interview to Antonis Papagiannidis

Having celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the London School of Economics’ Hellenic Observatory in 2021 and shortly before its director, Professor Kevin Featherstone, visited Greece to take part at the Delphi Economic Forum VII, K. Featherstone talked to Greek Business File about the present and future of Greece.

You have studied governance issues in Greece, both at top-level and down-the-trunk of the administration. Would you say that things have changed for the better?

In general, there is progress with the operation of the government ‘machine’ and there are a number of reasons for this.  The reforms that come with EU membership; those mandated by the three bailouts; the use of new technologies; and the arrival of new personnel (with the outlook of a new generation) have all had an impact.  A society’s expectations also change over time and become more demanding.  But, as an analyst, what I find most interesting are the endemic cultural attitudes and habits within a bureaucracy that show themselves resistant to external shocks or pressures.  The underlying instincts or ‘ways of doing things’ that continue.  And, also, it must be said the misjudgements of external bodies, like the EU, in their expectations and targets for the Greek administration.  At one stage in the crisis, I estimated that some 40% of the conditions set for Greece in the memoranda involved bureaucratic reforms.  Today, those reforms have only been partially implemented – and not all of them were well-judged anyway.  So, yes, there’s progress but it’s a long way to Ithaca.

How would you assess the recent performance of e-Government, especially further to the Covid pandemic situation? Has this been one of the positive consequences of the Adjustment Programmes that Greece was forced to experience?

The response to the COVID crisis, especially at the beginning, was exceptional – amongst the very best in Europe.  The strategy behind the response was adroit and well-judged.  Normal procedures were circumvented with the justification of the special conditions of the pandemic.  But, you ask about e-governance more generally.  The government has been adept, over the last two years, in deploying IT solutions to ease the transactions between state and citizen.  This digital ‘bypass’ can be an effective way to overcome the dysfunctionalities of the routine bureaucracy.  There’s been much progress in comparison to the recent past.  However, many of these initiatives represent the easier part – the ‘low hanging fruit’ – and the bigger test and the lucrative economic prize would come from more progress with e-governance in relation to business operations and regulations.  In these respects, Greece remains one of the weakest performers in Europe.  The e-governance advance has yet to be transformative.

Speaking of Adjustment Programmes, what is your overall ex-post assessment, since you have watched them evolve for the better part of a decade from the peculiar vantage point of the LSE which is (a) a UK institution, that is from a country that has slid out of the EU, (b) the Hellenic Observatory that has been tracking Greece that some years ago was close to leaving the EU itself?

A short summary here risks being like a school report.  The most significant lessons are, firstly, that the EU and the IMF were unrealistic, narrow-sighted, and often too draconian in their ‘conditions’.  The various international audits of the ‘bailouts’ authenticate the mis-judgements and the design problems in the strategy.  At the same time, Greece lacked the will and capacity to develop its own development alternatives.  Culturally, recourse to victimhood inhibited the crisis response much more than in the other bailout states.  Only at a very basic level was Greece ‘rescued’ by the bailouts – it didn’t go bankrupt – but the opportunity to support and agree a commitment to a greater transformation was missed.  Lessons may have been learnt, at least for the present, in the lack of substantive conditionality with the EU’s post-COVID funding and the impressive efforts of the Greek government to put forward high-quality plans.

Can one think of Greece away as being from the European fold?

I’d like to believe it is unthinkable that ‘Europe’ could have meaning without Greece or Italy.  However, part of me recognizes that something like a Faustian struggle has marked Greece’s modern relationship with Europe and the EU, in particular.  There’s an aspiration constrained by capacity.  And the will to play in Europe can be hampered by cultural ambiguities, eliciting a resistance to change.  We must also envisage the strategic challenge for Greece that comes from fresh EU initiatives to deepen its own integration.  Greece is still in the EU’s core, but staying there in the long-term as integration progresses will create new demands for domestic reform that may not be delivered easily.  These are the ‘known unknowns’ that will mark the EU’s progress.

Greece has just ended the celebrations of its Bicentennial. Britain, along with France and Russia to be true, has been there at the creation of the nascent country. How would you term the operational ties of the UK with Greece today? The effective ones?

 The ties that bind Greece and the UK are strong and rest on socio-cultural foundations.  In foreign relations, these are the elements of ‘soft-power’.  The flows of tourists and of students are substantial, as are the exchanges in the arts and music.  The City of London remains a draw to those seeking finance for investment, etc.  But BREXIT represents a huge negative in other respects, politically and economically.  Maintaining relations in these respects is a matter of ‘damage limitation’.  There are no ‘wins’ from BREXIT for the UK’s relations with EU member states: we just have to limit the losses.

Back in the 19th or the early 20th century, Greece – as well as Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire – was faced as part of the Near East, itself a nexus of instability and of Great Powers contention. In the current years of East Mediterranean and Greek-Turkish confrontation (or, for the very least, disputes), which do you consider the optimal role for the latter day Powers to be? Which is for you the best-case, which the worst-case scenario for the region? How far has the state of play changed with the Ukraine situation?

I refer here to a ‘Navarino complex’.  The Great Powers in the 1820s stumbled into the Greek War of Independence.  Their interests cancelled each other out, as in a 3-dimensional chess game.  Strategic interest was greater than philhellenism, but not enough to fully engage with Greece and allow it to thrive.  The conditions of the early financial loans were often crippling.  The task then, as with the recent Greek debt crisis, was primarily to stabilize the international order rather than rescue or transform Greece.  Today, we find the UK, for example, still struggling to resolve its strategic interests in the region, balancing the power of Turkey with an amity to Greece.  In security matters, London is – in most conceivable scenarios – much more likely to accommodate Ankara than Athens.  Erdogan’s relationship with Putin is itself worthy of some ancient drama.  The West will be desperate to keep Turkey within its influence, as the alternative with Russia is too threatening.

# Can you/can one think of Britain as totally separate from “Europe” – whatever Europe is?

BREXIT pains me very much.  I struggle to see significant gains for us in any respect.  It was the result of an emotional spasm that led to miscalculations.  In these respects, the UK is exceptional, but not unique.  Think of Viktor Orban in Hungary, or the mis-named ‘Law and Justice Party’ in Poland, or Le Pen and Zemmour in France.  On any rational assessment, I cannot see the UK not wishing to sign a better economic deal with the EU in the future.  Just give us time…

How is the Hellenic Observatory at the LSE relevant to Greece’s standing in the world?

The Observatory’s role is to promote research and public understanding on Greece.  We have built up our profile over the last 25 years and we address important audiences.  Each year, there are over 50,000 visits to the Observatory’s webpages, seeking knowledge and expertise on Greece.  Our research papers are downloaded over 30,000 times per year.  With just 7% of this total coming from Greece, they reach beyond traditional diasporic centres, with significant downloads from India and China, for example.  Our online public events also attract large audiences, with people attending from Bangladesh and Mexico, for example.  And, given the prestige of the LSE, we are seen as offering an independent and respected platform on Greece as it is today.

From the vantage point of the LSE/Hellenic Observatory you have been following the sentiment of an international audience towards Greece – and Cyprus – in the modern world. How would you describe it? “What is Greece” to the world today? Which are its perceived problem areas? Which are its areas of promise?

What you see depends who you are and where you sit.  It has long been unwise for Greece to rely on its cultural appeal and philhellenism in Europe.  There is even less of a shared understanding of Greece and its history today, than in the past.  Europe is far more multicultural and to some of its ethnic or religious minorities Greece is no reference point.  It might as well be on the Moon.  Brits are likely to side with Greece as a victim of euro-zone/German austerity that didn’t work.  But further afield, in Asia, Greece is right I think to promote its cultural profile – there is more interest evident in China and India.  And, Beijing sees investment opportunities.  The priority is for Greece to adapt to contemporary agendas and to show that it isn’t a ‘basket-case’ in terms of the economy and investment.  The ‘Greece 2.0’ strategy is on the right page to win more credibility – it speaks an international language.

Has all this made your task at the Observatory easier or tougher?

Certainly, more relevant, I think.  We began as an academic bridge between our two countries.  But we’re now an important reference point for particular audiences internationally wanting to know more about Greece today.  We have a responsibility. We provide a public platform for leaders in Greece to speak to a diverse foreign audience, under questioning.   And, I’ve already mentioned the call on the Observatory’s research publications.  In the social sciences, I think we’re probably unique.  The LSE has strong ties to Greece and I’d like to think this is to our mutual advantage.  We have more to do…