In his first public event since taking a professorship at Columbia, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou spoke to students about his experiences with European democracy and deficit on Wednesday.
Papandreou, an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, spoke about the lessons he learned from Greek military rule, which forced his politically prominent family into exile in the ’60s.
“Initially, I felt, as did many of my generation, that liberation would come from the gun,” Papandreou said. “I decided that the ends did not justify the means.”
It was the “long, intense debates” he had while an undergraduate at Amherst College that Papandreou said made him doubt the efficacy of violence. He said in his college years, he came to believe in the power of the people rather than weapons in guaranteeing freedom.
“I well understand the importance of the Second Amendment, but I would say to my American friends, ‘M16s do not safeguard democracy,’” he said. “Democracy must be defended in our consciousness and in our communal practices.”
Papandreou’s tenure as prime minister was defined by the financial crisis that led to widespread riots throughout Greece and, ultimately, his resignation in November 2011.
“I had negotiated the biggest haircut in recent history,” Papandreou said, referring to his 100 billion-euro debt reduction plan that cut 50 percent of the debt out of Greek banks.
Papandreou proposed a referendum as one of his last efforts to repair the economy, only to be faced with opposition by politicians and members of the European Union.
“They were afraid of the turmoil a referendum would create in the markets,” Papandreou said.
The opposition that came with the referendum led him to step aside in November 2011, making way for a coalition government.
“What I did establish was a long consensus that was until then nonexistent among parties,” Papandreou said.
Audience members had mixed reactions to Papandreou’s portrayal of democratic ideals.
Adriano Guzman, Journalism ’13, said that, while he liked the speech, he wished Papandreou could have provided more concrete information.
“He spoke of the beauty of democracy and his experience of nonviolence,” Guzman said. “I used to believe in that. I don’t know anymore.”
Guzman asked Papandreou to comment on the specific pressures that led him to resign from office, a question Papandreou did not answer.
“When people tell me that it’s really hard and that there are a lot of pressures in politics, I just would like to know which pressures they’re talking about,” Guzman said.
Others present experienced similar disillusionment with the European political system.
“I think there are many great politicians and great leaders, but these leaders are constrained by a framework,” Eugenie Degoix, SIPA ’17, said. “How do you weigh out the finances and money and speculation that’s happening and democracy?”
Degoix also asked Papandreou about the translation of his ideals into political action.
“I thought it was a great speech with a lot of ideals,” she said. “It’s a rhetoric exercise, but I’m skeptical about the action side.”
Other audience members, such as Candace Richardson, CC ’14, said they found that Papandreou broke political stereotypes.
“As a student coming from North Carolina, a small town, I didn’t have many interactions with Europeans—more specifically, southern Europeans,” Richardson said. “So watching the news in high school and watching the financial crisis unravel, I did kind of buy into this idea that southern Europeans were lazy.”
Papandreou showed statistics demonstrating that Greeks work the longest hours of any workers in the EU.
“Seeing those statistics, specifically the one about how Greek people actually work more hours in a year than German people do, was really great for me to solidify that those stereotypes aren’t true,” Richardson said.
While Fernando Severino, SIPA ’14, noted that the former Greek prime minister often drew upon democratic principles, he said that Papandreou may be unable to accurately convey his political experience.
“Of course, if you ask him, he sort of recognizes his personal responsibility for the crisis, but it’s hard to have someone like Mr. Papandreou to say what you as a regular citizen want to hear,” Severino said.