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Two Lessons from Greece and Britain - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In an interview with the German Der Spiegel newspaper published by Asharq Al-Awsat last week, the Greek Prime Minister [Georgios Papandreou] – explaining the financial problems being faced by his country and the difficult and unpopular decisions that must be taken – said that politics also means educating the citizens and speaking frankly with them in order to inform them of the problems and the need for making a change.

Britain is preparing for general elections that are set to take place in just a few months, and this comes against the backdrop of the consequences of the global financial crisis which required trillions of dollars to be pumped into the economy to prevent it falling into a depression. The two major British political parties, the Labour party and the Conservative party, are fighting a battle over who will have the right to inform the public of the reality of the [economic] situation and who is better able to make the difficult and unpopular decisions to reduce the public debt that has reached massive levels.

There is a difference between Greece and Britain in terms of the way that the public receives bad news and calls for [economic] belt-tightening; this is something that reflects the different democratic experience that shaped the manners and awareness of the people of each country and the way that they engage and deal with their politicians. In Greece, protests and strikes are being staged in protest against the measures being taken by the government that is seeking to restore its [international] credibility by imposing cutbacks on spending, governmental services, and salaries. Whilst in Britain there is a state of public acceptance to the fact that borrowing necessitates repayment of the debt within a specific timeframe, otherwise this would lead to the collapse of the [country’s] economy, reputation, and credibility.

In Greece, the genuine crisis that resulted in national debt rising to almost 120 percent of GDP was that during the years of boom and prosperity the official government statistics were manipulated in order to hide the truth and conceal the true amount of debt. This is despite the fact that Greece is a member of the EU which sets specific standards for the permissible rate of fiscal deficits, inflation, etc. It is also likely that this was possible due to human nature, as nobody is interested in closely scrutinizing the figures during times of prosperity. However when the truth emerged and the Greeks found themselves in need of assistance from EU countries, they discovered that nobody was prepared to write them a blank check – regardless of the strength of their diplomatic relations – without first ensuring that the Greek house is put into order.

The issue reached the point where Athens was asked to sell off some of its islands in the Mediterranean Sea in order to settle its debt, but such demands may be extreme, as no generation is entitled to sell off the country’s soil as this is something that infringes the rights of the country’s future generations. However there is an important symbolic message to such calls and that is that mistakes made today may have a price on the generations of tomorrow, or that a generation can borrow at the expense of its country’s future generations.

However there is something that all the European countries facing the consequences of the global financial crisis share in common and this is that no credible politician is trying to cover up the facts, or invent names or expressions, or introduce popular policies that would only satisfy the public for a short time before they discover that this has only dug them further in the hole. Rather what is taking place is a frank and direct address between politicians and the public; this is a discourse that only includes the presentation of facts and analysis, even if this is unpleasant for the public.

This is the lesson of genuine democracy, for politics should not be the art of getting one over on people or inciting their emotions or issuing popular policies in the full knowledge that this will ultimately only result in failure, but rather being frank and open and educating the public, no matter how painful the facts may be.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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