Dimitris Avramopoulos: Instinctive diplomat
If you ordered a patrician European politician from central casting, Dimitris Avramopoulos would be the man they would send. Perfect grooming, excellent language skills, a fine head of silver hair and a charming demeanour honed over an impressive career in the Greek diplomatic service – on paper, you would be hard pressed to find a better fit for a senior role in the European Union.
Yet the portfolio chosen for Avramopoulos – that of migration, home affairs and citizenship – requires more than just an authority figure with a good on-camera presence. Indeed, Avramopoulos today finds himself in one of the Commission’s most demanding jobs, with thousands of asylum-seekers dying on Europe’s doorstep since the beginning of the year and counter-terrorism measures dominating the agenda of the European Council. This has led even those who support Avramopoulos in Brussels to ask: how long will it take for the smooth diplomat to become the hard-nosed policy wonk the job requires?
The question is not out of place, given that Avramopoulos’s focus on policy detail during his first four months in the job has been put to the test by developments outside his role as commissioner. As unlikely as it might have seemed, Greece’s far-left Syriza government was rumoured to be considering the appointment of Avramopoulos, a conservative, to the ceremonial role of Greek president, on the grounds that the move would have built political bridges while allowing Syriza to replace Avramopoulos with one of its own.
Those who know Avramopoulos say he would have accepted the role of president in a heartbeat, considering it the crowning achievement of a career spent in the Greek civil service and in public office. When the job went to centre-right politician Prokopis Pavlopoulos, staff in Avramopoulos’s cabinet breathed a sigh of relief. The official line was that it was “sad for Greece but good for Europe”, but other observers agreed that Avramopoulos’s failure to secure the presidency meant one thing: his work at the Commission could now begin in earnest.
The sudden worsening of the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean may leave Avramopoulos playing policy catch-up. On 5 March the Commission announced plans to bring forward its wide-ranging review of the EU’s immigration policy settings – the delivery date has now been set for April, whereas it had originally been expected by the end of 2015. The Commission has promised a lot: a review of asylum-seeker policy and refugee resettlement, while also examining the politically fraught area of legal migration in the context of the EU’s demographic challenges and shortages of skilled labour.
One EU migration policy expert says Avramopoulos’s late start will not be a hindrance simply because the planned overhaul will be driven by the Commission’s first vice-president Frans Timmermans. “I would not expect Avramopoulos to be the architect of what emerges,” the expert says. Another Brussels insider says that the job requires a technocrat with the patience to go into policy detail – something Avramopoulos is not. “But he is an intelligent person – with good advice he can be successful,” he says.
It would not be the first bounce-back that exceeded expectations. Avramopoulos was born in Athens but spent his early years close to his mother’s home town in Arcadia, in the Peloponnese region. The family then returned to Athens. As a high school student, Avramopoulos says he suffered a life-changing failure: his first attempt to pass the exams to get into university was unsuccessful. This prompted him to reassess his life; he then sat the exams again and passed.
He worked full-time while studying for university at night. His day-job was with the Australian embassy, where one of his daily tasks was to collect the diplomatic mailbag from the airport. This is where Avramopoulos learned to speak English and he has been told that his accent still bears a slight Australian inflection. After graduating in political science and public law from the University of Athens he successfully sat the state exam to become a diplomat.
Avramopoulos’s 13-year diplomatic career was that of a man in a hurry. After years of service (his first posting had been to Liège, in Belgium) he was hand-picked to become a special adviser on foreign policy for Costas Mitsotakis, the leader of the liberal-conservative New Democracy Party, who became his mentor. Avramopoulos says that throughout his career, he has never over-analysed any decision. “Instinct, in my eyes, is that power which protects you from logic,” he says.
It was gut-instinct that led him to quit his job at the ministry, get himself elected to parliament and, in 1994, successfully stand for the office of Athens mayor. He was re-elected with a landslide majority in 1998 – his second term gave him the political clout to launch the ultimately successful campaign to bring the Olympic Games to Athens. As an urbane, multi-lingual former diplomat (he also speaks French and Italian) he became a high-profile ambassador for the city. He also earned the nickname of “little water-fountain” for his public works campaign – which did, indeed, involve the installation of water-fountains.
Avramopoulos’s post-mayoral career proved more controversial. In 2001 he left New Democracy to form his own party, the Movement of Free Citizens (KEP), which attracted professionals who were disenchanted with the centre-right’s party divisions. KEP relied heavily on Avramopoulos’s personality, yet it fielded high-profile candidates who genuinely believed in the project. By 2002, however, Avramopoulos had pulled the plug on the party – paving the way for his return to New Democracy. “It was clearly an exchange – an intentional move with which he could manage his return,” says an observer close to the action at the time. “There were good people involved who were left feeling extremely angry.”
In 2009, Avramopoulos harboured hopes of becoming New Democracy’s leader, but was ultimately forced to back Antonis Samaras. Yet as minister in successive national governments, Avramopoulos navigated Greece’s protracted economic and political crises effectively, becoming defence minister in 2011 and foreign minister in 2012 (before returning to defence). Throughout the years he has managed to remain close to Mitsotakis, even while competing within the party with his mentor’s two children, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Dora Bakoyannis.
Avramopoulos, who is married and has two adult sons, arrived in Brussels with great ambition, but also with a realisation that there was still more to achieve on the national political stage. The placement of a number of high-ranking Greek public servants in his cabinet – alongside Brussels-based Greeks with institutional experience – is being read as evidence that the commissioner still has one eye on power dynamics back home.
Unsurprisingly, cabinet members reject suggestions that Avramopoulos has surrounded himself with yes-men. They say meetings can be robust affairs involving a strong exchange of views, in which his staff make certain he is aware of all sides of the debate before making decisions. “Democracy is the political art of synthesis,” Avramopoulos tells European Voice. “It should give concrete results by putting together different ideologies.”
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