Can Europe Make It?

The last of the Papandreous?

During elections for change - and the first Greek Parliament for 92 years without a Papandreou in it - Adam Ramsay spoke with former scion of the Greek ruling class, George Papandreou.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay George Papandreou
29 March 2015

Flickr/parti socialiste. Some rights reserved.It's now two months ago since I sat down in Athens with George Papandreou. If I'm honest, I didn't know what to make of him. I sent my write up around various friends and colleagues - people who have more of an understanding of Greek politics and of the man than I do. The feedback I got was utterly contradictory. Some felt that the below is an attempt from him to justify himself, and that there was little value in publishing. Others thought it raised some useful questions. Life drifted by. In the end, Rosemary Bechler, oD's editor, made the most convincing case - publish, and let readers decide what to make of it all. So, here you go... 

My week in Greece started in Exarchia and Perama and ended with the Parthenon, Poseidon's Temple and George Papandreou. If the former, both areas of Athens, represent the rise of Syriza, then the latter are all stepping stones in history: remnants of Greece's once great dynasties.

Exarchia is the anarchist corner of Greece's capital – beautified by political graffiti and populated with young graduate types who hang out in smoke filled cafes. Perama is a crumbling port city in the greater Athenian metropolis where people walk at a pace implying mass-unemployment. Together, they represent the backbone of the coalition – radicalised graduates and dispossessed labourers – that swept Europe's first radical left government since WW2 to power.

But they represent something else too. When I arrived in Exarchia, late the night before the election, I was surprised to see a guard of police officers in terrifying riot-gear and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing watch over the building next door. This, it later turned out, was the office of PASOK – Greece's 'socialist' party born in the radical quarter of Athens. It's fair to say that it's no longer welcomed by the locals.

The party has, in fact, been rejected even by the family that founded it. Established originally by Andreas Papandreou in the 1970s, his son, George, former leader and Prime Minister of Greece, left it briefly before the election to run with his own party, the Movement for Democratic Socialists. They won 2.5%, meaning, as people repeatedly told me, that this was the first Greek Parliament for 92 years without a Papandreou in it.

For many, this seemed almost as exciting in itself as the election of Syriza, and when I told Greeks I was going to interview the former PM, latest and last of the famous dynasty, they almost all responded sarcastically. He was deposed by the powers that be when he insisted that the Troika's (the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank) austerity measures be put to referendum rather than adopted unquestioningly. But he seems to be blamed for what came next. More damagingly, he seems to be seen as utterly out of touch: a classic comment was “lucky you – his English is better than his Greek”.

I don't know if that's true, but it certainly is the case that his English is native – born in Minnesota while his father was in exile from the dictatorship, he speaks with a gentle American accent, and has the kind charm of an old family friend. I started by asking him to talk me through the point after the Greek economy collapsed, when the forces of the world came to Athens, and he responded with what felt like a well trodden line: “The crisis in Greece actually began before 2009 when I took over.” 

“We had the wider financial crisis of course, coming from Wall Street, which affected everyone, but Greece was a weak link, I would say, in this whole crisis, where the sovereign debt, the debt of our country and then government went up, and that was very much a badly managed policy from the previous government. When I took over, we had a budget deficit of 15.6%, an almost doubling of our debt, and the markets were very worried about Greece, and also the Eurozone, and how the Eurozone would deal with a very new situation in a country which has had difficulty financing itself on the markets.

“So, what happens was that the market pressures were huge, to the point that we reached almost a tipping point of going bankrupt. What that means is that basically, we couldn't go out on the markets and borrow money. So that's when we needed to create a so called mechanism – it's called the ESM today, in the European Union, and we had to use it. Now, I think I wouldn't have used it had the European Union been more clear and more forceful with the markets, by saying we stand by Greece, we guarantee Greece's debts and bonds, or created something like a Eurobond and Greece can borrow, and so on. But they didn't do that. And I think one of the problems was that they saw that this was simply a Greek problem, not a wider Eurozone problem.”

“So what happened is that I had to use this mechanism and ask for help. And the terms were, initially, quite punitive. We'd negotiated changes over the year that came, the following year, 2010 and 2011. I didn't have much of a choice. I had two choices. One was to let the country go bankrupt, which would have led to a lot of suffering, much more suffering. Or, to follow the terms of the bail-out, which was difficult, but less austere than bankruptcy.”

With hindsight, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the predictions that the Troika made about their plans for the Greek economy were entirely wrong. The Standby Agreement, which demanded mass austerity, predicted two years of recession. Five years later, Greece's depression has only technically ended now if you ignore deflation. Far from reducing Greece's debt, austerity has led the country to a higher debt: GDP ratio. Even if you ignore the huge human cost, on its own terms, the plan to which the Greek government signed up has utterly failed. In retrospect, does Mr Papandreou feel there is anything else he could have done to resist it?

“I think that you're right... the so called Troika obviously did make wrong predictions as to how this would go, for a number of reasons. One is that I think, again, had there been strong backing of Greece, we would have been much less insecure. Just getting money to pay off our loans is not enough to keep the markets calm and for people to feel safe. And so, even when and despite the fact that we had this massive programme of loans to Greece, the sense in Europe was 'maybe Greece will leave the Euro, maybe the banks will collapse'.

“Well, if you live in a country where these rumours are being circulated, and circulated by official mouths in the European Union, what would you do? I mean, you would say “yeah, well, maybe I have to take my money out of Greece, maybe I won't invest”. Foreign investment wasn't coming in; “maybe I won't consume”. Banks won't lend. So we had basically a paucity of economic activity for two or three years. That was massively wrong for the European Union to not have made a very clear statement and closed the door on this option – of a Grexit. That's one reason why I asked for a referendum, so that we could have a clear decision by the Greek people, and that would be also be a clear sign to the markets, and to the Greek people that “we're in, we've got this programme” or “we're out” - but we would make a decisions and it's clear - so we don't have this continual sense of insecurity.”

He was beginning to talk about clientelism in Greece – but we'll come back to that. First, I'm keen to talk about something else that fascinates me about the way that austerity was imposed on Greece: there were prominent figures at the time, including Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, who argued that cutting public spending during a crisis was going to be disastrous, that the figures the Troika were presenting were based on fantasy – the idea that you can cut public spending and not have a massive drop in employment and a collapse in the tax base is an economic absurdity. And yet somehow this consensus was forced on Greece, despite the fact that there is no workable precedent for this, and no major economist who predicted the crash supported it. How did this consensus come out of economic la-la-land and end up being forced on the people of Greece?

“We (Gordon Brown and I) were together on the council for a few months until the elections in the UK, and I did have his support. He was a very positive voice in trying to get a different view on things. Of course, the UK is not in the Eurozone, so it had less of a say on these issues, but the austerity mythology is around and live and running around in Europe still very strongly, there's a very strong dogma on austerity, that this is the way to deal with the sickness of a crisis, and I said that from the very beginning.

“Now I do need to make a qualification here. Greece did have a huge budget deficit – 15.6%. And actually, in 2009, when that budget deficit was 15.6%, we were in recession. So simply throwing money at the problem is not enough. And particularly in a global market and in a Eurozone market where money can move around – throwing money at Greece could simply have meant consuming more cars from Germany, which would not really help the problem. So what we really needed was good governance again – targeted investment in areas which will support our own comparative advantages. And that was my proposal, that we target areas such as high quality tourism; we reorganise our agriculture, because we have a brand name that's known around the world, that's called the Mediterranean or Cretan diet, very good for your health; fisheries; alternative energy:  sun, wind, and geothermal; we have a lot of that – and that's great potential. We also have a very great workforce: young people, very well educated, highly trained, and so on.

“So these are just some of the areas we could capitalise on. Austerity was missing that. It's sort of like taking a company which is producing a product which people just don't want to buy and, because it's overdrawn, the banks say “just cut” and that's not going to mean that people are going to buy your products. You have to reorganise, you have to innovate, you have to see what are your strengths, you have to train, you have to look at your infrastructure, and this is what Greece needed.

“So, yes, I would say the austerity dogma has failed. And in Greece, what we needed was a slower pace of cuts, which would have meant more money, of course, because when you have continued deficits, you have to get your money from somewhere. That's why I supported the Eurobond, rather than having this bilateral aid basically which we have from Eurozone countries, but that was not accepted. Secondly, what we needed was to make the changes in Greece – both in restructuring our economy, and also in restructuring our state and the way that it's run, the way that it's working.”

Of course, in a sense, what he wanted was moot. Because he wasn't allowed to remain in power. In one of the most extraordinary moments in recent European history, George Papandreou told the EU that he would only implement their austerity with the consent of the people. And so he proposed a referendum. A few days later, he was out of a job. The person elected by the people of Greece was replaced by a technocrat. Had the EU orchestrated this coup from behind the scenes? I put it to him that this isn't how politics should work in a democracy. His answer is surprisingly calm: “you're right”.

What happened? How did he feel? At the time, I was spitting with rage. Surely he must still be angry about it? His answer is surprisingly methodical:

“I think if I have a regret it is that I wasn't able to push through the referendum. I thought it was a very key moment for democracy first of all, but also for ownership of the programme by the Greek people. And it is this lack of ownership I believe that has created a lot of frustration and has not allowed real reforms to move forward. When something's imposed on you, even if it's good for you, you usually react. And if you feel that you own it, it's part of your own decision, I think that's very different. That's part of democracy. That's what democracy is.

“And we are facing a wider problem. My experience was quite traumatic for Greece, I think. But it's traumatic for democracy. We're facing a wider problem where the established powers in this global capitalist world are much more powerful than governments and we are often forced to take decisions under pressure, which undermines a sense of democracy and participation.

“We could deal with that if we worked together – if we in the European Union worked together and supported each other more in dealing with these waves, winds of globalisation. We could then protect some of the basic democratic rights of our peoples. So the exegesis of global capitalism and globalisation which can be a huge inequality, global capital amassing huge amounts of money in the hands of few, the capture of the media through that, the capture of politics itself sometimes, through the huge inequalities of power which has amassed. On the issue of immigration, rather than be xenophobic, we could find solutions for people who migrate for whatever reason, be they refugees or simply looking for a job.”

Which was, I remember, his masters thesis.

“You're right, I did study migration studies, and I was a migrant myself, I was a refugee myself from the dictatorship, and one of the first laws I passed in Greece was to give citizenship to second generation migrants who live here. Unfortunately that was repealed two years later by the High Court... I very much regret that we did that, because I think that was very important for integrating our migrants here. And these are the types of issues – or climate change – these are the types of issues we are facing and, if we don't work together, countries on our own are very weak.

“And so when I came up with the idea of a referendum, basically I was saying “we want to have a voice” and, unluckily, some of the leaders in the European Union said “well, the markets are going to be crazy about this” and I said, particularly to Mr Sarkosy, I said “listen, without the trust of the people, you'll never have the markets happy either. So first, you need to have the trust of the people, and, we would have had the markets worried for maybe a month. But had Europe said “hold on, let the Greek people do what they need to do, and make a decision”, I think we could have tamed these fears.

“And, anyway, the whole way Europe reacted, even though they did finally agree, but the way they agreed, that undermined me in my own party and I didn't have the majority to push through this whole proposal of a referendum. And so I think that was a defeat for democracy there, and not just for Greek democracy, or mine personally, but a very important lesson for how we deal with crises around the world and in Europe.”

This is all very interesting, but it's surprisingly abstract. He was the democratically elected leader. He was deposed. I suppose I'd expected him to be more angry about it, not to talk about the winds of globalisation. So I ask him again: what role did the EU play in getting rid of him? What actually happened? 

“I have read a number of newspapers. Amongst them, the Financial Times has written up a long piece on the details of what happened in Cannes – that was the G20 meeting where I was called to discuss the whole issue of the referendum, and I cannot validate these, because these are issues which, if they were done, they were done behind my back. But if they were done, they obviously were shocking as to how Europe works. But you don't need to go very far to actually see that the problem of how Europe works today is that many of the decisions are taken behind closed doors but, more than that, I would say by very few people without real consultation and deliberation and democratic procedures.”

“And I can understand that many people reacting to this don't want the European Union, they want a return to some sort of nation state, “let's go back to our tribes”. I would say we need the opposite of that – we need more Europe, but more democratic Europe. So let's see how we can find democracy, how we can democratise the European Union, how we can take it from an elite project to a peoples' project or to a citizens' project. How can we, for example, have a president elected by the people of Europe, have a president of the commission elected directly?”

This is a theme Papandreou has returned to frequently over the years, but he's dismissive of the way that each of the European parties had their campaigns headed up by candidates in the 2014 elections: “there was this sort of mock election, but there was no real direct election” - and his proposals for EU reforms go further:

“Let's have some forms of referenda which can be Europe-wide. Switzerland has a system where 51% of the citizens and 51% of the cantons have to accept something if they want some major change, so we need to have something like that in Europe. Let's have more online deliberation. Let's use new tools of technology for more participatory democracy. We need to bring in more democracy in Europe... If we don't have that, and people feel that these are decisions made behind closed doors and particularly by the stronger or the more powerful, or certain bureaucracies, people will be alienated more and more by the idea of Europe, and that would be a shame.”

This discussion of international politics highlights a perhaps surprising fact about the former Greek Prime Minister – he's the president of the Socialist International – the federation which includes Germany's Social Democrats, France and Spain's Socialists, and to which the British Labour Party is an observer. In Greece, its member organisation is not his new party, The Movement for Democratic Socialists, but rather his old one, PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement).

In the UK – and, in fact, across Europe, there has been some discussion recently of the phenomenon “Pasokofocation” - whereby traditional parties of the centre left have been hollowed out, and collapsed in on themselves. Examples stretch from the German Social Democrats to Spain's Socialists to the Scottish (and perhaps British) Labour party and Northern Ireland's SDLP. In fact, a careful examination of the figures in Greece's election reveals that New Democracy's vote didn't particularly collapse, but rather PASOK's support transferred wholesale to SYRIZA.

I tell Mr Papandreou about the introduction of “Pasokification” into the English language. He laughs. In this context, and with his perspective, does he have any advice for Ed Miliband? And for his partners around the world?

He's keen to emphasise, in his reply, a differentiation between Europe and the rest of the world. “The Socialist International has about 160 members around the world. If you look at Latin America, if you look at Africa, if you look in the Arab World wherever there is some semblance of democracy, there is a flourishing of progressive parties, social democratic parties, socialist parties, and so on. And, quite a few in government.

“Europe, I think, is faced with a difficulty. Because what Europe has not done is being able to deal with... the pressures of globalisation. Because what Europe had was a basic bargain, what they call a social contract between the social partners: Labour, capital and the state. Now, capital flew away... to other opportunities, and... to other havens. So, you can't tax capital, because you've got tax havens or tax competition. You have huge inequalities and you also have the degradation of standards, pushing labour into these ultra-flexible forms of labour, non-secure, simply because of competition with the emerging markets.

“Now, are those the kind of economies that we want? Where it's a race to the bottom. Other economies in these emerging markets... may do well for certain portions of their population, and bravo to them. But they still have huge inequalities. They have no labour standards, they have no environmental standards, sometimes, no human rights, no pension systems, no welfare systems. That is not the model we need to emulate. However, since we are as nations not very strong against this global capitalist system... we social democrats look helpless, unless we work together.”

“Not to quote somebody, but I think we can't have social democracy in one country. We have to work together. And I think if Europe does not become a social democratic project, where we mitigate the impact of globalisation, where we humanise globalisation...

“Europe can do it if we do it together. We've talked about the financial transaction tax, we've talked about CO2 taxes. We've talked about how we deal with climate change. We've talked about how we invest in human capital, in infrastructure. So we could have a Europe-wide stimulus and we should. Even now, when we're discussing with the US on the Transatlantic pact, the trade pact, we need to be very strong on standards, whether its labour standards, whether its food standards, whether its consumer standards, whether its data-protection standards. These are issues (in) which Europe really could play a role. If we do this alone, whether it's Ed Miliband, whether it's Francois Hollande, whether it's Mr Renzi, we won't have enough clout vis a vis these market and conservative forces. And that's just going to push us into more nationalism,more xenophobia, more rampant stereotyping of each other, which is going to create more and more splintering in our societies, and therefore not the strength to be able to deal with these issues. And this is the conundrum we now have.

“Our institutions are national: our problems are global. If we don't work together, and Europe is an experiment which could work. So I'm saying, we need all social democrats, all Labour parties in Europe, to work more in developing a radical, but progressive change – modernising our societies, yes, but ensuring that in these times of major change, we are able to protect our citizens and their rights.”

This account of Pasokification all seems very plausible – the failure of the centre left to have a strategy in the face of globalisation. But it doesn't seem to me to be a sufficient explanation. On my home turf, the Scottish Labour Party, utterly dominant only a decade ago, is facing a wipe-out in May at the hands of the SNP. From Germany to Spain, many of the traditional parties of the centre left in Europe are floundering. Is there an argument that these parties have lost their connections with the movements they existed to represent? That they no longer have enough of a connection to their respective bases?

Given that the official nickname for Papandreou's new party is “the movement”, I thought he might be keen to talk about this aspect of the collapse of the party his father built. But no:

“I would say that as people see that the socialists or the progressive parties have difficulty in dealing with these globalising forces, the reaction is going to be nationalism – back into your own tribe. Let's go where you feel safe. Let's move back into – it could be our religion, it could be our ethnicity, it could be our nation.”

But that's not Podemos or Syriza, I challenge him. They can't be accused of turning inwards, surely?:

“I would say, look at Syriza's rhetoric, and look at its coalition right now. It is much more... anti-European – of course anti-austerity (too), but... it's in coalition with an ultra-rightist party which basically is a highly nationalist, populist, racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic party. I mean, the rhetoric which Syriza is using is... 'we don't want these outsiders telling us what to do, let's kick them out... this is an occupation'. So the basic instinct is not a platform for global change and dealing with international forces in a different way. It's, let's move back into our little corner and get rid of all these negative things.

“What I'm basically saying is something simple: if we don't work together and deal with these globalising forces, these global forces, these changes around the world, people are just going to move into their little tribes. And that's what's happening in Europe. It's happening in the Arab world. It's happening in Syria – you're seeing people moving into basically their own sects, whether it's the Sunnis or the Shias or, whether it's one ethnicity or the other – the Kurds, the Iraqis, and so on. And these are basically instinctive reactions to the fact that we feel powerless in this world that's globalising.

“How do we gain power? How to we empower citizens? Well, I think that's what our social democratic movement has to deal with. And it's basically much more radical democracy, much more participation, much more regulation, which will mitigate some of the problems, but also guide global capital into making a more fair and just society which addresses inequality, and climate change, and so on.”

It's a compelling case, I tell him. But what I see isn't a descent into nationalism. What I see is people moving to the left.

“But look at France”...

“and to the right – polarising, both ways”, I concede.

“We're seeing a polarisation, to extremism, and, underneath that, is a belief that we can deal with these problems if each 'I go back' to our tribes. That's what I'm seeing. And, it can be a left party that's populist or a right party that's populist... I'm not saying they're the same. What we're seeing as a trend is not a leftist revolution or a leftist change – which is what I would want to see. I think we need to work together for this.”

I'm not convinced. Just because people are anti-globalisation, that doesn't make them nationalists. Outside a polling station in Perama on the day of the election, I had been introduced to a Syriza activist called Petras. He said two things: “We have the exit polls. We've got 38%”. And then, without pausing to smile “we're going to need international partners”. When Tsipras gave his victory speech, just up the road from Papandreou's office, the people in the square were from all over Europe. Perhaps 20% were from outside Greece. The flags weren't the blue and white of the Hellenic Republic, but the reds and greens of the European left celebrating a late Christmas.

“I'm not against that” insists the former PM. “I very much hope that the European left, and if I talk in a wider sense, progressive forces from the politically liberal, using the American term of liberal – human rights, democracy and so on – the Greens, and the wider leftist forces, whether they're social democratic, or even further to the left, and so on, where we need to create coalitions, work together, and break down these national barriers which the right is trying to use through stereotyping – the austere Germans, the lazy Southerners, and so on: these are the kinds of things that just play into the hands of these right wing populists. So I'd be very much in favour of that. But if we don't work together, we will allow this trend, the rhetoric which will be developed, with some exceptions, will be a rhetoric that will be much more of nationalism and tribalism.

“Basically what I'm saying is that we need, as social democrats and socialists and lefts in a wider sense, the progressives of Europe need to get together and work together in making Europe a progressive project.”

Papandreou's new party didn't get any seats in the election. But, I ask him, if he had made it into Parliament, is it fair to assume that Syriza might have had a different coalition partner right now? Would he have given Tsipras the votes he needed to form a government?

He's keen to get another point in first: “we had a start up movement that had just 25 days to create a party and then run, so even the 2.5% was quite a good start, but we still have a lot to do”. This may be true, though, given he's a former Prime Minister and from the most famous family in Greek politics, that achievement is perhaps less remarkable than it sounds: everyone in Greece has an opinion on George Papandreou, and the fact that so few of them voted for him can't be dismissed as the result of obscurity.

But his answer to the question is clear: “Had we reached the 3% barrier and been in parliament, I always said, yes, we could work with Syriza on two bases. One is to make major reforms in Greece. And when I say reforms, that's a word which is often interpreted in different ways. I'm not talking simply about the labour reforms which the Troika was pushing. I'm talking about further transparency, making a tax system which is just, being able to fight tax evasion, a justice system which is transparent and efficient, an education system which is open to the world and not clientelistic, politics which is not clientelistic, waste, fight corruption and so on. And then we could take this to a referendum, and... in exchange, for the European Union to cut our debt, or at least to take much of the weight off, because we are now creating surpluses, but we are using them mostly to pay back the debt. So let's do it in a way where we can use these surpluses to kickstart our economy again. I see that that idea, that basic idea that I proposed and pushed during the election period, a number of people in Syriza are accepting as the possible way forward. So, yes, there would have been a chance, had that been accepted, to work with them and have a different type of coalition.

The clientelism he refers to is a recurrent theme of pretty much every conversation about Greek politics. Papandreou has in the past complained that he didn't have enough time to solve these problems. Why did he fail? Will Syriza have any more success?

“One of the problems with Greece, and this is not only Greece, but, we have very entrenched interests in this clientelist system which go from the sort of oligarchies down to the smaller but very strong interests – corporate interests, or, basically, living off the state, getting a job, getting a procurement, getting a TV licence, this is all done in a very opaque and clientelist way. But this does not create a very productive economy. It's a question of time on the one hand. It's a question of will. But it's also a question of getting the Greek people behind you when you're doing this, because the Greek people do want change. And that was my mandate in 2009. My slogan was “either we change or we sink”: and we're sinking.

“So I started bringing in changes – putting everything online: all expenditures online, making sure we had complete meritocracy in hiring people in Greece, so (so politicians couldn't buy votes by hiring people). Even at the top level we had this open-gov process of choosing people through announcements on a meritocratic basis, so even top political positions were not done through the party, but a different way. Fighting corruption, for example, with e-prescriptions we cut down 30% of the cost of medicine, where doctors were getting kickbacks from big pharmaceutical companies, this is what I began. But the resistance to these changes... of course was huge, and the types of changes are not simply passing a law. If you have for example a tax system or a tax agency which is inefficient, which has pockets of corruption, and you simply say “I'm going to pass a law and change that” but you have the same people there, and the same organisation - it's not going to change overnight.

“So we needed time, and we needed the backing for this. But we didn't have the backing from the European Union, because they were more on cuts, cuts, cuts, rather than reforms, reforms, reforms, and we did have the backing of the Greek people, but I think a referendum would have given us the strength to stand up to these forces that didn't want to change. That's where I think democracy can really help in these areas.”

This is all very well, but, while the message might be reasonable, there's a problem with the messenger. If anything symbolises nepotism in Greek politics, it's that three generations of the same family have all provided prominent Greek Prime Ministers – most recently, George himself. Can he really square that circle?

He's certainly willing to try: “I think that's a false view of what our tradition is. Of course every personality is a separate one, but if there is one tradition that goes through my family, it's the fight for change. My grandfather fought for change all his life and that's why he went to exile or jail six times. He was head of the government in exile in Cairo during the Nazi occupation. He may have been in politics a lot but once he was prime minister in exile, and, the second two times he was elected, he was overthrown by the right wing and there was a dictatorship.”

“My father was in exile twice in his life but when he was in power he made some major changes, bringing in the welfare state. I think my criticism there would be that he didn't make the necessary reforms in the state. It kept on being clientelistic, but it wasn't he who brought in the clientelist system, though he did make changes bringing in constitutional changes for meritocracy and so on. So I came in on a very strong platform of change and, I have a record too, which shows this.

“When I said 'put everything online', that was a major change in Greece, because it hit a lot of corruption. But people may not have felt that that was the biggest change in their life when they were being hit by austerity and cuts, so unluckily, during my time, I had to do the painful thing of cutting the deficit. And all of the other reforms were there, we were making, but they didn't show up until years later how important they had been. For example now, it's very difficult for any government to stop what we call transparency online – everything online. The previous government tried a couple of times to change the law, and there was a major reaction.”

“So I think that, yes, we were reforming, and what I have been saying in this campaign is that, it's not simply a question of austerity. It's a question of “do we make this government efficient, do we have good governance?” - basically a democratic question, a question of how our democracy is run. Do we have a country where interests are capturing our democracy, or do we have a country run efficiently, where people actually have a say and the public good is served?

And what about him? Is his time in politics over?

“I said when I built this party that, whatever the result would be, I wanted a new start for the socialists and the democrats in Greece. Because I felt that it was true that the old party, Pasok, had been subsumed into a right wing politics. But I would say, again, it had become a part of this established clientelist system. And so even when I was head of the party, I had to fight against that. I was a reformer even inside my party. When I left, I hoped this reform would be kept up, but I think it just collapsed under the weight of being part of this clientelist system. And I believe that if we don't make this voice heard, Greece will maybe be out of the crisis for a little while, but we'll be back into the crisis. If Syriza does move forward with real, major reforms, I will support that. If they don't, our voice will be more important all the time, by making sure that we carry this through.

“So, grassroots working throughout Greece, training people, helping people to understand what the real problems in Greece are, because it was very easy to say that the real problem is the Troika, the real problems are the Germans, or maybe the Russians will come to help us and give us money. So we had a lot of mythology around this, which even Syriza has created. The memorandum, the bail out programme, was a medicine, it may not have been the right, or the best medicine, or it may have been very bitter, but it wasn't the cause of our problems. And that's again which I'm trying to get back to the real issues that we need to face up to – creating a modern, functioning transparent democracy in our society.”

And who is it that he's trying to train? Who is the supposed 'movement' his party is hoping to represent?

“We have a large number of young people who have come to this. I would say that many of them saw the efforts we made for reforms and my government in 2 years passed 222 laws. Most of them were major reform laws and major changes that no previous government had made. And that inspired a large number of young people to say “this is what we need in our country”. So I'll be investing in them and also I think that a lot of people that would have voted for my party basically were voting against the Samaras/Venizelos government. They were voting a protest vote just to make sure that we have a change in policy and therefore voted for Tsipras. But I believe that a lot of them very much agree with my points about what sorts of things need to be changed in Greece.

“So I'm investing in a younger generation for the next decade, where we can bring up politicians, activists, groups around Greece where we can really look and see how we make Greece a better place, and not simply try to scapegoat who are the bad guys out there and who's going to come and save us.”

Is it fair to say, then, that he's trying to build a social democratic party, slightly less radical than Syriza but still on the left of politics?

“Yes, that's true... I think I'm more radical than Syriza”

But less “old fashioned socialist?” I put to him.

“Yes, that's right, it's not simply a party that will manage capitalism. I think radical democracy, more participation, a real change in our state. I'm not a statist kind of a socialist... a state isn't necessarily good. You can have a good state and a bad state – I lived through a dictatorship and I know what bad states are like – as I don't believe that markets are inherently bad, but if you don't regulate them they do become bad and they don't serve the public good. So I think what we need is good regulation for markets, and good governance. And that basically democracy must prevail, the will of the people, the public good must prevail on decisions, and that's what I want to build up.

I tell him I have three final questions, but his young assistant jumps in – apparently the BBC will be arriving any moment. He asks me to give him all three, so I do – what are his thoughts on what's going to happen over the next few weeks, what advice does he have for Syriza and for Tsipras, and how does he want to be remembered – what's his legacy?

“I would like to see this government realise that there's not much time to waste because of the sense of insecurity and unluckily outside Greece, the lack of credibility on the markets. And so on. So I would want to see them begin to open negotiations with the European Union. I believe that if they put down a package of major reforms, that could be a change in policy where we don't need the troika, where we create more space to use our budget surpluses for investment in Greek society whether it's in the poor, whether it's in infrastructure, whether it's in education, and in our areas of competitive advantage. So we need that. And that means some form of debt relief. Some renegotiating of the whole debt problem.

“On the other hand, we promise to our partners that they won't have to be sustaining us every once in a while by saying “we want to make reforms”  - a Greek plan, one that we will decide on. We will deliberate on and decide on through a referendum. That would be my suggestion. And if they stick to sort of highly populist but very popular things, they're just going to not pay the debt and so on, we may be in a situation where we will become much more insecure and much worse for Greek society. Even though this debt is very heavy. We have to find some way of negotiating with our partners because I think we do need their help in getting through this period – their help. But they must also understand that it's not austerity, austerity, austerity: it's more reform, reform, reform. And I think after 5 years, they're starting to realise this. That's my advice and that's what I would hope.

“My legacy is that I would simply continue to be seen as a fighter for democracy in Greece and for the public good and for being able to invest in a younger generation that will be able to carry on the major changes that Greece needs. Greece is a beautiful country. It's got great people and great capacity and having lived around the world, I don't feel that we need to be jealous of anybody. But what we do need is to make sure that we can start working together in a system that is transparent, effective, more democratic, and not captured by clientelist interests – more team work, more co-operation, and to get that, I think we need to have more and more, much more participation of citizens in daily activities. Trying to get our citizens to be more active, civil society, an open democracy if you like, using the web but not only, continuing education for civil activity and participation. These are the kinds of thing I've been working on all my life and will continue to do so.”

Sat in his office, the case Papandreou made for himself was all perfectly plausible – a thinking man, blown away by what he called the winds of globalisation, doing his best in an impossible situation. There is a sense in which all of this is true. But on reflection, there's something else too. Papandreou clearly has an excellent grasp on the shifting currents of history, but it feels a little like his understanding makes him too quick to bow before them, too willing to cast his country to the winds of inevitability. Politics may be dictated by powerful historical forces, but it's not the weather. The world can be bent a little to the will of those who are willing to look it in the eye. At a time when Greece needed a stubborn leader, they had a thoughtful academic, a man who gave up the fight too fast because he saw no way to win.

How will history see him? The night after our meeting, a couple of friends and I came across an image of George Papandreou's familiar face, spray-painted onto a wall in central Athens. It was captioned with an adulterated Greek nursery rhyme. I'm told it wasn't polite about the former PM.

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