Greece and the new pan-European value - profit

The fact that the Union’s upper echelons do not want to dig deeper for Greece in the name of accountability, name names and sever all ties with those that are personally politically responsible should make a lot of people suspicious about the Union’s motives.

It is a common belief among European citizens that laziness, shirking and tax evasion were the primary reasons behind Greece’s financial failure. Since then, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy have joined the club of this European Axis of Evil – one that leads to the destruction of the dream of European Unity with its irresponsible political and fiscal behaviours – which has made the burden borne by Greece somewhat lighter. But is Greece and the other states the only bad guys in this politico-economic thriller, or has the EU also had a part in this script – perhaps that of the baddie that isn’t unmasked until the very end?

Most of the perceptions Europeans have about Greece’s collapse are to a certain extent true. But, in the name of journalistic sensationalism  , they overlook the sizeable part of the citizenry that does obey the law and is more productive  than other Europeans. Many Greeks, however, reacted (and still do) ferociously to accusations such as the aforementioned, despite recent investigations that verify that the situation is not solely the result of political irresponsibility. It has been found, for instance, that maternity benefits were successfully claimed by men; women were granted benefits for prostate cancer; and blindness benefits were paid to people whose vision was 20/20. In certain cases, the children or spouses of people who had been long dead, kept them ‘bureaucratically’ alive so that they can receive their pension – some of these people should be 120+ years old now. While this list is by no means exhaustive  , it is indicative of the fact that this is a problem of national mentality whereby laws exist only to be violated. Certainly not by everyone. But, just as certainly, to everyone’s detriment.

Nevertheless, simply the fact that we are now able to talk about these cases proves that changes are taking place. Indeed, a recent survey has revealed that Greeks are now more willing than ever to denounce instances of bribery  (primarily by doctors, revenue & customs officers, and others). However, it would be prudent to not let optimism carry us away, despite these benign signs. Elections are scheduled for May 6, 2012, and for the first time ever, the bipartisanship that sustained the aforementioned types of mentality (the ‘socialist’ PASOK and the centre-/right New Democracy [ND]) is at an all-time low. Numerous polls indicate that the new Parliament will be comprised of between eight and ten parties, while abstention will set new records in a country that was famously known for its high levels of political participation.

Rather than respond to social demands for change and meritocracy, and thus overturn public dis- and mistrust, parties have rejuvenated their populism accordingly. PASOK, for instance, has given in to the far-right, anti-immigration discourse and is now planning new “hospitality” centres  for illegal immigrants to curb the rising levels of criminality – conveniently ignoring that it was the Greek criminal mentalities that led the country to its current position. The party’s leader and until recently Minister of Finance, Ev. Venizelos, has never replied (or even been asked by prosecutors to reply) to accusations  concerning his role in the institutional and constitutional dismantling of democracy. Mr Venizelos also acted as a defence attorney in 2004  on behalf of a former Minister of Defence summoned to Parliament for an investigation into arms procurement. Fresh investigations have now put Mr Tsohadzopoulos behind bars, and Mr Venizelos insists he that in 2004 he was not aware of the evidence that led to Mr Tsohadzopoulos' imprisonment a few days ago.

ND, on the other hand, is presenting an electoral programme that goes against its very promises to the Troika: pensions and minimum wages will be raised (how..?), investments will flow from all over the world (because the Greeks are ‘awesome’?), and other similar generalisations of the worst populist type. On top of that, the ex-prefect responsible for some of the blindness benefits described above, is again included in the party’s electoral lists! Committing the same sin twice is not a sign of a wise man, goes the ancient Greek proverb. But then again, few will claim that people in either party are truly wise…

Both PASOK and ND have ravaged the country with scandals that, one would (naively) think, have no place in twenty first century Europe. Yet there is nothing there to stop them – not even the EU's mechanisms of checks and balances, despite the fact that they already know  about this. In the last two weeks, both parties conveniently voted in laws that give them €47m for their campaign expenses (which includes €7.8m they received in March for “research and educational purposes  ”).

Other, smaller, parties of the left and far left have yet to formulate and present a programme with concrete pathways out of the crisis. Most of their campaign consists of a childish  ‘No’ to everything that is suggested. Similarly, parties of the (far) right have nothing else in mind but the re-enforcement of the security forces – conveniently omitting to say how the salaries of the new officers will be paid – to protect the Greeks from rising immigration.

The security dimension is one that is indicative of both the panic of the political elites, as well as the archaic mentalities they carry that are so contrary to the spirit that is (supposedly...) enshrined by the EU. Since the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in 2008, numerous incidents of police brutality  (even towards journalists  ) have been ignored, silenced or even acquitted when they made it into courts. As a result, society has been polarised to the extent that anti-police attitudes are now galvanised, which has already led to serious injuries  and may even lead to death unless those responsible for overseeing the operations of security agencies (the incumbent minister Mr Chrisochoidis and his predecessors of both PASOK and ND) do not begin to act responsibly and defuse public outrage by acting as it befits a liberal democratic regime to act: justice being served immediately and unreservedly. Tyranny, however, is not limited to unpunished  police brutality, or even the lack of a credible, socially fair alternative to the chimaera that the Troika’s memorandum has brought about (as the suicide  statistics show  ). It is implicit in PASOK’s and ND’s terrorology that chaos will ensue unless they get elected. The question “how is it that the very same people that led us to catastrophe are now going to lead us away from it?” has yet to be answered.

However, this kind of hypocrisy is not exclusively Greek. It has been manifested time and again by the recent leadership of the EU – whether it is by pressuring Greece to buy more of their weapons  , thus making it the third largest weapons importer  after India and China; or whether it is by making money themselves (to the tune of €45-65bn, according to an investigation  by Germany’s public broadcaster, ARD) and/or their banks  , thus verifying that ‘solidarity’ in Europe is nothing but a nice word to use in public fora and documents. What is more, even when MEPs denounce  the scandalous ways of Greek parties, the European Commission and the IMF still insist that the promises given to them by these very parties are “reassuring  ”.

It is sad to hear of suicides because of debt. It is upsetting to hear stories from friends and family who haven’t been paid for months or became redundant overnight. But it is equally unsettling to see the far-sightedness and national selflessness of personalities like Robert Schumann and Jacques Délors being undermined and endangered by the short-sightedness and incredulity of their political descendants. Not because the crisis in Greece (and Italy, and Spain, and Portugal, and Ireland) is translated into profits elsewhere; but because all the institutional mechanisms responsible for guaranteeing and enforcing good governance inside the member states have been rendered useless: solidarity has long ceased to exist  ; profit is the new pan-european value. 

It is frustrating to see the Commission remaining silent on a matter as recurrent as police brutality is in Greece. It is disheartening to see them trying to impose on the Greek electorate two of the most corrupt political parties in the entire continent, rather than use their leverage to help reform the current party system. The fact that the Union’s upper echelons do not want to dig deeper for Greece in the name of accountability, name names and sever all ties with those that are personally politically responsible should make a lot of people suspicious about the Union’s motives. In other words, how was it possible for Eurostat & the European Commission not to ‘smell’ the Greek statistics as they were being cooked? Equally unbelievable is the fact that such mishandling has not led to the same kind of embarrassment that made Jacques Santer sack the entire Commission back in 1999. Nowadays, such talk would probably be dismissed as alarmist and totally unnecessary by Merkozy & Co (perhaps for fear that it will negatively affect the[ir] banks?). Yet, their rejections of calls for elections and/or referenda, whenever these are made, certainly do not convince anyone of their democratic commitments…

Arguably, then, the tyranny and hypocrisy that undermine democracy in Greece are there because the EU tolerates such phenomena – directly or through incompetence. And, even though Greeks and their mentalities are the biggest threat to their country, lack of a democratic, accountable and serious EU is much more threatening to everyone else – inside and outside Europe.

About the author

Ioannis Tellidis is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Kyung Hee University, South Korea , and Assistant Editor of the journal Peacebuilding. Follow him on twitter @yannistellidis.