There’s a glint of something playful behind his refined demeanor and “judgy” oral delivery. “I find it hard to say no to temptation,” he says, his tone insinuating an ellipsis. Only the temptation he’s referring to is nothing more sinful than a macaron, that colorful French sweet he always treats guests to at his downtown Zalokosta Street office, where the furniture is classically tasteful and the window looks out at Lycabettus Hill.
Panagiotis Pikrammenos can surely savor a macaron or two with greater ease today than during that incredibly tense month seven years ago when as president of the Council of State he was tasked with forming a caretaker government during the frenetic early days of the crisis and chaperoning Greece to general elections on June 17, 2012, after polls in May failed to produce a winner.
That was no easy task in a country in turmoil, with creditors seriously concerned about an unpredictable turn of events, citizens rushing to the bank to empty their accounts, threats of power blackouts, and fears that the country would not be able to pay out pensions or afford imports of basic goods and products.
When Pikrammenos stepped into the prime minister’s office at Maximos Mansion on May 16, 2012, it wasn’t a box of macarons that was waiting for him, but a whole bunch of ticking bombs. How did he handle the challenge? Not with the deliberate manner that usually defines him, to the extent that he has often been accused of being long-winded – an accusation he’s ready to admit to – but by mustering the “other Pikrammenos,” a man who’s ready to make tough decisions without too much talk. How were these two divergent aspects of his personality formed?
“My parents were in love with each other and I had a wonderful childhood as a result,” is his surprising answer to what shaped him.
Pikrammenos was born in 1945 and grew up in downtown Athens. His father ran a newspaper distribution company that he’d inherited and, having studied in Austria and Germany, enrolled his first-born son at the German School of Athens. “I studied but I wasn’t a nerd. I wasn’t among the top two or three of my class, but among the top five or six,” he says, adding that he usually passed each year with at least three As: One was invariably in French, which he started learning at the age of 4, as his mother was a firm believer in the value of foreign languages; another was in sports, where he was particularly good at the high-jump, shot put and triathlon, as well as soccer; and the third was usually in geography.
“My geography teacher was short and, on account of my height, he’d ask me to put up the map in class to point with the stick to the countries. Because I helped him, he never quizzed me and always gave me top marks,” says Pikrammenos, adding that his school was tough in other respects and taught him to “organize his thoughts.”
He graduated in 1963 and was accepted to the Law School in Heidelberg, Germany, but decided to go to the Athens Law School instead. “The main reason was that it was just a short walk from my house,” he admits with a broad smile. He worked as a lawyer in Athens for four years and then went to London, where he specialized in shipping for a year at Ince & Co. He didn’t enjoy England, which was in the grips of an oil crisis and strikes at the time, and “escaped” to Paris for the “joie de vivre” but also to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Paris II Pantheon-Assas.
He was appointed to the Council of State in 1976 after competing against other candidates and rose through the ranks to become president of the country’s highest administrative court in 2009, just as it was to debate and rule on whether Greece should sign up for its first bailout memorandum. Despite the controversial nature of the subject, he didn’t allow himself to get bogged down by the technicalities.
“The simple truth was that Greece would go bankrupt without the memorandum and that was my position from the very start,” he says without hesitation. The same concern and determination drove his decision as interim prime minister to recapitalize Greek banks, a process that had been delayed by foot-dragging.
Decision-making was always one of Pikrammenos’ strong suits, a knack that was cultivated further when he served as legal adviser to Prime Minister Constantinos Mitsotakis, a post he took up in 1991 on the recommendation of the head of the Supreme Court at the time, Vassilis Kokkinos. For Mitsotakis, hesitation over reaching a decision was a cardinal sin (the second-worst being going back on a decision simply because conditions change). Their professional relationship deepened into an almost paternal friendship after 1993, when Pikrammenos remained among the former premier’s closest circle, which was how he met Kyriakos Mitsotakis at a family dinner.
Courage, though, is not something that can be taught. You either have it or you don’t. This is apparent in every facet of life, be it private or public, and Pikrammenos had it in spades. He is, for example, an avid motorcyclist and has owned three Honda Enduros since the 1970s. He and his wife, Athina Noutsou-Pikrammenou, traveled all over the Cycladic islands by motorcycle back in the day, but drew the line at camping. “I am very much in favor of certain basic comforts,” he says. He also enjoys spearfishing, but doesn’t consider himself much of an expert as he “only dives to 15 meters,” and loves classical music, Bach in particular. He is, without doubt, a person who enjoys retiring into his private world, despite his penchant for poking fun at himself.
Yet despite his unquestionable contribution to holding the country together during what was arguably the toughest period in its recent history, Pikrammenos’ service to the country might have gone unnoticed were it not for the ancient custom of ostracizing anyone who does some good. In his case, he was lampooned by the former SYRIZA administration with trumped-up accusations of involvement in the Novartis scandal.
His response in Parliament and the evident emotion with which he expressed his dismay at the accusation struck a chord with the public and deepened suspicions that key government officials were abusing their power and falsifying charges. Pikrammenos insisted that “this case needs to be investigated all the way,” but went on to reject the Justice Ministry portfolio so as not to be suspected of acting in vengeance.
As deputy prime minister in Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ recently elected center-right government, a position he accepted seven years after retiring as a judge, Pikrammenos is the premier’s top legal adviser. Trustworthy, reputable and experienced, his opinion obviously matters. The good news is that Greece is no longer trying to navigate the Clashing Rocks as it was in 2012, and so his job, though crucial, allows him to succumb to his predilection for macarons and Bach and even a bit of long-windedness – admittedly a delight for anyone who has the privilege of being on the receiving end.