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"This is not a time for splitting up, but for convergence." An interview with Zoe Konstantopoulou

The former Speaker of the Greek Parliament discusses her time in Syriza, the importance of a Plan B for Europe, and Grexit vs Brexit. Interview.

Zoe Konstantopoulou. Photo used with permission of author.

Alex Sakalis: January 25 was the one-year anniversary of the election that brought Syriza to power in Greece. You of course were greatly involved in that campaign, before leaving Syriza to run as an independent with Popular Unity following the aftermath of the Greek referendum. What were your thoughts on the one-year anniversary?

Zoe Konstantopoulou: My thoughts on that one-year anniversary were that today’s government, today’s so-called "Syriza" and the policies they have implemented have nothing to do with the 25 January 2015 mandate and the trust with which the Greek people embraced Syriza. And they have nothing to do with Syriza as it used to be back then.

Today we are witnessing a totally transformed party under the name of Syriza, governed by neoliberal, authoritarian policies, having totally surrendered to the creditors. The ties with the young, the poor and the weaker parts of society - on which it built its support - have been disrupted.

AS: How did you first become involved with Syriza? How did you meet Alexis Tsipras?

ZK: I was a member of the independent student union at university, while Alexis Tsipras – who is two years my senior – was a member of the Synaspismos leftist student union. So that’s how we met. I was never a member of Synaspismos or Syriza. I always believed in the power of social movements and this is why I never joined any party. I became a member of Syriza after I was elected as an MP in 2012 and it was then that a major decision was undertaken to transform Syriza into a party of its members. Another promise never kept.

AS: When you were elected as the largest party in January 2015, what were you hoping to achieve in power?

ZK: When I first entered parliament as a MP in 2012 - back when Syriza was the major opposition party - my portfolio was justice, transparency and human rights. I worked on tackling high-profile corruption cases and trying to restore transparency to the way Parliament works.

When the government was formed in 2015, the Prime Minister didn’t want me to undertake the justice portfolio, for reasons that are still not clear to me. When the government was formed in 2015, the Prime Minister didn’t want me to undertake the justice portfolio, for reasons that are still not clear to me. So he proposed to me the internal affairs ministry, which I declined.

He then proposed that I become Speaker of the House, which I accepted. I believed that it was time that Parliament became a real representative body of the people - that it should open up to society and become a hospitable place for all citizens.

So my initiatives were all in the direction of opening up parliament to the people. There were several occasions in which we invited the people and especially communities, social movements, even protestors to come forward and have a say in parliamentary debates. There was a special session for International Women’s Day, where women of all social struggles and those recognised in the fight for freedom, democracy, justice and human rights were given awards by the Parliament.

AS: What did you hope a Syriza government would achieve?

ZK: It was not a question of hope, but a sense of duty - to live up to the expectations and the very specific mandate we had asked for and received from the people: to call for the abolition of the Memorandum regime, bring democracy back to parliament, make an audit of the debt and refuse to pay such an odious debt, and to take legislative initiatives on behalf of all those who had been marginalized in an effort to re-establish their connection with their rights. This was not about hope but a commitment, an obligation and a duty, and I did everything in my power to live up to this obligation.

AS: And at what point did you begin to realise that things were not going quite as planned?

ZK: I would say there had been worrying signs since February. There was this so-called ‘20 February agreement’, which was a complete surrender and which was presented as a sort of victory for the government.

To me it was clear after that moment, that this was not a victorious line of march. It was clear that we really needed to get out of that framework and this was what I said in the Syriza parliamentary group session in February: I said it directly to the Prime Minister. Ultimately, this agreement was the reason why I very rapidly took action to create the Debt Truth Committee, to re-establish and upgrade the Committee for German Reparations and to reopen two recent scandal cases, the Siemens case and the Lagarde list case.

AS: What is the current status of those committees?

ZK: The Debt Truth Committee is under attack by the current government and the current President of Parliament. They removed the committee reports from the parliament website and made a unilateral decision to remove the offices of the committee.

Then they unilaterally ceased the work of the committee. And now we’re at a stage where the current President of Parliament has locked up the personal items and archives of the members of the Committee and is refusing to reopen the offices so that we can relocate to our new offices, which are now being hosted by a private citizen.

The committee is under fierce attack, and this proves that what we are dealing with is not just a coup, but a coup carried out by the current government and a direct treason against the popular mandate.

The war reparations committee has been degraded and it has not yet capitalised on the work done during the previous term, especially the work done by a Special Committee of the Ministry of Finance, which found that there is a live claim of the Greek state against Germany amounting to a sum between 278 to 340bn euros, at the most modest calculations.

When it comes to the Siemens case and the Lagarde list case, they have not been reopened by the parliament and the competent committees. So I would argue that this is a cover up strategy all over again.

AS: What is Plan B for Europe?

ZK: This is an initiative to discuss - at a pan-European level - a new strategy for Europe, with the emphasis on reclaiming the democratic function of the European Union: a democratic function which will, above all, respect popular sovereignty and the rights of the people. It includes not just politicians but members of social movements and activist groups.

AS: So where do you see the openings for the left in Europe? The case of Syriza seems to suggest that national party politics cannot achieve any meaningful change in the current system.

ZK: I don’t believe that at all. I don’t think this was a failure of national party politics. This was a treason on the part of persons who betrayed the left. They betrayed the principles and the history of the left, just in order to keep themselves in power.

This should not be interpreted as a failure of the left, this should just teach us that no matter how many declarations you sign, no matter how many principles you agree upon, what really counts is what you do when the time comes, and unfortunately when the time came, for a lot of people who were in power and in a place to make history, not just for the left in Europe, but for all people in Europe, they preferred to serve their personal and very narrow interests, and they forgot all about the public and social interests.

On the other hand, one must say that national policy is not enough. There must be alliances, there must be communication and above all I am convinced that there must be grassroots procedures and mobilisation, because no project for democracy can be successful if it is not incarnated by the people.No project for democracy can be successful if it is not incarnated by the people.

AS: Is Plan B for Europe affiliated with DiEM25?

ZK: Well the original call for a Plan B for Europe was co-signed by Jean-Luc Melenchon, Oscar La Fontaine, Stefano Fassina, Yanis Varoufakis and myself. I think DiEM is a positive initiative, one of many positive initiatives, which should look for common ground and common fields of action.

I do not think that this is a time for splitting up, but for convergence, and this is also a time for parallel work, so my approach is that I very much welcome every initiative in that direction, and which can embrace more people in the same cause.

AS: In 2015, we were faced with a potential Grexit. In 2016, we now face a potential Brexit. Many British left-wingers, who are appalled at the EU’s treatment of Greece, have started arguing for a Brexit, saying that voting to stay in the EU would be supporting an undemocratic, neoliberal project. Yanis Varoufakis however has argued that Britain has to stay in the EU and help reform it, saying that leaving would just leave the UK susceptible to a neoliberal EU. What position do you take?

ZK: No-one in my place could give advice on this. I do believe however, that the reaction you’re describing - regarding what happened to the Greeks with the direct participation of European institutions and representatives – is a very healthy one.

Myself, having been one of those who always supported fighting within the EU in order to claim what is actually there in writing as an acquis, I cannot help but underline that what is now happening in Europe, with the aid and direct participation of the representatives of the European institutions, is a totally illegal, undemocratic performance which is bound to tear Europe apart.

On the question on whether to stay or leave in a Europe which is tearing itself apart, I would answer: claim Europe for the people and for societies, and if this proves a difficult endeavour then approach the heart of the matter very frankly and very decisively. I have repeatedly said that there should be liability and accountability mechanisms and procedures for those who are violating everything that’s there when it comes to democratic procedures and principles.

I do not believe that subordinating ourselves to this kind of discipline, which only represents a new kind of totalitarianism, can guarantee any future for Europe and the people of Europe.

About the authors

Zoe Konstantopoulou is a Greek lawyer who served as a Syriza MP between 2012 and 2015 and as Speaker of the Parliament between February and October 2015. Following the Greek Referendum, she left Syriza to form the Popular Unity party with other rebel MPs, but failed to get re-elected. She was one of the original signatories of A Plan B for Europe.

Alex Sakalis is associate editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @alexsakalis.

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