The two super heroes who engaged themselves to save their stuck with problems countries - Mario Monti (Italy) and Lucas Papademos (Greece) - were literally summoned to Brussels in order to state once again the commitments, they and the political parties that supported them undertook on a national level, now before the European taxpayers. Both had separate meetings with the leaders of the Commission, the Council, the Eurogroup and the Parliament. Both were reminded the tasks, the dire situation they were into, the enormous credit of trust that was being granted to them again, but obviously for the last time.
In spite of their common plight however, between the two there is a significant difference - as in their own behaviour, so in the way they were accepted in Brussels. Last but not least, there is a difference in the situation of their countries. Although both are old eurocrats, the acceptance was definitely to the advantage of Mr Monti.
Greece needs a Hercules,
asked Europe ... And let this Hercules be me, Lucas Papademos accepted the challenge. During the joint news conference, after a working lunch of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the new Greek PM Lucas Papademos, the experienced Barroso, leading EU's executive for a second term now, recalled briefly and concisely, with a special address to the Greek people, what were Greece's commitments, what the stakes were and what the alternatives if these commitments were not implemented. He ended with the words: "Once again I would like to congratulate you, Prime Minister, on your appointment. I know that Mr Papademos has taken on what might be described as a Herculean task, but I know that with his expertise and credibility he has the ability to make it possible, of course counting on the support of the Greek people".
As a former central banker, Papademos definitely lacks a sense of humour but he accepted the challenge, agreeing that indeed Herculean efforts would be needed to implement the tasks, expressing hope that this would happen because already in place were the commitments of all the political parties that stood behind the government of national unity. It was agreed after marathon negotiations in the beginning of November when former PM George Papandreou announced that he would resign when an agreement for national consensus was reached.
It is important to note that in his statement President Barroso emphasised on the fact that Europe had given everything it could to help Greece and from that moment on the country had to help itself. Probably having in mind the continued protests on the streets of Athens, Barroso turned directly to the Greek citizens and called them: "I know these are extremely difficult times for many Greek citizens. I do not underestimate the pain that the necessary cuts in public spending are causing. But sometimes in life we have to take difficult decisions. The alternatives are certainly much worse. I do hope and trust that the Greek people will support this transitional government and understand why these hard choices are needed", somehow paternally said the president of the European Commission.
It is not a surprise that the main question of the Western journalists to Papademos and Barroso was - do you really, we mean really believe that the Greek parties would stick to their commitments even after signing a written statement that they would. Papademos, however, refused to commit on behalf of the political parties to what extent they would stick to the written commitments they have to sign under pressure from the Eurogroup, the International Monetary Union and the EU. The purpose is to eliminate as much as possible the uncertainty and ambiguities about the actions the political leaders might undertake in the future.
Barroso repeatedly tried to convince the public that he fully trusted Lucas Papademos's new government, consisting of 49 members from totally 16 ministries. This number revealed during the news conference after the meeting between the new prime minister and the Eurogroup chief and prime minister of Luxembourg, the veteran of European politics Jean-Claude Juncker, when a Greek journalist asked Mr Papademos how was it possible, against the backdrop of the severe spending cuts, to allow a cabinet of 49 ministers.
The explanation is that the composition of the government has been formed on the basis of adequate representation of the three parties that had supported it. As in Bulgaria is well known, in Greece a coalition formula has been developed for proportionate representation. Lucas Papademos recommended a focus on the number of ministries, which is 16, not on the number of ministers.
What attracted attention during the news conference with Juncker was that Lucas Papademos looked quite uncertain and, although he is educated abroad and speaks good English, very often he did not manage to understand the questions he was asked and Juncker had to retransmit and explain them to him. Such was the case with a question about his role in the swap of public debt in 2001, done with Goldman Sachs (the investment bank in which Papademos worked), while he was president of the Greek Central Bank. This case was revealed a year and a half ago, a little while after it became clear that Greece was dressing up its fiscal data before joining the eurozone. But as the question about Papademos's role in the deal was accompanied with another question, Papademos answered the second question only.
When the news conference ended, however, he was reminded that there was such a question and that maybe it was desirable that he answered it because this is the most vulnerable part of his CV. Papademos apologied for not hearing the question and explained that this happened at a time when he was no longer a central bank chief, as well as that the swap was done not by the bank but by the ministry of finance. And regarding the dressing up of fiscal data, Papademos specified that the Greek Central Bank acted transparently and provided all the data which after all proved to be quite close to the later corrected information.
Papademos's meeting with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, maybe one of the most important figures, whom the Greek PM will see frequently, also took place a little bit uncertainly. As president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy chairs all the meetings of the leaders of the member states, and according to the decisions of October 26 he will chair all the meetings of the eurozone countries. Although he was accepted by Van Rompuy warmly, Papademos's uncertainty was obvious.
In the end of the day Lucas Papademos has all the skills to be a perfect banker and eurocrat. Alas he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, as well as the Herculean detachment that the entire world needs in order to believe in his capacity to lead this clumsy, 49-member government of the Greek national unity toward exiting the swamp. His relatively low height, intelligent face and kind eyes are definitely what Greece needs. Moreover, Mr Papademos will not have these so important first 100 days of confidence.
Italy is in the heart of all of us
These were Jose Manuel Barroso's words to his Italian colleague Mario Monti on Tuesday afternoon. A colleague because Mario Monti was two terms commissioner, though not under the leadership of the Portuguese Barroso. But, as the European Commission president did not miss to mention, he knew "super" Mario for a long time, for 7 years, and "it is not an accident that I personally chose him and invited him to lay out his vision about the single market in 2010". The difference in welcoming Monti in the Commission, the Council and the Eurogroup was tangible. The white-haired well-built professor Monti radiates certainty and ease, a full antipode to his scandalous predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, for whom the economy was just an obstacle in his political games.
Barroso continued with the superlatives by saying that Mario Monti was competent, experienced and devoted politician. "A very much Italian and European politician. He has my full confidence and my highest estimation. He has the authority to lead Italy", Barroso said. In the end he concluded emotionally, saying that Italy was in the heart of the Europeans because it was in Rome where the founding treaty of the European community was signed. And, although it seemed that both with Papademos were summoned to be instructed in Brussels, Monti looked and spoke as if he was there entirely because of his own will and because of the respect he held for the European institutions, where he felt "at home". He said that he wanted to start from Brussels and the European Commission, which "is in my heart for various reasons".
Unlike Papademos, Monti has a high class sense of humour. This could be seen very clearly in the statement: "I hope that we will manage to reach to the bottom of things". Feeling that this might be understood the other way round, laughing he added: "In fact, I don't have in mind sinking, not sinking but reaching to the deepest possible of the reforms in Italy".
In spite of the very warm welcome in the Berlaymont building in Brussels (the building of the European Commission), Barroso recalled that the situation in Italy remained difficult. He did not say that Hercules had to drop by in Rome too, but stressed that Mario Monti's government had a historic responsibility. "This is a huge challenge but of course no one expects miracles, especially not the financial markets".
Italy will ask for help
The new Italian prime minister was very well accepted by President Van Rompuy too who, while welcoming him expressed hope that as Monti felt in his own shoes in the Commission he would soon feel that way in the Justus Lipsius building too (the Council building). But the biggest challenge for "super" Mario remains his meeting with the Merkel-Sarkozy tandem in Strasbourg on Thursday. A challenge, as Papademos will not have such a meeting but Greece is already in a rescue mode, while for Italy this question is still not on the table, although it is being asked more and more frequently.
He refused to reveal any details about the upcoming talks but said that the agenda was open and there would be no taboos, but "when we meet in this a little bit more limited format I will always have in mind that everything has to happen on the basis of the community method", Monti promised and added, without being asked specifically, that no one wanted a division between the European Union and the euro area.
An important signal, though, is Jean-Claude Juncker's remark during his news conference with Papademos. Responding to a question about the meeting of Monti with the leaders of France and Germany, Juncker said: "The meeting of Monti with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy for me is an indication that Italy would request assistance". So, the tough tests for the super heroes of Italy and Greece are yet to begin.