‘Populism finished with tears’ in Greece and UK, says LSE’s Kevin Featherstone

‘Populism finished with tears’ in Greece and UK, says LSE’s Kevin Featherstone

Kevin Featherstone, Eleftherios Venizelos professor of Contemporary Greek Studies at the London School of Economics, expressed sharp criticism about the uncontrollable populism in Greece and the UK in an interview with Kathimerini.

In the cases of both Athens and London, “it ended badly due to the growth of unrealistic expectations and late reality checks,” the British professor commented, adding that the unraveling Brexit and the almost-Grexit of 2015 were the result of poor leadership and bad judgment by the respective governments.

He also spoke about the chronic problems of Greece’s public administration, stressing the need for a deep reform of the country’s state institutions. “It is a process that is long overdue,” says the LSE professor.

Despite his reticent optimism and his casual displays of British phlegm, Featherstone remains as cautious as ever.

You wrote an article for Kathimerini two years ago in which you claimed that Greece’s modernization effort remains its biggest challenge and biggest priority. We are now coming to the end of 2018. Do you think Greece is ready for a set of deep, modernizing reforms?

No, but it must. This is the stage when Greece can have a serious and effective debate about how to facilitate innovation and modernization – but to even get to first base we need a set of institutions much more tailored to the needs of today. Unfortunately, in recent years I don’t see much improvement in changing a long-term path of dysfunctionality for public administration and state institutions in Greece.

Europe is also to blame here. Some of the consequences of the troika conditionality – things like non-targeted shedding of skills and expertise – have been self-defeating in helping Greece’s modernization. Greece is actually emblematic of a much bigger challenge for the EU, since many member states also share problematic state institutions and the EU relies on those to implement its policies. Greece’s case is therefore not unique, and part of a bigger question for the EU as a whole.

But Greece should still wonder how can it shift resources, create expertise and change the internal culture of institutions to focus on problem-solving and follow a set of priorities directed for the economy. These are tasks that successive governments have tried to confront – cabinets like those of [Constantine] Karamanlis in the 1970s, or [Costas] Simitis in the 90s among others. They all recognized the need to reorientate the public sector with a better focus and prioritization, but they have failed to overcome the problem. It’s a challenge which is long overdue. As Greece starts to come out of the crisis, the key to a future agenda remains tailoring public sector institutions to reallocate resources and guarantee the skills necessary today. In essence, Greece has to have a facilitating and enabling state, a platform that allows for innovation rather than being the nightmare of it.

Some claim that one of the minor silver linings of the crisis was a modest cultural shift that gave rise to a Greek public much more likely to embrace reform and modernization. Would you agree with that view?

There is some truth to it. After all, in the many years of the crisis some shibboleths have been challenged. But I don’t think we are at a transformative point yet where we can begin to talk about a new consensus behind reform. The reform agenda is still to be won and struggled for.

The question then becomes whether – after the next election and the new government that rises to power – we will see the political will and the social strength to make this reform happen. We can’t know the answer yet, but I would caution against simply being seduced into a new rhetoric. Greece has been here before with rhetoric, and what it needs is more substantive reform and change.

A chronic problem for Greek politics for decades has been the belief that a new leader – like Moses – can deliver us. Substantive reform has to be much deeper and more gradual than that and the test will be how far that is signaled in the election programs.

Such a reform would demand either an overwhelming parliamentary majority or a partnership between competing parties. Is something like that likely to happen in today’s Greece?

There is perhaps cause for slightly greater optimism, with recent political shifts that might generate willingness to cross over previously established lines and divisions. However, I have yet to see evidence that Greece can foster a political or social coalition behind reform. Large parts of the public administration have been damaged rather than improved by the troika, and we still lack a cultural commitment to innovation, entrepreneurship and – dare I say – profit.

Even though we have the fragmentation of parties on the center-left which gives rise to new coalition possibilities, there’s still a political tribalism. Overall the social and political preconditions essential for reform are, despite a slight advance, simply not there.

The other big problem is that we haven’t seen a strong internal voice regarding where they want Greece to be in 15 or 20 years – especially when compared to other bailout states. Greece has been plagued by a British-style antagonism with Brussels, where it sees itself as its victim without taking ownership of an agenda of where it wants to be, so we urgently need a serious discussion about Greece’s vision and how to get there. It is something which has been lacking due to the divisive nature of Greek politics. The solution to that is a coalition, or a mechanism where political figures are willing to cross the taboos and sit down with the other side.

Following your last parallel, many analysts have been drawing comparisons between Brexit and Grexit – as the latter almost came to pass back in 2015. What similarities do you personally draw from the two phenomena?

Indeed there are some parallels. Poor leadership is the common feature in both cases. In the beginning of 2015 in Greece, and in 2016 and since in the UK, both countries thought they could divide the EU 27. They hoped they would create a new momentum and would make new friends through a counter-coalition. Both Athens and London in the respective years were surprised by the strength of unity of Europe. I don’t think they should have been. What [former Greek finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis didn’t understand is the same thing that Boris Johnson doesn’t understand, and Theresa May has had to painfully learn. In these situations the EU 27 negotiates through a singular purpose, and we see a Europe remaining unified while both countries were unable to divide.

Secondly, the negotiating positions of both Athens and London proved untenable: We can both stay in the euro and end austerity; and, we can be in some kind of customs union with the EU but still be free to negotiate new trade deals with the rest of the world. People were sold lies.

Thirdly, we both grossly and badly miscalculated Berlin’s reactions. In both cases we thought Angela Merkel was a winnable figure that would ultimately be soft and compromising. We haven’t seen that in either case.

Fourthly, both countries told their populations that they shouldn’t believe experts, that they should look into their “heart of hearts” and understand that they can do something better and different. [Alexis] Tsipras in January 2015 said on public TV the famous phrase: “Believe me, they will back down” – well they didn’t. A similar populist narrative is weaved today in the UK. Both populations – the Greeks perhaps more legitimately – were told that sovereignty and identity is stolen from them and that they are victims of Europe. It’s pure populism in both cases, and it’s dangerous because it becomes uncontrollable.

Given those similarities, do you think the British should have studied the Greek case more closely?

Absolutely. And they did but they chose the wrong counselor. You see, the British were partly misled by Yanis Varoufakis, who had become quite a regular on British TV and radio. He kept encouraging them to be tougher against Brussels, because he himself hadn’t learned the lessons. There is already something deep within British culture: a tendency to see negotiations as a win-lose process rather than a compromise. Varoufakis also didn’t look for compromise, so he really reinforced the tendency of seeing this negotiation as an antagonistic relationship, and treating compromise as weakness or defeat.

However, in both cases populism became uncontrollable and finished with tears. In Athens it ended with an utter contradiction and in London with Theresa May facing major problems within her own party. In both cases it ended badly due to the growth of unrealistic expectations and late reality checks.

In 2015 in Greece, the reality check came with Tsipras performing a 180-degree policy turn and accepting even stricter bailout conditions. In the UK, do you think there is a possibility of a no-Brexit scenario?

It certainly has become a possibility, but it is not the most likely outcome. Indeed, Greece in 2015 saw an utter contradiction on behalf of the prime minister, with a worse outcome than previously envisaged. For the UK it’s a completely different type of negotiation, so the parallels are becoming more blurry here. It looks like we may be walking to a softer Brexit, which is the same kind of contradiction but it’s perhaps not so blatant.

True, British politics are in meltdown. The government has no majority in Parliament or among the public for its Brexit plans; indeed, there’s no clear majority for any option in Parliament – except that most want to avoid “no deal.” A referendum has defined an outcome that the political system cannot deliver because the promises made were built on illusions. Parliament knows a “hard Brexit” is hugely dangerous, but it’s afraid of what the people might say or do when they realize only soft options are realistic. We have diplomats obliged “to lie for their country” abroad on the basis of the most irrational of agendas. At least Greece’s nervous breakdown only lasted the period of Varoufakis being put in charge – we look set to be living our breakdown for some time to come.

Another similar thread between the two countries is the evolution of an anti-immigration narrative. It is something that has been creating tensions between the EU and other member-countries as well, Italy being the newest example. Greece has absorbed a lot of the migration burden – what lessons do you think can we learn from our own history when it comes to handling that burden?

Obviously the major lesson for Greece is the success and completion of the mass migration movement from Anatolia after the 1922 disaster. An economy and society that can accommodate this magnitude of immigration creates a tremendously positive precedent. But there is a big difference today for both of our societies, and the rest of Europe as well. We are part of a new world of identity politics, a political battle that is evolving in very binary terms. It’s difficult to seek compromise in that arena, and so we see populist narratives claiming we are being irrational in accepting so many migrants who are taking our jobs and livelihoods by coming in.

In Greece there is an additional challenge. The modern Greek state has operated with an exclusivist, nativist sense of Greekness, even in relation to domestic religious minorities. That is definitely not conducive to adapting to a multicultural and multiethnic society – after all, there is still no mosque in Athens and we have a persistently poor educational provision in Western Thrace. This narrowness of what it means to be Greek doesn’t fit so well with today’s societies.

At the same time, there are positive impulses: We cannot forget the difference of scale of migration that Greece has received and the truly exceptional local response we have seen in the Aegean islands. It’s a pity the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded to these island communities, because that would have been a great signal for Europe.

There is a flip side to the migration tale in Greece right now. I’m referring to its own wave of emigration, the brain drain phenomenon and Greece’s efforts to attract back the talent that has moved abroad. Do you think the brain drain has the potential to become a brain gain for Greece?

I tend to be pessimistic on that topic, as I see many Greeks not interested in returning. Many of them indeed have a duality in their lives between living abroad and then reacclimatizing in Greece. But despite the change of numbers in the present, I do not see see any reason for a change from past patterns. On a long-term historical basis, even Greeks who go abroad and then return may not have the same liberal reform instincts as when they were living in Chicago or London. I think Greece needs more effective channels for returning diasporic communities to be able to re-enter and have the space for innovation, in whatever sphere it may be. The professionally able may come back, but they will meet a trap of a public sector that is stalling their ideas and a set of cultural attitudes that are not accommodating, but instead create blockages for their work.

So perhaps some will return and indeed bring good things with them. But relying solely on that hope sounds to me like expecting economic growth to come from the kind of remittances Greece had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a false hope; that world has gone.

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