be able to deal with major issues around the world, such as the financial crises, the climate crises, the issue of competitiveness, the issue of growth.
But as we pool our sovereignties, that means that we need more democratic structures at the European level, and more say of our citizens also in constructing this Europe.
And I think this is what is going to be a challenge for the next few years and the next decades in Europe, a challenge which I see is looming very much now, as there is a lot of criticism that those who are taking decisions are more and more the few and the stronger nations.
However, at the same time, we have made major structural changes. As a matter of fact, I have heard over the past months that Greece was not keeping its promises in the changes. Just yesterday, the OECD came out and said that Greece is a world leader in structural changes, and they said, “who would have thought of it only a few days ago or a few weeks ago.”
We are number one amongst OECD countries in structural changes. And in the past 2-2.5 years, we have made more changes in Greece, than over the past 30-40 years of our democratic life.
And I think this is a tribute to the Greek people, first of all, but also shows the great effort that our government put into making these changes.
And therefore, I am proud of what we have done, even though I know that much of this is painful. But as long as we can sustain these changes, in a way that makes Greece more just, more transparent, redistributes wealth in a way which people can understand that, even if we are, as a nation, somewhat poorer, everybody is taking on the responsibility and make Greece more competitive.
David Frost: You said the other day in an interview, you said, “Greece will not default, and Greece will not exit the Eurozone.” Do you still feel, a few days later, absolutely sure about that?
George A. Papandreou: I believe that the package we got yesterday-which we negotiated over the last few months, and the major decision we made when I was Prime Minister in October, on the so-called haircut of the debt, but also of this major package, and now we have implemented many of the measures and voted on them in Parliament, and we have gotten the green light for this package, which was signed yesterday in Brussels-this gives us the time to make the changes, make our economy sustainable. And it guarantees us, therefore, that if we follow this path, and I think we will, I believe we will, we will not exit the euro and we will not default.
I would add to this, of course, that sometimes people like to isolate our problem as a “Greek problem.” It is not just a Greek problem. Yes, we have our responsibility. We have made our mistakes in the past. And we are paying for this, but we are also making the changes.
But I have said from the very beginning of this crisis, this is not a Greek crisis, it is a financial crisis, it is a crisis of the Eurozone, it is a crisis of our globalised economy. These are things we have to change in Europe, if we want to make sure, not that Greece remains in the euro, but that the euro itself survives and the other countries also will remain in the euro.
David Frost: In conclusion, one other issue that has arisen in the last few days, is the relationship between Greece and Germany, which seems to be breaking down. It seems like the Second World War all over again, in terms of the relationship between the two countries. That is very ruptured, that relationship, at the moment, isn’t it?
George A. Papandreou: Well, I believe we in Europe, to put it in the European context, need to get back to our basic values.
What is our basic value? Go beyond nationalisms, which have divided Europe in the past century, in the most terrible of ways. Go beyond populism. And look at our collective strengths.
This crisis is not a German crisis or a German problem. It’s not a Greek problem or a Greek crisis. It is something we have to do collectively, together.
Therefore, the blame game is not going to get us anywhere. It is only going to undermine our collective spirit and our collective strength.
I have differences with some Germans, and I agree with other Germans, as I have differences with some Greeks and I agree with other Greeks, as I have had differences with the previous government, that brought us into this mess in Greece, and as I have had at different times disagreed with the German government on its policies in Europe, but also agreed on much that it has done also in helping Greece and in giving this aid, these loans, which of course we will be paying back.
But therefore, I think that we have to get beyond nationalisms and look at the political problem. There are political issues and they don’t have an ethnic base.
Greece is a country that can make change. Greek-bashing is something which has hurt us very much; the speculation against Greece has hurt us very much. We are proud people. We demand respect. We have made sacrifices. And we know that these sacrifices will give us the opportunity to build a strong country, a proud country, one where we can stand on our own two feet, where we can feel truly sovereign and truly build up our strengths, whether it’s in agriculture, whether it’s in high-quality tourism, whether it’s in shipping, whether it’s in green energy.
Greece can and will become a viable, competitive economy, a much more just and transparent economy.
We are not a poor country. We were a mismanaged country with lots of clientelism, graft and lack of transparency.
This is changing. And all we are asking for is time. Give us a chance. We will show the world that we are a proud and effective and just country.
David Frost: I hope that we can do this again soon. Thank you so much.
George A. Papandreou: So do I. And again, it’s a great honour to have spoken to you, I follow you with great admiration.
David Frost: Our thanks to George Papandreou, joining us there from Athens.