The idea that Greece should accept, as a condition for another bailout, a “budget commissioner” who will supervise the budget and retain veto rights has angered the Greek political class and public at large. The idea is indeed a bad one – but not for the reasons that most people think.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said the proposal would force Greece to pick between “financial assistance” and “national dignity.” Of course, national dignity is a relative term: when you are seeking another €130 billion because you failed to implement the provisions of the first, €110 billion bailout; when you are negotiating to cut over €100 billion in debt because you can no longer pretend to be able to repay it; when your country is derided daily in the international press; when your numbers are suspect and your promises empty; when all decisions are taken in tandem with foreign bureaucrats; and when the only momentum for meaningful reform comes from those same bureaucrats – then perhaps Mr. Venizelos would do well to tell us what dignity exactly he is trying to protect.
In many ways a “budget commissioner” would be a good thing. As I’ve written in the past, the troika has actually enhanced Greek democracy by depriving interest groups of their traditional, anti-democratic leverage. It has enhanced Greek democracy by trying to strip constituencies of their privileges – be they exorbitant salaries, senseless regulations or a tolerance for anomie. It has forced Greek society to debate serious subjects that the post-1974 consensus has preferred to keep silent. It has shed light into a vast state machinery by bringing some honesty into Greek statistics and by forcing some accountability for how money is being spent. The troika has made Greek democracy stronger.
But the “budget commissioner” is also a bad idea. At some point, Greek politicians have to stand up and take ownership of the reform agenda. If we liberalize professions, collect taxes, privatize state-owned enterprises, modernize the state bureaucracy and streamline the functions of the state only because the troika says so, then there is no hope. Greece needs to own this agenda. It needs people who will say that all these things are worth doing not because the troika says so but because they are the right thing to do. As long as Greek politicians say “the troika made me do it” they will demonstrate nothing more than their own cowardice and inadequacy for the task that the country faces.
We should reject a “budget commissioner” not because the idea violates our “national dignity” but because we should demand from our politicians the courage to make those tough choices by themselves and we should not allow them to eschew their own responsibilities by pointing the finger at the troika. Our national dignity requires nothing less.