The smart, the stupid and the gamblers

He had something new to say regarding Europe and China: “Europe, in its treatment of the economic and financial crisis, has pushed several states to forced privatisations without a European option and has decided, methodically, to reduce its sovereignty by delivering a number of essential infrastructures in Southern Europe to the Chinese”, Macron said. “We will not blame the Chinese for being smart, we can blame ourselves for being stupid.”

Did the European governments act stupidly during the crisis?

Investigate Europe has been researching exactly this subject for the last few months. And Macron’s evaluation was confirmed by our findings. Chinese investments in critical European infrastructure and its endorsement by other governments of the Eurozone, although now seen as a a red flag in the Élysée, or in the Berlaymont is, until now, an untold story.

That’s why we also focused our research in the days of the Troika in Greece and Portugal. These were, according to Macron, the two countries that were “pushed” by the EU into “forced privatisations” that, ultimately, led to the sale of the Greek port of Piraeus and the Portuguese energy grid (just two of the many examples told in our stories) to Chinese state-owned companies. These were privatisations – based on the argument that private companies are better managers than state-owned ones – that brought exactly the opposite result. These former state-owned utilities, now privatised, are in fact managed by state-owned companies but from a different continent.

Each one of these sales has a story. They were both agreed by Athens and Lisbon, in the famous memorandums of understanding that were the first condition for the billion euro loans managed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

To test Macron’s argument about who was “smart”, or “stupid”, we must look into the details of the stories. We interviewed the former Greek minister Thodoris Dritsas, (SYRIZA, former minister for Shipping, currently MP) who has always been close to Alexis Tsipras. He says he never quite understood the reasoning behind the privatisation of the sixth biggest port in Europe. “There was immense pressure to privatise everything, including critical infrastructure; especially the ports. The privatisation of the ports was in the hard core of the 2015 agreement with the Troika. It was a condition sine qua non. And the odd fact is that although we knew that it was the Chinese who would benefit from this, those who insisted most were the Germans. I have no explanation for this.”

Christos Lambridis, former general-secretary of the Greek Shipping Ministry adds the point that “the pressure by the Troika of lenders on Greece to accelerate the privatisations gave the Chinese extra leverage during the negotiation because they knew well that Greece was forced to finish as soon as possible with the privatisation in order to get the next tranche”:

In the story we’re publishing this week about the backstage acts of the Portuguese energy grid sale (to the Chinese State Grid giant), we can see something else: the Troika pushed for the privatisation, the local governments (both centre left, and right) agreed to it, but the real pressure came from investment bankers.

To be sure that the government in Lisbon wouldn’t hesitate, or stop, the bankers talked to several ministers, menacing them with an unlikely threat: China would suspend all investments in the country and, also, cut diplomatic relations. That was a bold move. But we can see in this story a very clear sign of something else: high-level political influence in state businesses.

In the many interviews in which we spoke critical analysts of China we heard, in as many different ways, the same argument: investments from China challenge the market rules that Europe stands for. Phillipe Le Corre, the author of one of the most interesting books about this subject (China’s Offensive in Europe, Brookings Institution Press, 2016) explained this with a simple question: “Our main question should be: do we really want to have in Europe a stakeholder of our economy that is a state, or the Chinese communist party?”

What the story of forced privatisations in the crisis countries seems to show is also troubling. Is there really such a clear difference between the economic and political strategies in Europe? Or can we witness the same logic in Europe that China is criticised for? Are European governments free to decide without interference from unelected powers (be it the ECB, the IMF or an investment bank that represents Chinese companies)? Is there an effective separation, in Europe between public and private interests? Or are the pressure phone calls told in our story an evidence of a different, but common, kind of political influence?

Read the full story behind the sale of formerly state-owned Portuguese companies and the role the banks played in facilitating this in Paul Pena’s full investigation: Energy privatisation and how bankers threatened the Portuguese Government.