George A. Papandreou (born June 16, 1952) is Former Prime Minister of Greece, current President of Socialist International, a Member of the Hellenic Parliament and former President of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). He served as the 11th Prime Minister of Greece from October 6, 2009 - November 11, 2011, after PASOK’s victory in the October 2009 national elections.

George A. Papandreou

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Opening Ceremony of the 14th Annual Symi Symposium

Speech by George Α. Papandreou, President of Socialist International, at the Opening Ceremony of the 14th Annual Symi Symposium

First of all, let me welcome you to this Symi Symposium. I should welcome all the newcomers to the Symi Symposium, there are quite a few new participants and of course many who have been here many times and for many years. The fact that you are in Greece at this moment, I would say is also important.

There is also, I would say, a sense of solidarity to what we are going through. But it also is – and you have been very much in solidarity with the work that I have done over these years and I can say that your friendship and your commitment, as well as your compassion and of course advice has always been valuable in these difficult times. So I very much appreciate the fact that we are all together.

You who are here for the first time you will see that we do call this a “Symi Family” because it is truly with our families and the bonds we create are truly important in our work and in our lives.

So we are here to take stock of what has happened in many ways, but also look to the next stages of this ongoing Greek saga or drama and of course not only in Greece, but also in Europe. And I hope we can do so, surviving the heat-wave now. Climate change is always of course one of our priorities and I am sure Kumi Naidoo, and Gert Leipold, will tell us that even though maybe this heat-wave may be part of the climate change results, but certainly the changes around the world, the extremes in weathers have their cause; the heart of it is climate change issue.

And we in Symi have always brought out the need for greater collaboration beyond our narrow national interests; beyond our narrow political – if you like – lines, seeing how we can go beyond this, in order to create collaboration in a world which needs this.

And if we are talking about climate change, we are seeing the failure of this collaboration, the will to collaborate beyond these sovereign interests, we are seeing that too little has been done and too late, which may in the end mean the failure of our ecosystem.

But where is Europe in this? And we are consumed, we have been consumed the past few years with the financial crisis; and this of course has meant that we have moved away from other priorities, but also, even in Europe I would say, we have made many steps ahead, but also not enough. Not enough collaboration, not enough going beyond our national interests, to deal with this financial crisis.

So, here also we are facing the possible failure to collaborate, doing too little too late, which could end up not only with the failure of our financial system and our economies, but also it could be a challenge to the project Europe itself. Europe is at stake and I would like to be more optimistic and I am sure we will come up with all kinds of proposals and ideas these few days.

I know that Baroness Ashton, Cathy Ashton who is with us, has done a splendid job in her position as – we don’t call you Foreign Minister; we were going to make that position, Foreign Minister, but is Vice President of the Commission.

However, Europe does have less clout over these very important issues and there are many important issues as Cathy will tell us and we all know; whether it is in the Arab Spring, whether it is the Middle East, whether it is climate change, whether it is migration, and despite the work that Cathy is doing, for example recently with Iran, I am sure that she but also Boris Tadic, until recently President of Serbia, having done a great job in pushing Serbia onto a European track, I am sure he will also be able to tell us how Europe seems absent or people in the Balkans feel that there is a vacuum concerning Europe, which is creating on the one hand an enlarging fatigue from European members, but also a weakening of the prospects and of the feeling of attractiveness from peoples in the region.

We have a number of Balkan friends, who are here and I welcome them and I am sure they will have much to say, as well as our neighbors, our Turkish friends, I welcome them. Welcome to our Symi Symposium. And Turkey is playing an important role in the region, certainly during this economic crisis, having moved towards a represmal over the last ten-twelve years.

Ten years ago, I was here with Ismail Cem, here on Samos, actually a little bit earlier than that, when we actually had a meeting here and then on the other side in Kusadasi, to inaugurate close cooperation between our islands and the western coast of Turkey and that has blossomed into more tourism, more trade, more understanding and I would say avoiding major conflicts and a major flare-up over the last years.

So this is I think an important issue too that we should discuss. But what have we done right, what has gone wrong in this European experience and this Greek experience? What conclusions can we bring? Can we solve these problems? Is Europe headed for a major splintering or further integration? What are the economic solutions to this? We have quite a few economists with us, a new participant, Robert Skidelsky, I would like to welcome him here, he has written important books, particularly on Keynes and how Keynes today would have answered the questions of our financial crisis.

Mister Jacques Delpla, Jean-Christophe Nothias are some also important economic thinkers, but of course Leif Pagrotsky, Mats Karlsson, Joakim Palme, Mary Kaldor are regulars here in the Symposium and will obviously contribute to this discussion.

With us also we arranged to hear the views from a German standpoint, from a specific voice in Germany, Özdemir Cem, who is going to be with us and who brings a very special voice, because he has an understanding not only of Germany, but also of this region, and he has spoken out quite a bit about the rise of nationalism across Europe and racism phenomena and violence around Europe.

Also, representing if you like triple-A countries, Eero Heinaluoma, the speaker of the Finish Parliament is with us to see how this rift between the high risk and low risk countries in Europe is making it much more difficult to solve the problem, because the bridges we have to build to strengthen Europe are much bigger. Had we done so much earlier, had we taken action much earlier, we would have, I think, been able to avoid this crisis, stem the lack of confidence in the markets much earlier.

So, as we assess this period, we will look at the victories and defeats. Anthony Barnett was telling us that we should talk about what it is to have defeat and how we deal with it. I think he will be referring to that, but he will mention particularly the referendum which we were about to make in Greece, to materialize in Greece, and of course how politicians, but also the markets responded in a way which didn’t help.

The question of democracy in Europe, the question of the vision of a different Europe, the question of the vision for a different Greece; how after this difficult situation we revive it. Certainly, leading in this time, Marcie Boucouvalas, has been interviewing Greeks to see how they have understood this crisis, but Ron, as always, you will be certainly invaluable to giving us your insight on the leadership challenges that we have gone through, but also ahead of us.

As you know, when I came into the premiership in 2009, we had, we still have a vision of a very different Greece. And we were called upon to make major changes, because we knew Greece had great potential, but was a country basically which was mismanaged. Clientelistic politics, a state which had a lot of lack in transparency, even graft, and a political elite often entwined with an establishment which didn’t want to see change and justice, equality, or develop the real capacity our country has and our people have.

However, we were, instead of having as our major priority these changes, a green Greece, a transparent Greece, a just Greece, a viable Greece, we were forced to immediately deal with the crisis at hand, which was of course the need to restore fiscal sustainability, faced with a possible default or even a euro exit, and certainly we are proud that not only my government, but the Greek people through their sacrifices were able to avoid that type of a catastrophe.

We were able to create a mechanism of European solidarity, very difficult politically inside Europe, but at the same time as the markets did not give us much time, the mechanism itself was not itself to stem the lack of confidence in the European construction and that did not give us the time also to put our house in order, which of course is necessary.

I say this, because sometimes when we talk about what is happening in Greece, we confuse two different concepts: austerity and reform. They shouldn’t be confused, because it is very difficult trying to balance your books, which we needed to do, and very different to make Greece a sustainable, viable economy. That takes more time and that is the key in fact to making Greece be able to in the future balance its books.

So austerity was an attempt to immediately balance our books, but as I said very often to my colleagues in the European Union, that takes a lot of political capital, but the real political capital should be invested in changing Greece, in dealing with the generic issues, the basic issues of making us a more competitive, making us a more viable and just economy.

And, therefore, the Greek people felt that as we were changing, we were also been punished for previous sins and various sins, and very often a large part of the population of Greece felt that that punishment was unjust and rightly so, because those who were punished were those who were able to pay taxes or were not able to avoid taxes and those who were often not responsible for the crisis itself.

However, despite that, Greece has made major reforms over the past few years and this is, I think, one of the positive signs. Despite the pain, despite the austerity, just to give you a small statistic, the OECD came out with a report only a few weeks ago, two months ago I think, where it said that it made a comparison about the reforms in the industrialized world of the OECD members over the past three years, who had made the most impressive and deeper reforms amongst all the OECD countries. And Greece was not number two, number one. So we have made many changes.

However, if Europe itself does not recover, and we are continuing to go into deeper recession, this of course will have major impact on the success of our country too, I think that many now, many more in Europe are talking about the need for a growth pact and this is something which of course I have talked about from the very beginning. The need for growth in Europe, but particularly the type of growth which isn’t simply to throw money at the problem, but to invest in a type of Europe which makes it competitive, and that would mean a Europe which is competitive because of its quality and not because of its inequality; not simply competing for lower wages between Europe and the emerging markets, but competing on quality products, through investing in green growth, in infrastructure, in education and in innovation, in order to produce a much more competitive product.

But, Greece also these last few years not only felt the brand of austerity and we have cut our primary deficit more than any other EU member over the past few decades in the very short time of two years. We not only bear the brand of the difficult struggles and changes for reform in our country, fighting corruption, fighting tax-evasions, opening up professions, things that are very necessary, but I think there is a third issue which was of great importance and still is. And that is the pain of uncertainty. Deep uncertainty, because over the past two years, there has been a continual discussion in the media, in the EU, in the US, amongst analysts about whether Greece will remain in the euro or whether Greece will default again and again, whether there will be a catastrophe which remains looming.

And this of course is very corrosive, because what it did and what it has done and what it still does is despite all the reform, despite all the measures to put our books into order and balance our budgets, we have consumers that are fearful of consuming, we have traders that are fearful of trading, we have banks fearful of lending, borrowers fearful of borrowing, and investors fearful of investing – not only Greeks, but also foreign direct investment. And I remember very clearly when only maybe a year ago, I had an offer from a number of countries to invest in Greece, amongst them the Qataris, who signed a deal for a 5 billion investment in Greece, they immediately backed off when these rumors about the euro began to raise their head in the media and saying, “Well, let’s see what happens, what Europe does and what happens in Europe,” concerning the Eurozone problem and whether Greece will remain in or out.

Of course, this no longer is a Greek problem and this shows that it is not just a Greek problem. The bond markets are fearful to fund Europe, or at least parts of it, and they are punishing our economies and our peoples and doing so before we have the time to reorganize and become more viable and competitive economies. We see this now with Italy and Spain. They are doing their best; they have major programs of change and reform and budget cuts, yet the markets are not responding positively, they don’t give these governments time.

And this of course is a challenge to our democratic institutions. You will see the Greek Parliament, or the Italian Parliament, or the Spanish Parliament, making very difficult political decisions on a track to greater sustainability, and you will see the day after or the day after the day after, you will see a rating agency down-rate the banks or the economy, the bonds, the sovereign bonds, basically annihilating the positive effects of the important political and democratic decisions of these countries.

And this is why I said from the very beginning that yes, Greece has a problem and we are responsible for our own problems, but Greece is not the problem. There was a narrative and sometimes there still is amongst many European leaderships that the problem is Greece or the problem now is “These Southerners,” “These profligate Southerners,” or “These lazy Southerners.” I always say that again, OECD has us as number two in working hours after the South Koreans amongst the OECD countries, so that is another stereotype, which has no basis.

But this was a very convenient argument. A convenient argument, because of course if G
reece is the problem, then the responsibility is only on the backs of the Greeks and no one else really has to take up the challenge of seeing what are the problems of the architecture of this Eurozone. There are problems of the architecture and there are problems of how we deal with the markets after the major financial crisis and how we deal with them effectively.

So, I think there are some inconvenient truths here too. That Greece is not the problem and there is a wider problem in Europe and a wider challenge. When I listen to some of my colleagues in Europe saying about the fear of pooling the risk in Europe, I often feel that we have already pooled this risk. We have pooled this risk and now we have to pool our strengths. Again, going back to this motto that we go beyond the narrow confines of our national or so-called national interests; our national interests are in fact to pool our strengths and deal with issues, whether it is climate change, or financial crises, or other issues at hand.

I would like to conclude with trying to give a picture of how one could describe the kind of challenge we have. When we began, when I began this journey, I talked of a Greek Odyssey, where we needed protection, in order to repair our boats and continue our journey; a difficult journey, but one where we knew in the end we would get to Ithaca.

But today, I think we should see this more like an armada of 17 boats in the Eurozone, 17 Eurozone members, where actually our boats are on their sides tied together again and again over the years, to make a long row of boats that is traveling in the seas. This in fact was the basic of when Europe was built, to tie our fates together in such a way that we could not splinter and fight amongst ourselves, as we had done in World War I and World War II.

It was and it still is a peace project. So tying our fates together in solidarity is the basis of this European project. Now, of course, as we were tied together all these 17 boats, traveling merrily in calm waters, this was great. We worked together, we lived together, we shared many things. But once we hit the financial crisis and this was a major storm, when these 17 boats hit these huge waves and winds, then what happened was we started to see that there were different sizes of these boats, there were different engines on these boats, there were different burdens that each boat carried, different capacities of these boats. And this, of course, translates into the real world as differences in competitiveness, differences in labor laws, in tax laws, in social, pension laws and labor mobility, in education and infrastructure.

So this storm is pulling us apart and there is a great tendency, sort of sirens out there saying, “Why don’t you break apart and come alone and go out alone on this? Why carry all this weight? Why are you holding on to each other in this storm?” However, the breakup would be more like an operation of Siamese twins, very painful and not necessarily successful. So our challenge is to see how we become more integrated and this I think is the challenge of Europe.

Of course, at the same time, we in Greece need to continue our reforms. As I said, austerity is different than reforms and we are looking to see if we can mitigate the pain, by adjusting it over a longer period of time. But questions such as transparency, open government, fighting corruption, investing in human potential, in green potential, we have done a lot over these past two, two and a half years.

We have done a lot of innovative work also and innovative policies and trying to find very-very new ways of quickly changing our administration. And I know that Fred Dust is here from IDEO and he has been with us at an earlier time and I think we need to look and see how we can continue this innovation, but also the will to fight a more clientelistic state and revamp our country.

And this is my hope; that this new government, this coalition government will continue these reforms despite all the problems, because that in the end will make Greece a viable country. And as Greece has been in a perfect storm, so our experience will also be the key to understanding the success of not only Greece, but also of wider Europe.

Europe at the same time needs to move forward, where we can build democratic trust in Brussels, because as we pull more and more of our sovereignty into the European institutions, we need to see how we democratize these institutions, such as electing an EU President, how we put decisions to our people in a more participative way, whether it is referenda or other forms of democratic participation, how we deal with the financial system which is out of democratic accountability – whether it is the credit agencies, or whether it is the banking system, or whether it is tax havens that rob us of major resources that should belong to our peoples and the public effort we are making to revamp our economies.

We should also see how we create a social Europe, where there are social benefits to those particularly in need, such as the unemployed. I know Mr. Delpla has a specific proposal on this issue. Issues such as the financial transaction tax, where we use this as an insurance to support the ESM or the EFSF.

But we should even look at further issues, such as common defense and of course fiscal, economic and banking unions. Very controversial, but at the same time these are the challenges we have ahead of us.

There is also a wider challenge beyond Europe, where I think here the US must play an important role, but not only the US, now in a much more multi-polar world. The G-20 has at times been described as the G-0. The question of governance, and I would say even more representative and democratic governance at a world level, is of great importance, if we are to deal with these global crises.

As the ancient Greeks would say, παν μέτρον άριστον, everything in measure, and this was basically linked to what Aristotle had said, of course, that everything should be linked and measured to the human dimension, the human dimension of what we do and how we deal with our problems. And in fact we are challenged to see how we can humanize globalization today and again bring hope to our people.

So these are the challenges for Symi. We always like to have big challenges, Cathy and Boris, but this makes for stimulating discussions and I hope that we will all be very much enriched and with greater hope, once it finishes in a few days.

Thank you again for being with us and I will give the floor to Cathy, Baroness Ashton. Thank you very much.

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