Greece’s austerity junta: Regime of the Technocrats

Brendan O’Neill reports from Athens on how the EU is using financial blackmail to force cash-
strapped Greece to suspend democratic politics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

On 21 April 1967, as the Greek military executed its infamous coup d’état, 14-year-old George Papandreou had a gun held to his head by soldiers who had stormed his family’s villa. The aim was to force George’s father, the Socialist leader Andreas Papandreou, to surrender to the military as it carried out mass arrests of politicians, leftists and anarchists. Distressed by the sight of his son being held at gunpoint, Andreas dutifully gave in, and there followed a seven-year military dictatorship known as The Regime of the Colonels.

In November 2011, George, now 59 years old and prime minister of Greece, is once again having a gun held to his head. This time, though, it’s a metaphorical one, and it is being wielded, not by Greek colonels hellbent on taking power, but by suits in Brussels, by a gang of commissioners and bankers determined to install in Greece a government to their liking. Using extreme financial blackmail, these external coupists are pressuring Papandreou, and all other Greek politicians, to suspend political debate, shelve normal democratic procedures and install an EU-approved, austerity-enforcing government of bank managers. A Regime of the Technocrats, if you like.

Admittedly, it doesn’t feel like a coup or invasion is taking place in Greece. Last night, as Papandreou’s ruling Socialist party and the opposition continued to try to form the ‘national unity’ government demanded by Brussels, there was an eerie sense of stasis in Athens. Even in Syntagma Square, site of much radical agitating in recent months, nothing much was happening. Stray dogs napped beneath trees. Lovers sat under statues still faintly stained with protest graffiti. A TV crew nonchalantly waited for the new government to be unveiled, ‘so we can do some instant interviews with people in the square’, a bored-looking cameraman told me. ‘But it doesn’t look like the announcement will come tonight’, he continued, sounding more like someone waiting to find out who’s in the running for the Best Actress Oscar rather than a citizen waiting to discover who his new PM and cabinet leaders are.

There are no tanks on the streets, as there were in 1967. No political activists are being arrested or having their fingernails torn off, as they had in 1967. Yet behind the scenes something extraordinary, and extraordinarily undemocratic, is taking place: under threat of economic sanction, Greek politicians are forging a government designed to the diktat of Brussels bigwigs rather than to the needs and desires of the Greek people. In the words of the EU’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, ‘We have called for a national unity government and remain persuaded that it is the convincing way of restoring confidence and meeting the commitments.’ And if Greece doesn’t set up a national unity government? It won’t receive a penny of the bailout package agreed at the EU summit on 26 October, meaning it will go bankrupt within weeks.

In the eyes of the Euro-elites, the real trouble started when Papandreou had the gall to suggest that the bailout package for Greece agreed by EU officials should be put to a referendum. Given that nothing terrifies the Brussels-based political class more than the thought of hoi polloi having a say on EU matters, talk of a referendum sent shockwaves through the Union. A spokesman for French president Nicolas Sarkozy described Papandreou’s proposal as ‘irrational and dangerous’. German chancellor Angela Merkel said it was ‘irritating’. An Italian official labelled it ‘negative’. And as one commentator pointed out, considering EU people are well-versed in speaking in euphemisms, these explicit expressions of disdain for the idea of a Greek referendum hinted at ‘purple, choking rage’ behind the scenes – all because a politician had suggested consulting his electorate on the passing of a pretty stringent austerity deal.

Inside Greece, opposition forces sought to take advantage of the EU fury aimed at PM Papandreou. Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative opposition party New Democracy, promised to prevent a referendum ‘at all costs’. The president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce branded Papandreou’s proposal ‘an act of political blackmail’. The opposition forces’ ridicule of the idea of holding a referendum was well-rewarded by Brussels: it has now exerted extreme pressure on Papandreou’s party, not only to give up completely on the idea of a referendum, but also to wind down its own government and cabinet and join with the opposition in setting up a new, unelected ‘100 Days’ government, which must, with no ifs or buts, pass the bailout package agreed at an EU summit on 26 October.

The EU elite is effectively insisting not only that all plans to hold a referendum in Greece be suspended, but that politics itself – debate, disagreement, public engagement – be suspended, too. Using the kind of borderline colonialist tactics normally deployed by Western institutions like the IMF in poor countries in Africa, Europe is withholding all bailout funds from Greece until it sets up an apolitical national unity government whose leaders must agree – in writing – to stick to the letter of what was agreed by Brussels on 26 October. Not only will Greece be denied the €130 billion financing package agreed on 26 October if it fails to install a compliant national unity government – it will also be denied even the €8 billion aid tranche that had already been agreed pre-26 October and which it was supposed to have received by now. Without this money, Greece will be bankrupt ‘within weeks’. So it currently has two choices: set up a government that pleases Olli Rehn, or sink into economic oblivion.

The national-unity government must adhere to stringent EU conditions before any monies will be released. First, of course, it must agree to impose the austerity measures drawn up by EU leaders, including raising taxes, cutting public-sector jobs and slashing public-sector pay and pensions by 20 to 30 per cent. Second, it must agree to allow officials from Brussels and the European Central Bank to sit in the finance departments of the new government and effectively draw up Greece’s national economic strategy. Third, it must do all this before holding any kind of democratic election. So this ‘100 Days’ government will be an unelected ’emergency government’, which will not consult the people until mid-February next year at the earliest. This will of course mean that the Greek people never get to express their views on the austerity deal, though next year they will graciously be permitted to choose which individual they want to lead their newly austere nation.

And fourth, the leaders of the new national-unity government must sign a letter of commitment to the EU’s 26 October austerity plan. Both Papandreou and the current opposition leader, Antonis Samaras, as well as whoever the new prime minister and finance minister will be and also the head of the Greek Central Bank, must put their signatures to a letter confirming that they will not in any way wander from the 26 October plan and will implement it faithfully and speedily. Not surprisingly, this has proved a sticking point in the talks to set up a national-unity government. Samaras says it is humiliating to ask the leaders of an independent nation to sign a letter of commitment drawn up by external powers. ‘There is an issue of national dignity’, he said on Tuesday. Yet national dignity – more than that, national sovereignty – counts for little in the eyes of the EU. Greek politicians are effectively being pressured into signing a behind-the-scenes pact with foreign powers rather than enter into any kind of democratic pact with their own electorate.

Given the insistence that Greece set up a non-political government that must devote itself simply to imposing an already agreed plan of extreme financial action, it isn’t surprising that, according to reports, the current frontrunner to become the new PM is Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank (ECB). If this turns out to be true, it will please EU officials, since, in the words of one European economist, Papademos ‘certainly speaks the language and shares the philosophy of the EU and ECB’. Even better, Papademos is ‘someone who comes in without officially representing a party and can set out the issues and help the population understand better what needs to be done’. That is paramount in the new Greece: that the ‘100 Days’ leaders be un-political and managerial and have far more in common with the cut-off Brussels elite, both philosophically and linguistically, than with the Greek people.

The end result here in Athens is that people have been reduced to the level of those Catholic worshippers who every 15 or 20 years hang around outside the Vatican waiting to see white smoke – a sign that they have a new pope. But there’s little sense of excitement or expectation; more a feeling of resignation. ‘We’ll have a new prime minister tomorrow. Probably’, says a young woman drinking coffee in Syntagma Square. ‘I have no idea who it will be or who really chose him.’ Her friend says Papandreou should stay. ‘He was voted in.’ Yet even as EU officials rap the knuckles and knock together the heads of naughty Greek politicians, it’s hard to sympathise with Papandreou and the rest. Papandreou’s proposal to hold a referendum was not driven by any deep democratic instinct, but rather by a desire to offload on to the electorate his own responsibility for agreeing to an unpopular austerity package, to implicate all of Greece, rather than just his own party, in the austerity process. Likewise, opposition leaders like Samaras see in the EU interventions into Greek politics an opportunity to circumvent democratic engagement and simply install a technocratic government that will keep things sweet with Brussels.

It’s midnight and still the closed-door talks to drum up a new government that satisfies Sarkozy and Merkel more than it does Joe Stavros bumble on. The taxi driver taking me back to my hotel is having a rant. ‘The world is run by bankers, not politicians’, he says. My normal default reaction whenever I hear someone (usually a well-off anti-globalisation brat in London) say things like that is to scoff. But in this instance, what can one say?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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