Evangelos Venizelos: The Greek who grasped the nettle but still feels its sting

Exclusive interview: Greece's deputy prime minister, says it is two thirds through its crisis but has a huge mountain still to climb

Athens

Look at our party leaders in the UK. David Cameron: tall, handsome in a public schoolboyish sort of way; Nick Clegg: a slightly less-foppish duplicate; Ed Miliband: beanpolish and geeky, but fit and energetic. In 24-hour TV news Britain, politics is no longer showbusiness for ugly people – not in its topmost echelons, at least. Our leaders must be seen jogging, cycling, skiing.

Now cast an eye some 1500 miles south-east of Westminster to Athens, to the first floor of the white palace of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There, behind a wide mahogany desk, sits Evangelos Venizelos, the deputy prime minister who, when finance minister in his previous job, negotiated and pushed through some of the toughest austerity measures ever imposed upon a nation in peacetime. Like Messrs Cameron and Clegg, the Greek deputy prime minister, foreign minister and leader of the once-great socialist Pasok party, is a tall man. But, to the extent of few in Westminster, he is also overweight in body and somewhat fearsome in face. Bluntly, unlike the ancient grandees hanging on the high walls of his beige office, he is no oil painting.

Neither is he much of a soundbite artist. As Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini's English edition puts it, he is "long-winded and grand", a legacy of his many years in academia, where he was a professor of constitutional law.

In short, Mr Venizelos, at 56, is quite the opposite of a British political leader. Which is why, perhaps, despite being a hugely intelligent political animal, he accepted the strychnine-laced chalice of the post of finance minister in 2011. As he would have known full well, the job meant negotiating with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank over Greece's deeply unpopular second monster bailout, with all the brutal austerity measures that incurred.

There can be few ambitious party high-ups in the UK who would have so willingly taken such a politically suicidal step.

Like all the senior politicians associated with the bailout, Mr Venizelos' personal poll ratings are poor, and Pasok was drubbed in the elections.

He decided to join the coalition government after the other leftist party quit due to conservative prime minister Antonis Samaras' switching off the state national broadcaster earlier this year.

His critics saw his move back into government during the broadcaster crisis as typically sly and opportunistic. But, his camp argues, had he not intervened, the government would have fallen and the Troika would have scrapped the bailout he had so painstakingly negotiated.

His aides say Westminster and the City never quite grasped how close Greece came to such chaos at the time.

Given all this, I expect Mr Venizelos to be gruff, standoffish. But he is not. In fact, he is, in his broken English, quite charming in the way he gets up to greet me, offering tea and coffee and a seat on the sofa rather than the table and chairs I'd headed for. He has a ready smile, too, in between those rhetorical monologues.

Perhaps that's because, unusually, the eurozone is off on its August holidays with no major disasters circling.

Tentatively, very tentatively, some economists are even saying Greece could be moving out of its depression phase. GDP is expected to shrink a "mere" 4.5 per cent this year and grow 0.6 per cent next. Tourism receipts are strong this summer, with knock-on benefits for other industries such as food and agriculture. I wonder if Mr Venizelos feels he took all the bullets in this battle during the tough months of 2011 and early 2012 when he was the finance minister, only for the current incumbent, Yannis Stournaras, to claim the victory.

Mr Stournaras had, on the day of my interview with Mr Venizelos, given an interview with Reuters, talking confidently about avoiding the forecast budget gap in 2015 due to improved tourism takings.

Mr Venizelos admits "My personal [political] life this last three years [has been] absolutely difficult. It's very difficult to be a politician in Greece during the crisis... But faced with a sad situation the answer is always a historical one, not personal. We [politicians] are absolutely obliged to accept some historical duties, to play our historical role."

When asked how long the current crisis still has to run, he says: "The official answer is that we have before us less than one third of the crisis... We have behind us more than two thirds."

And the unofficial answer?

"The real answer is that we need constructive cooperation with our institutional partners... to reconstruct, to re-establish the real economy. We need more GDP."

This, he says, is the critical point. Greece has taken immense pain in reducing the state payroll – cutting jobs and slashing pensions. It has hiked up taxes and withdrawn public services, as it has been asked to do. Public spending, he says, is now running at about 35 per cent of GDP on an underlying basis, nearly a full 10 percentage points less than in the UK.

But now, with youth unemployment near 60 per cent, enough is surely enough, he argues. What the country needs is help in growing its real economy, not more fiscal cuts.

"And also we need a new wave of foreign direct investments in Greece, in order to produce a new momentum."

Without such growth, social problems will surely worsen. Athens already feels like a city on the edge: you see armed police with riot shields loitering on some street corners.

The far-right Golden Dawn party thrives. Like all mainstream politicians, Mr Venizelos is deeply concerned at this rise of the extremists. He blames the economic crisis: "It's a cut of revenues, a cut of hopes... This is the problem."

Some commentators say the failure of moderate, traditional big parties like his own Pasok to appeal to disenfranchised youth is also to blame.

Mr Venizelos agrees "the old ruling parties" are responsible for the rise of Golden Dawn up to a point: "But," he says, "we have also a kind of national responsibility, of social responsibility. We must talk about the responsibility of civil society, the responsibility of justice, the responsibility of our private sector, the responsibility of our local administration. It's a kind of... disparate responsibility."

Meanwhile, he seems to be making a genuine effort to win back support for Pasok from the splintered groups on the left to rebuild a mainstream socialist block. And he has hired a new, young team of policy advisers in their 30s and 40s to give him a better feel for the disenfranchised young electorate. As he sees it, a strong Pasok could counter the extremists of right and left.

Many commentators in northern Europe think that the poverty and resulting growth of political extremism in Greece would never have happened had it not joined the euro.

Greece, with the help of Goldman Sachs, massaged its economic figures to make its economy look less disastrous than it was in order to be allowed into the club in the first place, they say.

Mr Venizelos acknowledges Greece used "different financial and fiscal methods in order to present a better fiscal face" but says that was "a common European practice", even in the UK.

As for those in Britain saying Greece would be better off out of the euro so it could devalue its currency, he is scornful: "The cost of a Greek exit from the eurozone is high, very high."

He says the currency would devalue more than 80 per cent, with awful ramifications for the quality of life in Greece. "This is a very good exercise for a theoretical laboratory, but not for a real economy, a real society, a real political and social life."

Greece is already going through the most extreme economic experiment imaginable. The journalist Mr Malkoutzis says what its people need is some real form of hope that their lot will improve.

While he's assembling the right team in his party, it's far from clear if Mr Venizelos is the man to sell such a message to the people. Not because of the way he looks or talks: slicker types like Messrs Cameron, Clegg or Miliband could not succeed either.

He will struggle because, in reality, only one politician can give the Greek people real hope: a leader with the power to soften its crippling bailout terms and give it breathing space to nurture real economic growth.

Her name, of course, is Angela Merkel.

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