Conservative president for a leftist government

Conservative president for a leftist government

He was the first world leader to call Prokopis Pavlopoulos and wish him every success in his new post. He also underlined the importance of bilateral dialogue. He said the communication channels of their countries were always open and asked him to visit his capital city. The leader was not a European leader, but the president of the Turkish Republic, Tayyip Erdoğan, and on the other end of the line last Friday was the new President of the Hellenic Republic, Prof. Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

Unlike Erdoğan’s grand ceremonial style for his inauguration last August as the 12th president of Turkey and the first directly elected by the people, the change of president in neighboring Greece was done in a more “Doric” style.

Prokopis Pavlopoulos, an eminent professor of administrative law with a long history advising previous Greek presidents and with a rich portfolio of ministerial positions when his conservative New Democracy party was in power, took over from Karolos Papoulias, in a crucial moment in his country’s history.

Coming from a background that looked at Europe as the natural habitat for contemporary Greece, Pavlopoulos will now be the head of a country whose position in the core of European institutions is being seriously challenged. He will also be a president who, although his roots were always firmly set in conservative politics, was the choice of a radical leftist government, a government that, although only in office a few weeks, has been embroiled in a tough battle with an obstinate pro-austerity Europe asking for them to apply their own program; so far, with no success.

According to reports, the Turkish president watched the inauguration ceremony of his counterpart live and expressed his surprise that Pavlopoulos proceeded with the entire protocol, including an outdoors wreath-laying ceremony under pouring rain without an umbrella.

Indeed, there was a strong symbolism in the ceremony for the new Greek president. Literally and metaphorically, Pavlopoulos took over his duties in the middle of a storm last Friday evening in Athens.
After the customary oath in the parliament hall, he had to walk out of the parliament building to lay a wreath at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in the presence of the representatives of all parties, the parliament speaker, the armed forces and diplomats. He walked alone through the pouring rain in a serious if not somber look, which added to the highly emotional atmosphere. No great procession, no foreign leaders, no pomp and circumstance as an Englishman would say. And all while in Brussels and Berlin his country’s future in or out of European institutions was being discussed.

Yet, Pavlopoulos’ first statements showed that he is not going to be a passive president, a criticism often addressed to his predecessor. “During my term, I will try to contribute so that my country comes out of that swamp that we have found ourselves in today,” he told journalists immediately after his inauguration ceremony. “I will exhaust all possibilities given by the constitution, together with all democratic political forces who can and must contribute so that our people find their way again and our country regain the dignity it deserves,” he said.

And in his first newspaper interview, he called on Europe to change its attitude towards Greece. “It is not possible for Europe to ignore the huge problem of human crisis, currently hitting Greece. Europe, especially the European Commission cannot ignore the demands for a change of the bail-out agreements [that Greece had signed], demands that are totally legally supported and fair,” he said, adding Greek demands that Germans should pay war reparations are still valid and can be fought in court.

For President Pavlopoulos, a believer in Europe, this must be a particularly disappointing time. He actually said it himself. “Europe cannot be just an Economic Union; it was not founded as just an Economic Union. Europe is primarily a Europe of peoples, a Europe of human values, a Europe of human rights and a Europe that was founded in order for the world not to experience the nightmare of the world wars of any kind,” he said.

It will be very interesting to see how the new Greek president will perform his role in such stormy waters. An old-style European visionary, will he follow his government’s quest to force a new thinking in Europe?

In the meantime, Ankara is not included among his first foreign visits. He will start with Cyprus, before moving on to Berlin and Brussels.