Monthly Archives: November 2011

Going the full Monti – notes from Rome and Athens

“He is a man of his word. I trust him. If he says he will go then he will go”. Maria tells me, stirring a third sugar into her coffee. She is not happy about the manner of his departure but “Enough is Enough”  –  Basta she says  – a uniquely Italian way of saying “That Does it”

Even through Bunga Bunga and all his other self inflicted losses of dignity Maria and so many of her older generation of voters stood behind Il Cavaliere. But now that he says himself he feels liberated by his decision to not seek re-election …. now it is time to accept that the pressure is too much to bear.

Italians seem a little bit behind the curve of events though. There is little awareness of the reluctance of investors to lend to the country just so it can service the interest payments on its two trillion euro debt.  Though I did hear some sarcastic talk that they should have known something very serious was afoot when Berlusconi recently postponed the release of his fourth album of love songs.

While conversation in Europe moves on to the possible shape of a two tier Europe and who would be in or out debate in Italy is still rooted in the politics of personality. Giving your support to the technocrats technocrat, Mario Monti, will be enough to reassure the markets we are serious about wanting to be perceived as being serious is the gist of what a man reading the business section of La Stampa tells me.

If this was the week that Italy realised that Berlusconi might be bad for business in Athens they had little but contempt for their politicians. On Tuesday and Wednesday as the wrangling and jostling for position of interim Prime Minister continued I sampled opinion among those hit hardest by austerity.

“This is not the Europe we dreamt of” Train Company employee Akis Margaritis told me. “This is a European Junta. A fourth Reich” He was expressing a common view that it didn’t matter much who was in the new government because everything was now being dictated from Brussels. How often have you heard that view in the last thirty years – except now for Greeks it is the undisputable case.

I heard little other than jaded cynicism being expressed towards the Greek political classes. There was a general feeling that whatever a politician said in opposition once in power they would impose further austerity. For that matter I also heard little or no responsibility being accepted. “I might have to give up going to the cinema and theatre” one public servant moaned about the impact of cuts. Greece’s bloated public service with its overpaid staff is as big if not bigger an obstacle to recovery as tax evasion.

The two main parties in Greece – the socialists and the conservatives – were very deeply embedded in Greek society. At the next election they are facing a rout of similar proportions to that suffered by Fianna Fail. Voters are shifting their allegiance to the further ends of the political spectrum. In Athens city centre I was surprised to see far right party Golden Dawn brazenly flying a Nazi styled banner over its headquarters proclaiming “Greece for the Greeks”. They are nothing more than a fringe grouping now but as things stand Greece will be in Austerity mode possibly as far into the future as 2027.

Just like Greece eventually settled on Lucas Papademous as its newly unelected leader Italian voters are being asked to shift their allegiance to a new prime minister with no mandate either. One man at a bus stop pointed out that the Italian Parliament was voting that day on budget cuts that had been decided by unelected EU officials and they would be implemented by an unelected government of former EU officials. Isn’t that what happens when the people you elect don’t run your affairs properly? He turned away from me.

We’ll all be lucky if it’s just national pride that is a bit wounded by the time this ends.



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Fool, if you think it’s over

I have about 3.6 billion hours to kill (numeracy was never my strongest suit, either) in a hub airport on my way to Athens. I have just got off the phone with Time Magazine’s woman in Greece who tells me that they expect to have a new prime minister named in the next few hours. Which should, according to most people’s thinking, bring the last week of unseemly jostling for political office and name calling to an end.

I’m not so sure that substituting a bloodless technocrat for G-Pap in Greece and anybody on earth for Berlusconi in Italy is going to change much. Though the markets rallying on the merest whiff of rumours that Silvio was going to go was a necessary bit of light relief.

Why, you would have to wonder, would a man with no mandate whatsoever be able to achieve anything that Papandreou and PASOK weren’t? The Greek people’s feelings about the changes being forced on their society are not likely to change just because the Prime Minister does.

Both Papandreou’s party and that of his arch rival (and I think former college flat mate) Antonis Samaras are embedded in Greek society in the way that Fianna Fail was, and probably still is in Irish society. The loyalty they inspire is the very thing which undid them. They are so closely connected to their support base they were never going to be able to impose the kind of austerity that either country needed to get the books in order.

That is why, in my opinion, Papandreou dreamed up his disastrous referendum notion. He knew exactly how well it would go down in Paris and Berlin and thought that it was the best way possible to avoid punishing the Greek people even further. He calculated that he could leverage his country’s economic weakness into a bit of political clout. Nobody seriously believes that Greece can ever hope to repay this debt without banjaxing itself permanently so why not try and intertwine the fate of your country with that of the future existence of the Euro. It was cack handed and poorly executed but does anybody believe that Sarkozy and Merkel were acting in any less self interest.

Even if history proves me completely wrong on that what isn’t going to change is the Greek people’s feelings about austerity. Lucas Papademos, or whoever, is going to make the right noises about implementing programmes, meeting targets etc etc and the cracks will be papered over. But they are going to have an election in February and on the basis of the naked and ugly self interest shown by politicians of all persuasions so far it will inevitably descend into a referendum on further austerity. That campaigning will begin …. oh … about now I would have thought and the markets, and the IMF ill be listening and watching closely. Greece will remain as far away as it is today from ever repaying everything it owes, the markets know as much and ….. you don’t need me to spell it out.

That is why, I would have thought, that Papandreou’s resignation ends nothing. The threat of a Greek default has not receeded one inch, it is merely overshadowed by more attention grabbing drama in Italy. So now in the 150billion hours I have still to wait here in Terminal 2 of Gharles De Gaulle before boarding I’m going to have a good long think about what I’d do if I was a Greek voter.


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“You can put the grenade down now, please”

Unbroadcast piece from Iraq 2003

Chamchamal gun market – Multimedia

In March 2003 while waiting for the Americans to invade Iraq I went to a gun market in a dusty little town called Chamchamal with an incredibly talented photojournalist called Ramin Talaie.

There was very little you couldn’t buy and we passed the time by recording a shopping expedition. I never intended to broadcast it at the time. It would have been more than a little insensitive given the number of people who were to die during the invasion and subsequent insurgency.

But many years later Ramin asked me for a copy of it and juxtaposed it alongside some beautiful photographs he took that day

The young faces are particularly poignant. You can draw your own conclusions about the futures of these young lads in a country where you can buy a grenade on the side of the road for about a euro.

I was struck by the games these kids were playing. Everywhere else in the world young boys will pick up a stick and pretend that it is a gun. In Chamchamal sticks were make believe satellite phones or TV cameras presumably because guns and RPG’s are so commonplace.


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What’s Ireland Eating?

Back in September 2009 me and my better half, Suzanne Campbell wrote a book; Basketcase, What’s happening Ireland’s Food? It was the product of ten or more years conversation over the dinner table about the realities of food production and farming.

We didn’t want to write a manifesto about the joys of skipping down to the Farmer’s Market with a hemp bag slung over your shoulder. There’s more than enough of those books about. Basketcase was a warts and all examination of who produces our food, how do they do it, who decides what we eat and who profits most from it.

Back then as the recession dug deeper myself and Suzanne had the feeling that while food and farming wouldn’t save us all it was one of the things we did best and we should give it a bit more attention. Export figures have supported that point of view.

Off the back of Basketcase RTÉ commissioned the documentary What’s Ireland Eating? which was repeated on RTE1 last night but you can see it here on the RTÉ player for the next month.

Looking back at it six months on I keep thinking about the parallels between the food industry and the banking sector. Power is concentrated in the hands of a very small number supermarket owners, they’re businesses are almost totally unregulated,  and they are accountable to nobody except in some cases their shareholders. We have ombudsmen and regulators for just about every industry from insurance to electricity. But supermarkets have carte blanche and as the documentary showed they don’t always use that influence for the greater good.

Just two days ago Suzanne unearthed a great example from Denmark of the cynical opportunism of the supermarkets. They used the opportunity presented by the imposition of a “Fat Tax” to gouge an additional 17% out of consumers of things like butter and cheese. Suzanne will probably get around to blogging about it here

In the meantime we are working on What’s Ireland Eating 2? Watch this space because some of the stuff Suzanne has unearthed is scaring even me and I thought I was unshockable by this stage.



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What is that crazy Greek guy up to?

Podcast: What is Papandreou up to? Is this naked political self interest, a bit of wily negotiating or the only expression of democracy on the crisis anywhere in the Eurozone? Greek politicians, pundits and members of the public have their say on what their Prime minister might be up to in my Drivetime report.

On Friday at 4am they had a deal done. Greece upped the write down from 20% to 50%. They got a promise in principle for another €109bn. But they wouldn’t be taking control of their own economic affairs until at least 2020, and the misery of austerity would only get worse. Papandreou spoke about the deal as the dawning of a bright new day for Greece and Europe, but three days later he caused consternation across the continent by pledging to hold a referendum on the plan.

As I write (having just filed my report for Drivetime on Tuesday evening) you can’t say for certain if the Greek people are ever going to get to vote on this referendum or not. The Greek leader could find himself subject to some very Roman justice from among his own allies such is the level of disapproval over his solo run.

But if they do hold a referendum what are they really voting for?

Will it be to save Papandreou’s political skin? A snap election on support for his policies would have been the more normal political route to seeking a mandate. But he and his party could only look forward to a Fianna Fail style drubbing. By presenting the people with a choice as stark as exiting or staying in the Euro could he secure his future?

Alternatively, the suspicion around Europe’s capitals this evening is that he has leveraged a fast one. At each turn he has bettered Greece’s position. “No default” became “Selective Default” became “20% Write Down” became “50% Write Down”. Could calling a referendum be a way of improving on the terms of the austerity even further between now and a vote?

Or perhaps, just perhaps, Papandreou could be a democrat who believes that before signing his country up to at least 9 more years of being bossed about by the troika that Greeks should have a say. Speaking to Sean O’Rourke on the News At One this afternoon the Greek newspaper editor Nikos Costandara suggested this kind of grand democratic gesture was always in Papandreou’s psychological make-up. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

I am conflicted on whether this is too high stakes a game to allow the people to have a say right now or if Papandreou is to be applauded for doing precisely that. As of this evening nobody will want to invest anything in Greece, a run on their overstretched banks is not beyond the bounds of possibility, Italy’s position is disintegrating before our eyes.  But if they get to vote (and if Papandreou intends the result should be binding) then the people would know that they are truly sovereign. Might they not rise to that challenge?

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