OECD headquarters, Paris, France, 16 November 2010
Interview by Prime Minister George A. Papandreou on the BBC show "HARDtalk" with Stephen Sackur
Stephen Sackur: Prime Minister George Papandreou, welcome to Hardtalk.
George A. Papandreou: Nice to be here.
Stephen Sackur: Let me begin with some words just uttered by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. He says the EU is in a “survival crisis.” Is that the way you see it?
George A. Papandreou: And we will survive. We have the absolute will to make Europe more stable, stronger, and the euro of course very stable also.
And I think we have shown, even in a very difficult situation, both in the 2008 crisis but in the recent sovereign debt crisis, that we do have the will. Even though it’s a complicated system, even though we are 27, we do have the will, and we can survive and we can make this a more stable continent.
Stephen Sackur: But having the will and delivering on that will – they are two very different things, aren’t they? And what we have seen is that more than six months after you decided to take the rescue package, which was supposed to stabilise the eurozone, the eurozone is far from stable. It is deeply turbulent. And now we look at Ireland, we look at Portugal, and it seems more rescue packages may be in the works.
George A. Papandreou: Well, first of all we did in fact deliver. We did create this mechanism, and now we are actually discussing the more permanent mechanism for 2013 and beyond.
Secondly, yes, the markets are volatile, and this was part of the problem. And the markets are very sceptical and very risk-averse, particularly after 2008.
So this mechanism, in fact what it does is it gives us the time to make the necessary reforms, country by country, if other countries come in, obviously for Greece, in order so that when we do go back on the markets we can do so in a viable way.
Stephen Sackur: But how much trouble is it causing Greece, the fact that there is renewed uncertainty about what Irelands is going to do over the next few hours and days, what Portugal may have to do as well. How much damage is that doing to Greece and Greece’s continued need to borrow money?
George A. Papandreou: First of all, we borrow now through this mechanism, so obviously even though we may be seeing the spreads widening or collapsing, depending on the last few months – we go up and down.
Stephen Sackur: Well, we are seeing the spreads widening. You know as well as I do that right now, when Greece is seeking to borrow money – let’s look at the treasury bills that you have just launched – the interest rate now that you are having to pay is soaring again. And that is unsustainable.
George A. Papandreou: Well, that’s exactly why we needed this mechanism, because this mechanism has given us the time, three years. It’s enough time; it’s precious time to make reforms, so that when we do go out on the markets we can borrow at a much more normal rate.
If we didn’t have this mechanism, then we would be in dire straits. It would be very difficult and we would have problems. But this mechanism now has given us breathing space.
Of course, we are making our changes now. This is the basic thing which we are doing these last few months.
Stephen Sackur: But I come back to the point, that you are still in deep trouble. And how much damage is it doing, that there is this renewed uncertainty about Ireland, about Portugal. Is your message, for example, to the Irish Prime Minister that he needs to act, he needs to take what is being offered in terms of a eurozone rescue package, and settle the uncertainty?
George A. Papandreou: Obviously this is a decision they have to make. And I can’t suggest how they will assess this situation.
What we do have now, which we didn’t have in the Greek situation, for at least a few months, was a way out. Ireland does have a way out, if the markets continue to put pressure on the Irish sovereign debt.
We do have this mechanism, and if it is necessary to be used Europe will come to the rescue.
Stephen Sackur: What you have suggested to me already is that the mechanism is working, when it comes to Greece. But of course it’s only working if people in the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF believe in the credibility of your restructuring and reform programme. And I would put it to you that you are rapidly losing credibility.
George A. Papandreou: In fact, I believe we have gained major credibility over the last few months, by the fact that we have taken very difficult measures.
If you had interviewed me a year ago and I had told you that we would be rehauling the whole pension system, you may not believe me – we did so. That we would have changed our tax system – we did so. That we would have cut wages and pensions in order to create this programme. That we would have been able to reduce our deficit by 6%, which we have done.
Stephen Sackur: Well, let me stop you there. You have outlined why you think you can sell the notion that you are credible. Here’s why I wonder whether you are right.
George A. Papandreou: That’s not what I say. That’s not what I say. That’s what the Troika actually says, the ECB, the Commission and the IMF.
Stephen Sackur: But what the Troika sees now is the latest figures on the Greek public finances suggest that your deficit is going to be substantially higher in the year 2010 than you said it would be. Your overall national debt is going to be far higher than you said it would be. In the year 2010 it’s going to be 144% of GDP, and that is patently unsustainable.
George A. Papandreou: Correction. And a very important correction. Not 2010, 2009. The deficit of 2009 was revisited, and we knew that this…
Stephen Sackur: But that has a knock-on effect on 2010.
George A. Papandreou: That’s a different question.
Stephen Sackur: But that’s my point. The 2010 deficit is going to be much higher than you ever said it would be.
George A. Papandreou: …but let me make my point, because it’s important to make this difference, this differentiation.
In 2009 a different government, we come into government. We realise that there is a huge deficit. We have to take measures.
We have been credible in what we said we would do. We have cut the deficit more than the target. Actually the target was 5.5%. It will be cut by 6% this year.
Stephen Sackur: Prime Minister, I understand that. But what I said still stands. You gave a figure for what the deficit would be in 2010. You told the Greek people, you told the IMF and the EU, and you were wrong. The deficit is going to be substantially higher. So is the national debt. And because of that, many economists, and I am now looking at the words of Nouriel Roubini, one of the gurus of Wall Street. He says, quite simply, Greece is on a path to insolvency, and the bailout has only delayed the inevitable.
George A. Papandreou: We are not on a path to insolvency. We will survive, and we are moving ahead.
But let me get back just one moment to the statistics. First of all, when we took over, we said transparency. Let’s be very open, very honest about what we found. Yes, we thought it was 12.5%. We brought in Eurostat, the European statistical service. And they have been working with us over the last year.
And the statistics that they gave today – yesterday, actually – were statistics which are the final word, and absolutely transparent.
Stephen Sackur: And I just put this to you. You say to me we are on track. The mechanism is working. The fact is in three years’ time you are supposed to pay back the EUR110 billion that you have borrowed in this rescue package from a mix of the EU and the IMF. You are not going to be able to pay that money back, are you?
George A. Papandreou: We are absolutely going to pay the money back.
Stephen Sackur: Well, why did one of your key ministers suggest that that was not going to happen?
George A. Papandreou: The reason we can say that is that we are on track. Yes, we have a starting point which is a bit further back, so we have some more distance to run. But we will accomplish that; we will be able to cover that distance, and by 2012 we will start paying back, cutting down our debt.
Stephen Sackur: You see, mixed messages. Your own Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Pangalos, suggested that restructuring cannot be ruled out. So far from paying back the debt, he is talking about restructuring your entire. That is, in essence, defaulting in an organised way.
George A. Papandreou: What has been discussed – and actually this is an IMF proposal – is lengthening the period of paying back the debt. And that is very simply…
Stephen Sackur: Ah, is that what you want?
George A. Papandreou: Well, let me put it this way. We have to be on track, and we are on track.
Stephen Sackur: Well, if you are on track, why do you want to lengthen the debt repayment period?
George A. Papandreou: Because what happens – first of all, I think the fact that this was put on the table shows that the IMF believes that we are a credible country and a credible government and we are doing what we should do. Because this would not even be put on the table if we weren’t doing what we should be doing.
Stephen Sackur: But surely on the contrary it shows that the IMF is beginning to believe it is impossible for you to deliver, because of the austerity programme that you have already committed to, and the pain that it’s causing the Greek economy. I mean far from showing any signs of growth, your economy is in dire straits.
George A. Papandreou: First of all, we have shown that we can take the pain and take the measures. And we are a credible country and a credible government. And what the IMF is saying is since they are doing their work, let us see if we can prolong the payback period to the IMF and to the European Union.
Stephen Sackur: How long would you like it to be?
George A. Papandreou: I’m not getting into that discussion, because…
Stephen Sackur: Well, the Greek people have a right to know, don’t they? How long do you believe you are going to need to pay back the debt?
George A. Papandreou: The Greek people have supported these very difficult measures. They have taken the pain, and they have taken the pain because they believe that we can get out of this situation.
Stephen Sackur: But with respect, Prime Minister, this is where credibility is the core of the issue. The Greek people have taken pain already. Look at the facts. We see an economy that frankly looks as though it’s being strangled. Unemployment close to 13%, one in three young people jobless. Construction industry down by a quarter. One thousand five hundred businesses said to have moved their operations out of Greece, and one in five small businesses likely to close. The unions talking about mass strikes over the next few months. This is the reality. You told the Greek people that you would not be putting any more burdens upon them, in the short and medium term. And yet just a couple of days ago you also said to the Greek people that they should expect more cutbacks, as a result of the budget you are about to announce. So how can the Greek people regard you, as a credible leader now?
George A. Papandreou: First of all, what I have said is no more pain concerning cuts in wages and cuts of pensions. However, we will be cutting back in our deficit through cutting waste.
I’ll just give you a statistic. The Brookings Institute in the United States has made a very important study on Greece, saying that there is so much waste through lack of transparency in Greece that we could be, if we were simply as transparent as Spain, we would gain 4% GDP per year.
Stephen Sackur: But forgive me. In September you offered an amnesty for people who have been evading their taxes over many years. It is said that perhaps EUR20-30 billion euros of unpaid taxes were at stake. Your amnesty was calculated to collect only about EUR500 million of those vast tax evasion fortunes from the Greek people. You are letting the big fish off.
George A. Papandreou: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, our tax system was changed, and we have redistributed the burden to the rich.
Stephen Sackur: But that’s for the future. I’m saying there were 30…
George A. Papandreou: That’s for 2011.
Stephen Sackur: Sure. So what about all of this money that has been avoided? Tax evasion has been rife, and you have not taken it on.
George A. Papandreou: Actually it’s not a tax amnesty. It is a capability to resolve tax cases that go back ten years. We have, unluckily, another problem in Greece; this is a nature of the problem. And it is not a nature of the problem – in Greece it is not a problem of the major welfare system that we splurged on. It is a problem of transparency, of a tax system which was not working, of a justice system which was very slow.
There are cases of tax evasion that are in the court system for ten years.
There are about, as you said, EUR30 billion uncollected, non-collected taxes, and about a million and a half cases.
Now, there is no administration in the world that can deal in a few months with a million and a half tax cases over the past ten years, particularly not the Greek administration.
So what we said is let’s turn a page, let’s close this book. But let’s give the possibility for people, if they want to use this, to put their money into the public coffer so that they don’t have this hanging over their heads. And let’s go to the new tax system which is a more efficient, more just system, which will be applied in 2011.
Stephen Sackur: What do you say to the trade unions, to opposition parties, who say, “Frankly, Mr. Papandreou does not have any credibility.”? For a start, he campaigned in the elections saying that he was going to offer a stimulus package, he was going to raise real wages, when he knew that the budget the public finances were a disaster and he couldn’t deliver on that promise. And then, in power, he keeps giving a message to people that the austerity is going to be painful, but we’ve reached the limit and there is going to be no more asked of you.” And every time you say that, you then say, “Frankly, the cuts have to continue and we’ve got to go further.” Many Greeks see you now as the puppet of the European Union and the IMF.
George A. Papandreou: I have come into power to save Greece from default. I have been very honest, and that was why people today continue to support this government and support what we are doing. Very honest and very open.
We had to do very painful things. And it was very painful for me, particularly ideologically as being a socialist and having to cut wages and pensions, particularly for people that really were not responsible for this crisis.
I had to handle a crisis. I had to handle a major crisis for our country, the biggest crisis we had to deal with in the past 30 or so years.
Stephen Sackur: But have you really been straight with the Greek people and told them just how much pain and how long this crisis is going to last for them?
George A. Papandreou: Absolutely open with the Greek people, and…
Stephen Sackur: So how long is the pain going to last? How long is the pain going to…
George A. Papandreou: Let me continue.
Stephen Sackur: Well, but the Greek people want to know, because they don’t think, they don’t believe, according to the opinion polls, that you have been straight on this question. How long is this severe economic pain going to last for Greece?
George A. Papandreou: First of all, what we are trying to do now is again bring Greece out to stand on its own two feet. So this is not simply cutting the deficit and cutting the debt. This is restructuring Greece to become a competitive country, a viable country.
Stephen Sackur: How many public sector jobs are you prepared to see go, in the course of this austerity programme?
George A. Papandreou: Obviously, what we want to do is revamp the public sector companies.
Stephen Sackur: But it’s a simple question, though. How many jobs are you prepared to see go?
George A. Papandreou: I would like to see zero jobs go.
Stephen Sackur: Look around the rest of Europe. Austerity means the public sector slims, government slims down.
George A. Papandreou: There are other ways. For example we have cut wages. When we brought in the workers from the railway into the public sector, they took cuts of up to 50% or 60% in their wages. That is austerity. Now, it’s not a happy thing, but we did it.
Stephen Sackur: So you're not going to fire anybody in the public sector?
George A. Papandreou: I have said that we need to protect jobs. But we can find other ways, other ways of cutting down the waste.
Stephen Sackur: But when you say, if I may, Prime Minister, that you do not intend to fire any people in the public sector, that probably gets to the heart of why Germany, for example, still clearly believes that there is a fundamental lack of economic responsibility in Greece. And would you accept that, as we look to the future of the eurozone, there is a profound problem because of the lack of trust there appears to be between, for example, your country and Germany?
George A. Papandreou: First of all, economic responsibility is what we have represented the last year. Every single month during the last year I have been in this position.
Stephen Sackur: But here’s what we have. We have profound imbalances in the eurozone economy. They are very obvious. We see Germany, the super-efficient exporter, with a current account surplus. We see Greece, still mired in massive debt, with an economy that you would admit is still full of inefficiencies. Those imbalances are so profound, the Germans say that the eurozone can only move ahead if there are much tighter rules, and indeed much stricter punishments for countries like Greece in the past, that have not, not abided by their economic promises and responsibilities. Do you accept that?
George A. Papandreou: Yes, I do. If we had those rules two or three years ago, and we were not playing politics in Europe and sort of allowing for governments to get away with things…
Stephen Sackur: Well, if you had those rules, Greece would have been thrown out of the euro.
George A. Papandreou: No, no, no. That’s another question. I’ll get to that. But if we had those rules, Greece would today not be in the situation…
Stephen Sackur: Well, it wouldn’t be in the eurozone.
George A. Papandreou: First of all, we were in the eurozone because we got in the eurozone, because we did it on merit.
Stephen Sackur: Well, Germany and Angela Merkel have made it plain: You got into the eurozone because you misrepresented the nature of your economy. And she says it was a mistake. She in fact criticised her predecessor, Herr Schroeder, for allowing you in, with the condition your economy was it. She says that was irresponsible.
George A. Papandreou: In 2000, when we got in, we were exactly at the criteria that were asked from us, from the European Union. No one disputes that.
Now, the fact that at some point we moved away from the Europe criteria, that is certainly a responsibility of Greek governments of the past, I would say in particular of the previous government. But it also is a responsibility that we didn’t have a robust system which would control and make a very strong monetary system.
So that’s where I agree absolutely with Angela Merkel. We need a strong monitoring system, and yes, a system of punishments.
Now, I would say the punishment is enough that we are having right now in Greece, where we have to cut wages and pensions and we have to do this massive change in such a short time. But we are ready to do it, and we are doing it.
Stephen Sackur: Do you think the future, for the eurozone, has to be one in which there are core countries, who can meet all of the criteria, and there is a periphery, of which Greece would be a part, who frankly are not able to deliver the responsible economic management that is required?
George A. Papandreou: I am very hopeful for Greece, because you may be calling it a peripheral country, but Greece in fact is a country which is in a region which is growing. We are next to the largest city in the world, in the European continent – that’s Istanbul. We are in the Mediterranean, with developing economies in the Mediterranean basin, the Balkans.
Now, we are going through a tough situation, but we are going to make it through. And we are going to make it through, at the same time, by making the reforms so that we take all the advantages, our comparative advantages, and use them, so that we can stand on our own two feet. And that is what the Greek people want.
And that is why, OK, with pain, but they are supporting. In the end, they are supporting this very difficult change we are making in Greece. And I am convict to this.
Stephen Sackur: Well, you’ve just put your entire career on the line. If Greece has to restructure its debt, still more, if Greece goes into crisis default, you're finished.
George A. Papandreou: I have no problem. Let me put it this way. When I went into this crisis, I said my basic goal in this position is to save Greece and reform Greece. And I don't care if I am not re-elected. And I say that again.
Stephen Sackur: And what about the eurozone? Maybe Greece has sowed the seeds for the ruin of the eurozone.
George A. Papandreou: It may be the exact opposite, that we have sowed the seeds to, in fact, look at some of the weaknesses the euro had, and in fact create economic governance which is robust and which makes sure that we never face similar crises in the future.
That is what we are trying to put straight. We are putting our house in order.
And mismanagement was not simply financial. As a matter of fact, it was not particularly just financial. It was a political mismanagement. And it had to do with many areas of public policies.
Stephen Sackur: Sure, but the question is whether you, whether you are the man to fix it. Are you?
George A. Papandreou: Ah, this is my, if you like, what the Greek people have asked me to do. I knew that this is what I would have to do, before I was elected. Not the depth of the crisis, not the reactions of the markets. Nobody could predict that the bank crisis would turn into a sovereign debt crisis because of Greece.
But we knew that these were deep structural problems. And that is what I promised to deal with, and that is what I am dealing with now.
I had to deal with an extra crisis, the crisis which was the sovereign debt crisis. But the real crisis in Greece was a much deeper structural one.
That is what we will deal with, and that in fact is what will change Greece and make Greece a very different country, which we can all be proud of.
Stephen Sackur: Prime Minister Papandreou, thank you very much indeed for being on Hardtalk.
George A. Papandreou: Thank you.