Interview on BBC’s show “Rendezvous”
Interview on BBC’s show “Rendezvous” by Zeinab Badawi
Zeinab Badawi (BBC)
George A. Papandreou (President of PASOK, President of S.I. – former Prime Minister)
Mary Robinson (Former President of Ireland)
Jan Eliasson (Deputy United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon)
Zeinab Badawi: Hello and a warm welcome to Rendezvous with me, Zeina Badawi. In this week’s show, waiting in the green room, George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece until November last year during one of its most turbulent periods, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, still active in international affairs, and Jan Eliasson, who is set to become the new Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations. All that right here on Rendezvous. George Papandreou, welcome to Rendezvous.
George A. Papandreou: Very nice to be here.
Zeinab Badawi: Now, George, of course it goes without saying that Greece going through this really, really difficult time – what do you think has been the effect on the Greek people?
George A. Papandreou: Well, it’s been very painful for the Greek people. I think we all understand in Greece that we need to make major changes. but the force of change in a short time and having to make painful cuts in pensions and wages, which maybe had to be done in some long period where we could have done other structural changes, and not hurt so many of the weaker and middle class in Greece.
The real challenge now is: Is this something where the pain becomes a real strong momentum for change? Or will we simply retreat because of this pain?
And I think I’m optimistic: Greece can make it. We can do many things. Greece has great potential.
Zeinab Badawi: Sure, of course you say that, but the reality is for so many people now – I mean I was in Greece recently seeing people standing in line for soup kitchens. I hear that the suicide rate has gone up something like 40% in 2011. I mean can the Greek people really recover soon from that kind of suffering?
George A. Papandreou: People are ready to move forward and keep Greece on this track, even though it is painful.
Zeinab Badawi: So it’s not changed them, you know, irredeemably so? It’s changed the DNA of the Greek people, you don’t think?
George A. Papandreou: I think it’s something that historically will be not only remembered, but it will be a turning point. It’s a very difficult point right now, but Greece has great potential. We have great potential in agriculture, which was not competitive. Now we could be going into why not have the Mediterranean or Cretan diet.
Zeinab Badawi: You hear about people leaving the cities and going back to agriculture.
George A. Papandreou: Going back to the countryside and this can be constructive. We have a very educated youth. Of course youth unemployment is huge, but we have the most educated generation over Modern Greek history.
Zeinab Badawi: Sure, but George, what about the effect on you personally? Because it was a huge burden to you. You were Prime Minister of the country through this very, very difficult time. You were unpopular; people were hurling insults at you left, right and central. What’s been the impact on you personally?
George A. Papandreou: You know, every day you have to make very difficult and painful decisions. And you just have to keep strong. But it was – and it is; it’s not an easy situation. It is personally taxing, of course – not myself, my family, relatives, friends.
But at the same time that is one side of the coin. The other side is this major responsibility that I said to myself I have, for the Greek people, for this country. I have been elected, with a huge majority. And people want this change, maybe not expecting that this would go into such a crisis.
Zeinab Badawi: But when you see how the Greek people have now been depicted in the press, particularly in Europe or countries like Germany, as being lazy and tax evaders and that kind of thing, does that upset you when you see that kind of coverage? Do you think it’s unfair, and why?
George A. Papandreou: It upsets me very much when we say that the problems are Greeks, and that this is not a problem that Greece has. This is a European problem, this is a Greek problem, this is a problem which is structural also.
We will be fighting tax evasion. As a matter of fact, we are fighting tax evasion. We are making structural reforms.
This is not in our DNA. These are things I came into power to change. As a matter of fact, there is a very interesting project in the Brookings Institute that compares Greece and Sweden and says that if we were as transparent as Sweden is today, we would gain eight percentage points of GDP.
Zeinab Badawi: But that’s the problem. You’re not, isn’t it? I mean you’ve been accused of cooking the books in the past, I mean not you personally but successive Greek governments.
George A. Papandreou: Well, that’s exactly what I came in to change. And I’d like to add to this.
Zeinab Badawi: You say you came in to change, but let’s face it, George. You are, in a sense, Greek political aristocracy. Your father, Andreas, was the Prime Minister. He founded the party PASOK that you now head. Your grandfather, George Papandreou, was also Prime Minister. I mean politics is really in your blood, isn’t it? I mean you say you have come in to change a system, which arguably you inherited from your father and grandfather.
George A. Papandreou: I don’t like the word aristocracy, and I don’t like the word inheritance, because we are a democratic country. And if you look at the background of my father and my grandfather, they were fighters. They fought.
Zeinab Badawi: Are you a fighter?
George A. Papandreou: Absolutely. And that’s my tradition, fighting for democracy. My grandfather was jailed six times during his life and exiled because he was fighting for democracy. My father was exiled twice. I was with him one of the times, as a little kid in Sweden.
I wouldn’t have gone into politics, I think, and I didn’t want to get into politics, as a matter of fact, when I was a kid.
Zeinab Badawi: Why didn’t you want to go into politics?
George A. Papandreou: Because I felt that I was…
Zeinab Badawi: People like me would ask you questions like is this your inheritance?
George A. Papandreou: That’s right, yeah. That’s right, absolutely.
Zeinab Badawi: It’s inevitable, that.
George A. Papandreou: In a sense, I think, we all want to make our own path. But I was deeply influenced by the political developments in Greece as a young boy, when my father was arrested and a gun was put to my head, a machinegun, to reveal where my father was hiding, where I had hid him, which I didn’t do.
Zeinab Badawi: Literally a machinegun was put to your head? By whom?
George A. Papandreou: Literally to my head. By the military. The military came into our house. They came in. they wanted to pick up my father and put him in jail. They finally found him. And he was put in jail, and we were then exiled after. Luckily he wasn’t shot.
Zeinab Badawi: Is that what made you want to go into politics, then?
George A. Papandreou: Well, this is just one of the many events I have lived through. Living through exile, living through the sixties and the seventies, the movements, I became more politicised. And that brought me into politics.
I think if we had had a much calmer situation in Greece I would have been maybe an academic or maybe something else.
Zeinab Badawi: Given all that background you talk about now, briefly, it must have really upset you when you saw your approval ratings go rock bottom, something like 10-15%, when you were Prime Minister. As a politician you were deeply unpopular.
George A. Papandreou: I knew I had to do what I had to do. And I knew I had to stay the course. I knew that there were problems ahead. I knew that this would be unpopular.
But you know, you plant a tree. You know that you may not live to bask in the shade of that tree, but you know you have planted a tree. We have planted seeds in Greece for change, and that is what I felt my responsibility was.
Zeinab Badawi: OK, well, Greece is not the only country that’s going through these tough times. Ireland is also one of these EU nations that is heavily indebted, and our next guest on Rendezvous is Mary Robinson, President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997. Mary Robinson, welcome to Rendezvous.
Mary Robinson: I’m delighted to be here.
Zeinab Badawi: Now, Mary, no exaggeration to say that when you were president you actually were very popular. I mean your approval ratings around the middle to the end of your time was something like 93%, through the roof. Nice to be a popular politician?
Mary Robinson: But I wasn’t facing the tough problems. I was a president who could focus on, you know, the hand of friendship to people in Northern Ireland, a light in the window for the diaspora, talking up a modern Irish identity, talking about the way in which Ireland was taking its place in a wider Europe, and caring about the rest of the world, going to Somalia in 1992 as the first head of state, and then going to Rwanda after the genocidal killing.
And this gave the Irish people a real sense of being represented by somebody who was reaching out in different ways.
Zeinab Badawi: And I mean is that the kind of presidency you decided you really wanted? You thought I’m not just going to be a bit of ceremonial?
Mary Robinson: Well, I never aspired to be president. I was very surprised when on Valentine’s Day 1990 John Rogers, who had been a former Attorney General in the coalition government between Garret Fitzgerald as the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and his party, the Labour Party.
I had belonged to the Labour Party for a period. And he came; he said he wanted to talk to me about something. I thought maybe it was a personal problem. So he came into our dining room in our home, and we sat down and he said, “We want to nominate somebody to run for the presidency, because it is elected by the people if it’s contested.”
And I looked at him, and I really didn’t want to say yes. But it was an honour to be asked, so I said, “Well, look. Give me the weekend.” And I rang my husband. I said, “Nick, you won’t believe this,” and Nick said, “Come to lunch. It’s Valentine’s Day.”
And then I went back and looked at the Constitution. I thought a directly elected person outside the narrowly political but with important constitutional powers and as head of state can do a lot.
Zeinab Badawi: But you were also very lucky during your time as president of Ireland. You had those boom years, didn’t you, when Ireland was known as the Celtic tiger.
Mary Robinson: Well, no. That was a bit pre-Celtic tiger, but we were growing but we were growing very fast.
Zeinab Badawi: A little pre, yeah. But things were going pretty well when you were president.
Mary Robinson: Yeah, very much so.
Zeinab Badawi: And started going downhill, really, soon after you left. But I mean it tells you how the fortunes of a country can both rise and fall in a pretty short time, doesn’t it?
Mary Robinson: Now things are tough in Ireland, really tough. And particularly tough for those, you know, who are struggling at the bottom or are struggling with their mortgages.
But there is more neighbourliness. There is more resilience. Somehow the Irish spirit is coming through.
Zeinab Badawi: I mean they’ve had very, very tough, austere measures, as you say. I mean to be a politician – you have been described, when you were president and even before and after, and so on, as being very brave. I mean for instance you reached out to Protestants, David Trimble, for instance, also Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, at a time when this was fairly controversial. Do you think that that is what marks out the good politician, somebody who is very brave?
Mary Robinson: Well, certainly I started with a tough issue, because I was elected to the Irish Senate at the age of 25.
Zeinab Badawi: Well, that’s young.
Mary Robinson: And introduced family planning in 1971. And I was denounced from pulpits and denounced in newspapers, got hate letters, garden gloves cut up and sent, because contraceptives, you couldn’t buy or sell contraceptives, though they were…
Zeinab Badawi: It’s still very conservative, yeah.
Mary Robinson: You could still use. And I learned, you know, to be prepared to pay a price, if you really believe in something.
So then when I was president and able to reach out to the two communities in Northern Ireland and encourage the kind of reconciliation that was going on, and then I was invited to Republican West Belfast and shook the hand of Gerry Adams, and that was much criticised.
And the British government didn’t want it, the Irish government didn’t want it. But I knew that by shaking his hand, by being there in that community, I could help to bring that community out of its isolation.
Zeinab Badawi: Do you think the fact that you were married to a Protestant, and you married a Protestant against some family opposition, really, didn’t you? Do you think that helped you in a way to try and sort of forge ahead in this kind of reconciliation?
Mary Robinson: I think so, because, you know, we were a “mixed marriage,” as we call it in those circumstances. And it gave me insight, because Nick had Protestant relatives in Northern Ireland. He, you know, is a wonderful ally and friend in all of this. And I had actually links with both communities in Northern Ireland.
Zeinab Badawi: George, I mean when you are listening to Mary here reaching out amidst, you know, a lot of backlash, really, from your own community and elsewhere, when you were foreign minister in Greece you were seen as very key in a rapprochement with Turkey, traditional enemies of Greece, of course – you know, difficult history you have had, Ottoman Empire and so on and so forth. I mean does what Mary says resonate with what you said, that you have to be quite brave?
George A. Papandreou: As Mary was saying, I was getting hate letters. I was, even in the beginning, seen as a traitor to my country.
After a few years, where we have worked on this rapprochement, even though we haven’t solved all our problems – the Cyprus problem is there, we have our issue on the continental shelf and so on. The policy that we were following had a 70-75% approval rate.
Mary Robinson: I remember very well that period, George. Alan was very supportive of what you were doing and of bringing Turkey into wider Europe and indeed hopefully into the European Union.
I also very much share your concern about how being in politics and public life is becoming unpopular for young people and that is very bad, you know. We need people with conviction and willingness to engage.
George A. Papandreou: To change the world.
Zeinab Badawi: Do you think politicians say – I mean, politicians are often accused of taking themselves a bit too seriously. I mean, I know your husband Nick is a cartoonist, isn’t he?
Mary Robinson: That’s right. He could take me down any day.
Zeinab Badawi: Yes, he often lampoons politicians as cartoons in his work. Has that helped you to keep a bit level-headed?
Mary Robinson: Well, you know, when I was invited to become an elder with Nelson Mandela, you know, invited elders, he went around describing himself as the nursemaid to one of the elders, you know.
But, you know, humour is good and I think it is very important; but also, conviction, you know, a passion for change. We have a world where we have huge problems. I mean, the one that preoccupies me at the moment is climate. And we want women’s leadership; because that is the one area probably where leadership isn’t under such attack.
Everybody is saying we lack leadership in the world, we lack leadership in so many areas, the Eurozone for example; but I think women’s leadership is making a difference.
Zeinab Badawi: Alright. To Mary and George thank you for the moment. And indeed somebody who is going to have to deal fully with current global challenges is the veteran Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, soon to be deputy to Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General. We are going to take a short break for now, but do stay with us here on “Rendezvous.”
Zeinab Badawi: Welcome back to “Rendezvous” with me, Zeinab Badawi. And I have with me Mary Robinson and George Papandreou. But my next guest today is a man who is soon to be deputy to Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. Jan Eliasson, welcome to “Rendezvous.”
Jan Eliasson: Thank you very much.
Zeinab Badawi: So, you are leaving this nice teaching post at the University of Uppsala in Sweden to go to all the intrigue that goes on at the top of the United Nations. You ready for it? You’ve been doing your press-ups?
Jan Eliasson: I have been working with the UN, even after I left as Foreign Minister and President of the General Assembly.
I was mediating at the Darfur conflict and I am also now working for the millennium development cause, fighting poverty and problems related to women and children.
Zeinab Badawi: So it’s like going home really, again.
Jan Eliasson: It is going home and it is probably like a drug in my veins.
Zeinab Badawi: You need another shot.
Jan Eliasson: I need another shot and I like it very much and I was very honoured that the Secretary has asked me to take on this post.
Zeinab Badawi: I know you can give the UN a shot in the arm, I mean with all people say that this big lumbering bureaucratic machine needs a bit of a shakeup.
Jan Eliasson: Well, every organization probably needs a shakeup. But, you know, when you blame the United Nations, it is often the member-states that you point at.
But I think there’s lots to do, both in the area of conflicts that there are many of in the world; but also the long-term challenges, climate, poverty.
Zeinab Badawi: What are going to be your major preoccupations briefly?
Jan Eliasson: Probably a combination of working with development issues. But the Secretary has asked me to be prepared to deal with conflicts. I was mediating at the Iran-Iraq war, in the Darfur conflict, so I’ve got some experience.
Zeinab Badawi: We’ve got Kofi Annan, of course, at the moment, as the UN Special Envoy for Syria.
Jan Eliasson: Yes, it is a great move, I think, to take him in on that one. Together with the Arab League, a blessing to the operations.
Zeinab Badawi: And just very quickly, do you think on the upheavals in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, do you think that the international community is going along the right roads in your view?
Jan Eliasson: Well, I think on the humanitarian side they will move and I think all members of the Security Council will give that effort their support.
But also, I think it would be hard not to give Kofi Annan the full support from all sides of the UN. So, I am hopeful Kofi Annan could be the catalyst for positive change.
Zeinab Badawi: Alright. And just looking at your career, you’ve had a long and distinguished career both in your native Sweden, where you were Foreign Minister and so on, and you have had so many jobs in the United Nations that I can’t say.
Jan Eliasson: Don’t remind me of my age!
Zeinab Badawi: I’m not. I didn’t say your age at all. You look very young, incidentally, however old you are. But the fact is people might look at you and say, “Oh, Jan Eliasson, this top international civil servant,” and so on; but actually, you came from very humble origins yourself, didn’t you?
Jan Eliasson: Well, I probably symbolize Sweden’s progress.
I am from working class background, grew up in one room, my father had seven years of school, my mother four. I am the first one to graduate even from secondary school in my family’s history.
But that is also Sweden. Sweden, 70 years ago, was one of Europe’s poorest countries. And then it turned into one of the richest and most prosperous in the world, because of investments in education, in family planning, in good governance I would say. So I am very grateful for that background.
Zeinab Badawi: So it is the Swedish model really, isn’t it? I mean, you benefited from that at its height.
Jan Eliasson: Absolutely.
Zeinab Badawi: Great emphasis in equality and egalitarianism. But people say that’s now under assault; that you cannot sustain that Swedish model anymore.
Jan Eliasson: I think it is the period of revival, rather. I think there was a period where the market economy was “the solution to all problems.”
Now, I think there is more a demand for a strong public sector, well-functioning social structure…
Zeinab Badawi: But can people afford it though?
Jan Eliasson: Well, you know that you get something for taxes. One element in a society to work is social trust.
You need to trust each other, you need to trust institutions; you need to know that you get something for taxes.
Zeinab Badawi: You have the highest rate of tax still.
Jan Eliasson: Yes, but we get something for taxes.
Zeinab Badawi: Yes. George, you mentioned earlier about when your father, Andreas Papandreou, was in exile, one of the countries you went to in the ‘70s and got to know very well is Sweden.
George A. Papandreou: Yes, that’s right.
Zeinab Badawi: You speak fluent Swedish then.
George A. Papandreou: That’s right. And I am very glad to be with Jan, whom I know and have worked together.
Zeinab Badawi: You can say that in Swedish to him, go on.
George A. Papandreou: (Speaks Swedish)
Jan Eliasson: (Speaks Swedish)
Mary Robinson: You want some Irish?
Zeinab Badawi: That would … all of us as well.
Jan Eliasson: We’ll make him honorary Swede.
George A. Papandreou: Yes, why not?
Zeinab Badawi: That sounded very authentic, George, but did you take anything from your time in Sweden that’s of Swedish model? Paying taxes obviously is not something that resonated with the Greeks, which the Swedes do.
George A. Papandreou: Let me put it this way. First of all, I am very grateful and my family and many Greek people are very grateful, because we were in exile there and they welcomed us. We could have been without any home. We were refugees there; we couldn’t go back to Greece.
And taxes, yes, I think the taxes – this is I think interesting – taxes; the most popular public agency in Sweden – and this has to go with trust – is the Tax Agency, something very different than Greece. This is what we can do. We can change.
Zeinab Badawi: Very quickly, Jan Eliasson, do you think we have got to the stage now where a lot of people in Europe and elsewhere are saying, “We don’t want ideology now politics any more, whether it is based on equality and this and that. We just want good, technocratic governments who can manage the economy well,” and it’s kind of the end of ideology?
Jan Eliasson: Well, I don’t like the fact that it would be a technocratic government. I would hope that politicians would also be in charge of going to that direction.
But I think the greatest thing about developing society, hopefully, in the European perspective is that strength is not military strength as we learned during the Cold War. Strength is economic strength, well distributed. Strength is social cohesion in society; strength is environmental awareness; strength is vitality democracy, research, science and kids who get jobs when they grow up.
That is really how I think Europe should go. That is the direction we should aim for.
Zeinab Badawi: And you say that passion and compassion are the two key things?
Jan Eliasson: Without passion nothing happens in life, without compassion the wrong things happen.
Zeinab Badawi: And Mary, you’ve built a career in many ways when you were at the UN Human Rights Commission, based on compassion.
Mary Robinson: I just agree very much with what Jan and George have been saying about how we should have societies in the 21st century and how we should encourage developing countries, who are developing their capacity.
And part of it is not to have these terrible divides; and to have governments that are responsible to people, to bring back a sense of the real politics, the service of politics. Politicians should serve people and that’s I think the real sense. We’ve never needed more leadership.
Zeinab Badawi: George, your plans now? Because you are not going to be head of PASOK anymore.
George A. Papandreou: That’s right.
Zeinab Badawi: What are you going to be doing?
George A. Papandreou: I hope that Greece, being the birthplace of democracy, we can set up, I was thinking a school for training of leaders, democratic training.
Just think that Greece is in the region of the Arab Spring. We are looking at a global situation, where we need global governance, democratic global governance, where we bring in this concept of justice and redistribution of power, dealing with global issues such as climate change.
This is what certainly I will be working on; and, of course, fighting for my country. My country has great potential. Greece has great potential.
Zeinab Badawi: Alright. George Papandreou, Mary Robinson, Jan Eliasson, thank you all very much and until our next “Rendezvous” with me, Zeinab Badawi, goodbye.