Friday, 24 February 2006

Forging a Socialist Capitalism

Anna Diamantopoulou, Pasok shadow development minister, speaks to theAthens News

ANNA Diamantopoulou is a politician with a rare opportunity to see the economy from both its cooperative and its competitive sides. As European commissioner for employment and social affairs she focused on gender equality in the workplace and the problems of unemployment. She quit that job to run in the March 2004 general election. Now, as socialist deputy and shadow development minister, she must look at the economy from a business perspective. 

We met over coffee and cakes to discuss the ponderous social and economic reforms the conservative government is undertaking - reforms many blame the socialists for leaving undone in their last term in office.
Discussing policy is difficult for the socialist party - not just with journalists, but within the party itself. Pasok is riven by a fierce internal debate between reformists and traditional tax-and-spend socialists, which stymied reform efforts of prime minister Costas Simitis in 2000-2004, but "the former group is now definitely in the majority," Diamantopoulou says. We should even start to see the party begin to roll out a policy platform as the year wears on, she adds.

Still, the way her gaze drops to the tablecloth and her lips purse at the mention of Pasok's lack of a united front makes one wonder how confident she is in this prediction.

In the eyes of some, Pasok has even been hurt by the opposition friendly press since losing the last election. Newspapers sympathetic to the party have often outdone its soft-spoken president, George Papandreou, in criticism of the government.

Diamantopoulou deftly dismisses this as "the concerns of a newspaper editor with tomorrow's headline, rather than the concerns of a partly leader with the long term."

Diamantopoulou is a good spokesperson for Pasok for reasons substantive and aesthetic. She won a reputation in Brussels as a hard worker who both drove and inspired her staff to work hard by her side. She looks good at 46, one of very few women in Greek politics to have attained such high office so young - in fact one of very few politicians of either sex to have retained their figure. As we speak, her jet-black hair flies in a perfect oval around her curiously straight temples, which drop sheer to her jaw giving her an austere look. But Diamantopoulou also knows how to charm. Her smile flashes from out of nowhere in our banter, and when the subject turns to policy again disappears as fast as it came.

In the world of her ideas, the defence of socialist ideals stands supreme in an age when socialism has become indistinguishable from capitalism. Her efforts to redefine ideology are sometimes visible.

I put it to her that we cannot really afford not to ask Europeans to work until 66 or even 67, if that would save the world's most generous social security system from collapse.

"The problems of social security cannot be solved simply by working longer," she says. "You need parallel reforms in other areas such as labour policy, education policy. I remind you that the people who face the biggest difficulty finding work are the over-fifties. Can a 62-year-old shop assistant find work? Can a 58-year-old builder find work? These people aren't troubled by when they will retire, but by how they will manage to work continuously up until retirement."

Diamantopoulou is a socialist in the reformist mould, so she does not reject the need for change; but again and again she calls attention to its detail.

'Threshold of rights'

Banking is a case in point. The conservative government recently gave three state-controlled banks tacit agreement to join Greece's three biggest private banks in rejecting sectoral wage agreements with the umbrella union, OTOE. Diamantopoulou accepts that certain bank employees are among Greece's most privileged in terms of pay and benefits, but splits the issue between rights and privileges. 

"In a wage agreement you can come across privileges, and we certainly cannot support the privileges of some workers over others, particularly in an age of inequality and high unemployment," she says. But she also puts her foot down on the need for "a threshold of rights". 

The danger is that "smaller companies with no unions can make individual agreements with workers, lowering the bar of minimum rights, thus developing a new form of competition among companies, even banks, on the basis of labour." 

Diamantopoulou seems armed with a sound-bite length answer to almost any question. But she betrayed signs of a struggle when it came to education. 

The government recently appointed the chairman of its new assessment committee, which is to oversee a new and more objective quality assessment of public universities by the end of 2008. It is also planning to abolish the state monopoly on higher education and allow charitable trusts to create recognised colleges. 

"Someone could get a very expensive degree that is beyond someone else's reach," says Diamantopoulou, who won both her degrees - in civil engineering and regional development - from Greek state universities. I pointed out how alien this view sounds in the United States, where public and private universities coexist. 

"We should look at, say, Harvard, and see how a poorer student can get a scholarship or a student loan. A university should allow a student who does not come from a privileged background to have access. We need equal opportunities in education and life," she says passionately. "Tell him that he can either study for free because his father does not declare high income, or that he can pay off his student loan at age 50. Then students can go into life on an equal footing." 

In defending access to university, Diamantopoulou is perhaps mindful of her son. After the coffees are drained and the tape recorder switched off, she sparkles as she relates how Haridimos, aged 12, reacted to his first reading of miracles in religious education class. They lack equanimity, he said, since some people are healed and others not, and being prestidigitations they run contrary to reason. The nature and nurture of Haridimos, perhaps, tells us more about the mind of Anna Diamantopoulou than anything she says on the record.

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