20 March 2020

Coronavirus Invasion Nea Ionia Lockdown Day #2

Today has been a mentally gruelling and frustrating experience. The Centre requires field agents, while not on a mission, to participate in the training of new or prospective recruits at the base. My partner and myself were assigned a young prospective agent and made him go through some of the hoops of our trade. Exercises included foreign languages, pattern recognition, friend or foe identification and of course physical training. Part of the physical training was done at the base while some of it was done outside, as a field exercise.

The agent proved to be not very receptive to the training. I fear what will come if he is to be used in a mission. Youth is of course impatient and this can be a very serious issue in the field. The future agent showed however excellent physical stamina and a good capacity at identifying the enemy and reporting it. Foreign languages are in particular a useful skill for any secret agent. While this recruit is showing great potential with these, his distinct lack of dedication and effort in this matter could be a hindrance. Natural ability can't always replace hard work, I'm told.

Anyway, the filed exercise proved to be a relief. The agent was enthusiastic and energetic. My only concern is that his overly competitive nature might lead him to take more risks than absolutely necessary. This line of work also requires humility...

18 March 2020

Coronavirus Invasion Nea Ionia Lockdown Day #1

The city streets are empty and I drive the car in near silence, passing the rare open shops who braved the curfew and the few masked silhouettes hiding from the invisible attacker. My mission: buy additional ammunition from an undercover friendly supplier and deliver these plus two mysterious packages in a blind drop to my agent. Masked and gloved, I sneak pass along militians who've arrested some unfortunate Roma motorist, under suspicion of helping the invaders. The "fifth column" is already here!

I reach the first rendez-vous point, an underground shop in an undescript building. The grid is down and I park my car at a safe distance to avoid risks of identification. The owner, a middle aged lady, is now lifting the grid, giving surreptitious looks on both sides. A stranger approaches and exchanges a few words. I pretend I'm not there, since I don't really belong. The stranger hovers around and I don't like this. Her lack of mask or gloves makes her stand out. I decide to come in anyway. I give the password: "Do you have chick peas?" - "Yes of course", the owner answers. She points at a lower shelve, hidden from view on the left side. I take two clips of ammo and head for the counter where the owner stands, now masked as well. She looks at me with an understanding gaze: "It will be 340, cash of course, small notes". Then she smiles: "I recognize you, you're agent X". Damn! I've been made! How long am I going to go like this if I'm burned on the first day, even masked? I blurt some excuses and leave the shop for the dead drop, my clips safely in one of the bags.

The system is simple: I ring the bell, give the code phrase. My agent answers. She is a kind old lady and can't hear very well. Or maybe it's the mask and the interphone... I don't know. I identify myself and she eventually opens. I enter the cold hall and get up the stairs to the lift. Everything is empty, as it should. Too easy? I open the lift door, drop my bags on the floor and push the 5 button before jumping out. The lift door closes by itself and I see the numbers changing on the hall screen: 1... 4... 5 and stop! I hear the door lift upstairs opening and closing. Someone (my agent, I hope) has dropped something in the lift and pushed the 0 button. Thirty seconds later, I open the door to find a black wallet, slightly dusty. I grab it and leave as fast as i can without drawing attention. I'm back to base in no time...

25 January 2018

Greece, not for the fainthearted

I have now been living in Greece for more than 5 years and I can say it's been quite an experience. In many ways, Greece is idealised in Western Europe as much as it is demonised, especially during the last 9 years. The terrible economic crisis that has struck Europe has been particularly nasty for Greece, a country which was ill prepared, to say the least, to face the brunt of it. This has been all over European newspapers, of course, so I'm not going to get back on this, even though the quality of the coverage has been uneven in the best of cases.

But I wanted to delve a little bit more on the grittier aspects of the experience of a Western European living in this country. I'll pass on the odd earthquake or storm, these are only normal here and you get used to it, eventually. I meant more the social, mental and cultural aspects of life here. Superficially Greece is a European country (they coined the word, after all) but there is just as much of the Orient or the Middle-East in this place. Chaos, whether it's organised or not, is the norm. And this is something you can't really get used to. You either accept it, with good or bad grace, or you have to leave. Any other option will make you very unhappy. I'm still torn at the moment. There are days when I'm longing for the normalcy of the Dutch organisation. Others, I can feel the rush of adrenaline that Greek life provides, for better or worse.

Greece traffic, despite its reduced crisis time density, is an absolute aggression. Not only is there no respect for any rule on the roads, but there is also no attempt by the police at, well... policing. Check ups are rare and speed controls even more seldom. No one cares if you park in the middle of a crossroad, without any warning, just to buy a pack of cigarettes at the nearest yellow kiosk. Greek politics and society are only justly reflected by Greek traffic. It's not that Greeks are particularly more corrupt than any other nationality. They are after all victims as well as perpetrators. But it's that the whole chaos of the system, the regulated anarchy of it, is a strong incentive to cheat the rules. Police is, after all, as absent of the economic and social life as it is from the roads. What's worse is that the legal and administrative system has seen an explosion of such rules, not to improve anyone's life but to add artificial barriers to it so that people will want to pay to get rid of them...

19 March 2015

Homepages and startpages

Dear readers,

Long time no see, eh? (now I sound like a Canadian, to some of you...). I have very poor excuses for this long absence. But one of the true reasons is that I have started a weekly column on the Greek Liberal Monitor. Of course, that's a lot of energy spent that I can't spend on this blog. I know, that column is not that old, and I've been absent from here for a much longer time. But that's real (married) life for you, dear readers... Nevertheless, I hope you'll forgive me and indulge the following little rant.

I am a bit old school, IT wise, and I am told that's OK. But I have always appreciated a good start page for my browser homepage. I know that many true IT people think it's completely has been and that the default Chrome page (with its most used pages mosaic) is good enough. But bear with me a little: there are quite many cases when you want to monitor stuff in a simple way, even if that stuff is not used that often. These links would soon disappear from your history and thus from your standard Chrome starting page. Bookmarks are way too many in my case to play that role, as the desired links would be lost in the hundreds of them. What I need is a one click access to stuff I chose, regardless of how often I use it. For instance, my Youtube channel: I use it rarely, but I want to have access to it immediately. And no, just typing Youtube in my URL field is not good enough. First because it might bring the latest Youtube channel I watched instead of mine and second because it's longer than one click and I'm a lazy bummer.

So you see, I need a personalized homepage. Moreover, I want one which has some kind of visualisation of what's going on. I want to be able to see my Google calendar, if I have important appointment or things to do. I want to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds. And I want to see if I have new Gmail messages, and so on. These things are called Widgets in geek lingo. They are ugly and sometimes not super safe, from an IT point of view. But if you know more or less what you are doing, they are useful.

In the old times of the Internet, I had discovered iGoogle. That was exactly what I was looking for, especially since it integrated flawlessly with all the much famed "Google ecosystem". IGoogle was great, it had RSS feeds, integrated with Google News and Google Reader, Gmail, Youtube and so on. It was also quite accepting of third party feeds, pages and widgets and had all kind of nifty stuff from the weather to silly online games. Alas, good things never last. That's one of the rules of the universe: entropy and corporate greed usually put an end to all the best stuff. In this case, it was the much reviled killing of both iGoogle and Google Reader which ended my dream of a clean and useful homepage. I had to find a replacement for both. Reader was the easy one. After a couple of trials, I settled for Feedly and never looked back. At the time, people like Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent were complaining, rightfully, that it was too much of a closed system, with no OPML export or other backup feature. It had its issues as well. But I realized that the developers behind it were working fast to bring in much demanded features like this and I decided to stick to it. I was rewarded in my patience, as Feedly quickly became the best application out there for simple news feed access and sorting.

However, replacing iGoogle proved to be much more difficult. Obviously, other existing web applications had their own quirks and integrating Google ecosystem software in them proved uneven, at best. I tried many, before settling for Netvibes (a French application, produced initially for corporate users by Dassault Systèmes). Netvibes had it all for free, from RSS feeds to Google integration and various widgets for pretty much everything. To this date, it is probably the best replacement for iGoogle one can find... or nearly so. Because, unfortunately, somebody there had the genius idea, some weeks ago, to clean up the app/widget ecosystem of Netvibes. In that clean up, the good people at Dassault got rid of probably the most important app for me: the excellent Google Calendar visualisation widget. They replaced it by a home made widget. I thought: "ok, this is not a disaster, after all, who cares who makes the widget if it works"? Unfortunately, whichever poor random trainee was put in charge of this was clearly not up to the task. While the widget is visually well integrated with the rest of Netvibes (a flaw of of the previous one indeed), the programming behind is simply atrocious. For some silly rendering reason, the widget shows you all your appointments and calendar items for all the years for any given day. This obviously makes the widget nearly unusable. Since I am no corporate user and thus don't have access to personalized support, I decided that it was time to go graze greener pastures...

I had a look at several pretty good systems. Most of them I can heartily recommend. However, not all of them were suited to my needs. First was Symbaloo, which is a visually awesome bookmark system. As a homepage, it is great and it has some nice widgets that they call features, for some reason. But, for me, that didn't actually work too well. The system is beautiful but way too closed and without much user customization. The worst problem is that there are no configurable widgets. This was a big non-starter for me: I don't need just a bookmark system, I need a visualisation page. Also Symbaloo was not that great in regards with RSS feeds.

I also tried Startme and uStart. Both of them are excellent, Netvibes-like application. However, they didn't pass the test of being able to cater for all my needs. While Startme was good at integrating Google and Flickr stuff, its widgets are a bit clunky and can't be resized nor do they link to the main application easily. Conversely, uStart was natively playing nice with Facebook but the Google stuff was uglier or difficult to use. They had other features which were better as well, so I don't want to talk these down. They were just not ideally fitting my specific needs. Maybe they'll fit yours. After much trials and errors, I eventually settled for Protopage. At least for the moment. I learned that it was actually the very first of such web applications, before even iGoogle. It is in any case the only one which survived. It is not as easy to start with and set up as the others, by quite a margin. However, with a bit of tweaking, the end result is pretty great. Google integration is very good, adding RSS feeds is a breeze. Facebook and Flickr were a lot more complex to put in, but the result was worth the effort. The overall customization was nice as well: you can add a picture for the background, change colours and fonts or the number of columns of the main page. And you can pretty much resize the blocks to the pixel. So here it is, you can have a look at the result:

Tell me what you think!

19 June 2014

Why did Golden Dawn do so well in the 2014 elections

Many people wondered why Golden Dawn did so well in the Greek EU elections, despite being presented as a criminal and violent organisation. As a French living in Greece and as an ex-candidate for D66 in the Netherlands, now trying to help Greek social liberal Kinonia Axion, I think it is pretty clear why Golden Dawn is having good results, despite the heavy charges weighing on its leaders.

First, they are the only current Greek party with a very intensive grass root organisation and grass root activities. One might not like what they do (and obviously murder and racket of immigrants is the worst kind), but most people only see the “nicer” face of the organisation. It is the face which distributes food to the poor, helps older members of the community, defends households against the rising violence. Also, it should be noted that most people don't trust the media (owned by the Greek families which are manipulating the country behind closed doors). These media present in a very spectacular way Golden Dawn as a terror group. People don't trust that, just like they don't trust the police or the government. Everyone knows here there is little to expect from the corrupt justice system and law enforcement apparatus.

Another obvious reason is that, unlike Portugal, Greece is totally unused to mass immigration. And one has to recognize that in the last 10 years, immigration has literally exploded in Greece. The Western media always speak about Lampedusa (in Italy) or Melilla (Spain). But the fact of the matter is that the majority of immigrants to the EU enter via Greece. For such a small population and poor country, it is simply unbearable. Nothing is ready to tackle the flow of migrants, often arriving in absolute misery but meeting even worst conditions when detained here, following the idiotic Dublin 2 rules that the EU imposed on Greece. No wonder they turn to criminality or prostitution, facing as a consequence the hostility of the locals. Golden Dawn thrives on this kind of feelings. Many Greeks see no problem in an organisation which gets rid of some of the "dark skinned guys who roam our streets and are ready to kill an old lady for a 20 euro note".

Last but not least of the reasons why Golden Dawn is doing so well is, unfortunately, the nationalistic and conservative traditions of the Greek system. Greece is a very religious, traditional and in many regions quite conservative country. Beyond the rather “leftist” Athens, most provinces have deep nationalistic roots. It is not so far ago that the government was a military junta. While this junta was toppled by the rich families dominating the Greek politics, allied with the leftist youth of 70′s Athens, it had quite a lot of popular support. God, fatherland, family values and the “Great Greece” idea still sell quite well in the Greek political landscape… no wonder that the most disgruntled vote Golden Dawn.

27 October 2013

Witnessing Greek Reality (Lecture given in Athens)

Speech given in Athens, on 25th October 2013, on the point of view of a social liberal foreigner on Greece's current situation. 
 Good afternoon, goede middag, καλι σπέρα σας.

It is an honor for me that Κοινονια Αξιον (Society of Values) and D66 asked me to give you a summary overview of the Greek situation today.

First, I would like to explain from which point of view I will share these ideas with you. As some of you might know, I am French, although I have lived 11 years in the Netherlands, where I was politically active with the social liberal party D66. I guess I could be described as a centrist, secularist, pro-European reformist. My wife is Greek and we moved to Greece together in May 2012. My academic background is in political science and international relations. Today I work for a maritime shipping company. These experiences did shape my political thinking and it is from this perspective that I will explain how I see Greece and its political, social and economic situation. It is from a social liberal point of view that I will analyze it. It is with the eye of the outsider that I will describe it. In other words, while I will try to be as objective as possible, you must understand that my subjective feelings, my background, my own mentality and culture are also shaping these thoughts that I would now like to share with you.

The situation in Greece has been described in the press of all your countries, I am sure, in less than favorable terms. I will not try and make the picture rosier than it is, but I would like to also show you another face of Greece, beyond the spectacular front pages and the prejudiced clichés of the Northern Europe media. While the current Greek crisis seems to be primarily driven by economic news and uncertainties, I would like to make the point that the current situation is originally a political, social and even cultural one. What I actually mean is that if this country finds itself now in dire straits, the causes are deeper and more ancient than what the press often writes. What is the current Greek predicament? There is a long list of symptoms, most of which you might have heard of already.

First, the obvious: the country ran a structural budget deficit for too many years, which lead to the building up of an unsustainable debt. This deficit was due to a double imbalance: on the revenue side, Greece has a terrible tax collection record, but on the cost side, it also has a lot of unjustifiable expenses (for instance, the military expenses used to be the second highest in NATO countries, in percentage of GDP). This insolvency issue was ignored or at least underestimated by external (European) auditors as well as Greek politicians. The bank sector, like in many other countries, was exposed to this massive Greek’s sovereign debt but it was also exposed to private and corporate debt, through the abuse of credit based on unsound economic assumptions. The result is that current real interest rates in Greece are at an usury level, preventing any local investment by smothering credit, even for ventures which could actually be successful.

Still on the economic symptoms, there is a simultaneous problem which has not been described as extensively by the media: Greece has a particularly poor trade balance. The country exports much less than it imports (in value). The current trade deficit is 1.83 billion EUR. This makes any significant recovery of the Greek economy mostly dependent on the revenues of tourism, a factor which is not entirely under the control of Greeks themselves. All these economic factors (public and private debt, trade balance and the corrective austerity measures) have had a terrible personal consequence for many citizens: unemployment is the highest in Europe with figures around 27.5% of the active population, but with rates at least twice higher for the youth. We can unfortunately speak of an entire generation sacrificed, bearing the brunt of the crisis and of the measures taken to remedy it. The result is a bleeding of the population through emigration, mostly towards Northern Europe and, ironically, Greece’s creditor countries.

Let’s have a word about the regulatory environment (still from a social liberal perspective). The Greek state and administration have created a very bureaucratic regulatory environment. When I arrived here, for instance, I searched for information on how to create a business. I was quickly convinced not to do so. There are multiple licenses and authorizations in triplicate for the smallest of enterprises. There are also capital requirements and rules that are simply impossible to reach for a normal person. All this, obviously, stifles job and value creation, but it also encourages corruption and abuses of power. A typical social liberal answer to this would be to thoroughly liberalize most economic activity, literally freeing the energies. At the same time, this would help increase tax collection, ensuring that the welfare state is funded. But it does not happen in Greece at all, unfortunately. Not only does this prevent Greek citizens from creating businesses and jobs, it also prevents foreign capital to invest in Greece. Foreign investment is nearly always a net benefit for the countries involved. Greece bureaucracy effectively prevents the regular flow of foreign investment.

Bureaucracy is also made evident by the size and structure of the public sector. The efforts of the current government have reduced the relative size of the public sector in the active population (from 27% to about 20), as well as its costs. But it is fair to say that this policy has had huge negative impacts on the population. Also, due to the manner it was carried out, this downsizing and cost cutting effort has been very inefficient. Initially, the public sector was bloated for structural reasons (everything had to be controlled by the state in the dominant left wing ideology). But very quickly political parties began giving away public positions to their clientele without any regard to people’s skills or to the public needs. In some administrations, it is hundreds of civil servants who were hired in complete opacity, without filling any need. When the decision to cut costs in the administration was made, this issue was not tackled at all. Instead, the government did cut the pay of all civil servants by various percentages (more or less 40%). Since more than a quarter of the active population was employed by the public sector, the cuts had a devastating effect on the purchasing power and the standards of living of millions. Civil servants had mortgages and credits based on their previous salary and had to face the new reality alone. At the same time, the useless clients of the parties were not made redundant. So we are now in a situation where there is a lack of qualified personnel for some areas in the public administration, reducing the efficiency of the state action, while unproductive employees are still bloating the public sector. And the Greek state is still short of 2 billion euro this year… Even Unions are part of the problem: instead of defending the common good of those they represent, they consume everybody’s time and resources in sterile blockades.

Another massive problem in this country and one which has been described extensively in the press is the corruption levels. Greece has one of the worst corruption index in Europe (ranked 94 out of 180 in the world in 2012 with a Transparency International index of 36), just after Russia, the Belarus, Ukraine and Albania. I think it is fair to say that it is impossible to live in Greece more than a couple of months without being confronted to it, even in relatively “soft” ways. The fact is that corruption, under all its forms is everywhere. It is not limited to the political “elite”. Everyone participates, at a moment or another and it is very difficult to avoid. From the most modest citizens to the rich mansions of the Northern suburbs of Athens, everyone is flouting the law a way or another. This is done in 3 ways: tax evasion and VAT fraud, black labor and graft or bribery (principally between politicians or civil servants and ordinary citizens or businesses). And everyone has always a very good personal reason or justification to do so. I don’t mean that all Greeks are dishonest. Like most other Europeans they are hardworking, they love their family, and they want to be respected for their qualities. But it is the whole system, the overall structure, which literally bends them into participating in the overall corruption, either actively or passively.

Last but not least of the symptoms, there is a political crisis in Greece. Everyone in Europe has heard about Χρυσή Αυγή (Golden Dawn) and about their activities both political and on the “grass root” level. This extreme right movement has become very popular in some areas, managing to collect votes of the most disheartened citizens, the ones who feel abandoned by the system. Typically for such a party, Golden Dawn blames foreigners for all Greek problems, especially immigrants from the Middle-East, Asia and Africa, which are seen as invasion. But the Golden Dawn issue is of course only a symptom in itself of a wider political crisis: Greek citizens have absolutely no trust any more in their politicians.

The two traditional and currently ruling parties (PASOK and Nea Demokratia) are not seen as representing citizens as in any democracy. They are seen as parasites in a clientele system where political parties are in fact serving the interests of rich clans or families, older themselves than the Greek Republic. Votes are bought in exchange for subsidies or investment projects which have nothing to do with the actual needs of the country. Greeks very rightfully think that they have no recourse, no defenders in the traditional political arena. For this reason, voters transfer their ballots towards extreme parties: Golden Dawn of course, but also and more and more the left wing Syriza. Please remember that Greece is not a proportional representation system. For this reason, many votes get dispersed on smaller parties that don’t reach the percentage for a presence in parliament, despite their individual merits. At this rate, if elections are hold soon, we could have a Parliament where the two main parties could be a neo-Nazi one and a coalition of left wing radicals without even a common agenda.

A word about the role of the media here. Greek media are not really helping to have a proper political debate. Rather than informing citizens on facts, they prefer “entertainment news” and sensational headlines. Hardly a Greek specificity, I will grant you this, but in this case a very damaging issue. Topics such as immigration, suicides or criminality are used as emotional red flags in the media show, particularly on TV, without reflection on facts and reality.

And yet, despite all this gloom, Greece has a great number of strengths and positive aspects. So before I explain why I believe that all negative points I just described are only symptoms of a deeper problem, I will tell you why Greece has all the cards in hand, to be a peaceful, prosperous and socially advanced country.
Greece has several economic sectors which could generate prosperity, jobs and tax revenues. Everyone knows about the tourism industry and most can quote the maritime sector (shipping). But Greece is also an agriculture with a fantastic export potential and products with high added value. It has a mining industry which could generate more jobs and growth. It has a geographic and natural situation which is still unexploited. The combination of abundant sun, wind and sea makes Greece a perfect country to develop green energy. I dare say that with the proper investments, Greece could export electricity instead of depending on imports for its energy. Greece also has modern ports which are in an excellent position at the South-East entrance of Europe, giving potential access to both Central and Eastern Europe as well as all the Black Sea area. Considering that two third of the maritime traffic to Europe comes from Asia via the Suez canal, it is not difficult to see that, with the proper investments, Piraeus should be the location to discharge goods destined to Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and so on.

Greece also has one of the most hard working population in Europe. With effective average weekly hours in the highest within the EU, combined with excellent education of the youth, Greek workforce could be one of the most productive. There is a dynamism in this country’s population, a resilience that strikes me as a great strength and one of the best hopes for the future. This resilience and this dynamism is today mostly spent in internal struggles, social unrest and more prosaically in the day to day fight for survival. This strength is reinforced, in my humble opinion, by one of the pillars of Greek society: families. For anyone coming like me from Western Europe, one of the most striking aspects of Greek society is that it is family based. The social contract might not be very strong with the State, but it is iron within the families. I strongly believe that one of the reasons the country hasn’t imploded yet is the resilience of family bonds.

I would also like to add another strength that is maybe less economically relevant, but which, I think, is politically fundamental. I mean of course the Greek culture. Greece is a country reborn from the Ottoman domination, of course, but it is also a country with a very ancient tradition of political debate, of philosophical and scientific discussion and innovation. It is a country where people enjoy and share classic culture and value exchange. It is a country where people are open to what is done outside in the world. Greece invented the concept of Europe, maybe not as we understand it nowadays, but in opposition to the Asian Empires: as a mentality of individual freedom, of citizenship. It is in Greece that this idea was born, which we are now taking for granted, that individuals have political rights and are actors of the political sphere, not merely subjects.

This naturally leads me to the last part of this discussion on the Greek situation. My idea is that this political and philosophical culture is in jeopardy. I believe that it is its progressive disappearance that created the current problems. It is of course an ancient process, one which probably began right since the independence. It might also have its roots in the centuries of colonization by the Ottoman Empire. It is not the framework of this presentation to identify precisely when and why it happened. But the fact is that a fundamental piece of the democratic social and political contract has been eroded for many decades: what we call in political science the rule of law. In French, we say “l’état de droit”. It does not mean that Greece has no laws. It might very well in fact have too many, at least from a social-liberal perspective like ours.

The “rule of law” means that the law is the same for all citizens or that each citizen has equal recourse within the framework of the law, in case of conflict. For instance it is what, in a democracy, prevents someone to arbitrarily detain you. It is also the rule of law which makes you think that if you are wronged in any way, you can confidently make use of the justice system to get your right recognized. It is for me glaringly obvious that this is exactly what has been destroyed in Greece.

Greek citizens don’t believe that if something is wrong, it will be solved via the courts. Greek citizens, in most cases, don’t even trust the police to actually protect them or simply uphold the law. Greek citizens believe that there are laws and regulations for the ordinary people and that these rules do not apply for the rich and the powerful. Greeks citizens don’t just believe this, they know it because they are confronted with it every day. Most Greeks are so used to this situation, that they sometimes don’t think that it is abnormal. They are participating, willingly or unwillingly into their own oppression. Let me take a very basic and simple example.
I’ll take the car traffic… Any other European who has driven a vehicle on Greek roads for a couple of hours will know what I mean. While Greeks are absolutely charming people individually, they can be lethal behind a steering wheel. There is simply no respect of the code whatsoever, be it on the highways or in the city streets. People drive motorbikes without helmets, stack their two kids on the same motorcycle on the highway, drive over the speed limit on the emergency lane, ignore traffic signalization and generally bully each other on the road. Unsurprisingly, traffic accidents are extremely common and the cost in lives as well as in healthcare and judicial consequences is very high.

You are probably starting to see where I am going with this example. The problem is that there is no one to make sure that the law is respected. The police does not intervene on the road. Actually, many drivers never passed their driving exam. Most of them just bought it from a corrupt license examiner. But even more than the absence of punishment for illegal behavior, there is no deep feeling of right or wrong any more. This is the very basis of the social contract. In a democracy, you should not just obey the law because you are afraid of the police: you do it because you know that it is better for everyone and thus for you too. In other words, it is the feeling of common good which is lacking as well. No one considers any more that a restriction of his/her individual whims can be good for everyone.

If you look beyond the traffic example, and if you generalize this mentality to all other aspects of society, you will realize what’s going on in Greece. There is a fundamental contradiction in the Greek mentality today. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, there is an incredible family solidarity and private social contract. And at the same time, beyond this family cell, as actual citizens, Greeks behave in an extraordinary individualistic way. The economic problems, the debt, the corruption, the fight about the austerity measures and the rise of extreme ideologies all point towards this debilitation of the social contract: the absence of rule of law.
The attitude towards the police is symptomatic of this. Greek police is considered as an instrument of tyranny, not as a guaranty of the normal functioning of society (this dates back to the Junta time, at the end of the 60’s). So police officers and agents know that if they try to apply the law, they will be abused or ignored. At the same time, in many cases, they are themselves the ones breaking the law, abusing their powers, especially on the weakest in societies. Unsurprisingly, a big proportion of the police corps is tempted by the ideology of Golden Dawn or even actively colludes with the party.

To conclude this presentation of the Greek situation, I would like to say that there is a lot of hope despite the current predicament. There are (social-liberal) solutions to the Greek crisis. But the first issue to tackle, ladies and gentlemen, is the redefinition of the social contract. Not just in the political field (although the good example should be given by those in power), but also in the social field this country needs new “game rules”. We need to associate the liberal approach, the protection of all citizens rights and freedom by the rule of law, with the preservation of the social safety net, with everything this implies: funding it with appropriate and fair taxation, administrating it in the lightest and most efficient way possible.

Thank you, bedankt, ευραριστώ!

A History of D66 (lecture given in Athens)

Text of a speech given in Athens, on 26th October 2013, for the Social Liberal meeting organised by Koinonia Action to prepare the 2014 European Elections.
Good morning,

As a former member of D66 Rotterdam, I was asked by Hugo van Haastert to give you a short overview of the History of our party. I hope it will help give you all an idea of how it appeared in Dutch politics. This History was not an easy one and it might be helpful for our Greek friends to learn from their Dutch counterparts some of the difficulties they will no doubt face as well.

D66 is the heir of a more ancient Dutch liberal and progressive political tradition, following pre-WWII parties such as the VDB (Free-thinking Democratic League). As the name indicates, the party was created in 1966. However, it participated in its first elections in 1967, where it won 7 seats in the lower house of Parliament (150 total seats), quite a record for a new party in the Dutch political landscape. The party was created based on a call by 36 personalities of the media and politics, led by the late Hans van Mierlo, published the 10th October 1966.

These personalities were concerned about the lack of direct involvement of citizens in the political decision process, they wanted more individual freedom for all as well as a modernization of the institutions of the Netherlands (based on the 1848 fundamental law). Last but not least, D66 founders wanted to offer an ideological alternative in the existing Dutch landscape. This Dutch landscape was at the time deeply rooted in confessional organizations (religious pillarization) and in a strong opposition between conservatism and socialism. D66 proposal was one linking a liberal economy and more secular society supported by a sustainable and fairer welfare system. On the international level, D66 favored more European integration and cooperation as well as a reinforced participation in NATO, but at the time also wanted to open the door to cultural and economic exchanges with the Eastern countries under Soviet control. From the start, the party defined itself as social liberal, progressive and reformist.

From the start too, the party was quite popular with a certain intellectual elite, academics and generally people with a higher education level. After its initial success in the 1967 elections, D66 placed itself in opposition to the (conservative) governing coalition of the time. In 1971, it won 4 more seats in Parliament, and created an alliance with moderate left wing parties (Labour and Christian Left), called the Progressive Accord, with a common program. This led D66 to lose 5 seats in the 1972 elections. Nevertheless, the Progressive Accord won the elections but had to enter a coalition with more religious left wing parties. Hans van Mierlo subsequently left the party direction, replaced by Jan Terlouw.

Until 1974, the party saw a succession of electoral failures, nearly ending in the dissolution of D66. To avoid this, Jan Terlouw tried to call for more popular support and reoriented the party position towards more liberalism and less insistence on institutional reforms in the country. This paid off and the 1977 elections were a success with 2 more seats in Parliament. This success was doubled in 1981 with D66 reaching a representation of 17 MP’s. It entered a governing coalition with the CDA (conservative Christian Democrats) and the PvdA (Labour). Due to ideological and personal differences between the two main parties in the coalition, the government could not last more than 9 months. D66 continued to support the CDA, despite their clear ideological differences, in a restricted coalition. This did cost the party 11 seats in the 1982 elections. Jan Terlouw left the party leadership, replaced by Maarten Engwirda, and D66 entered opposition.

In 1986, Hans van Mierlo came back to the direction of the party. Unlike Jan Terlouw, who represented the more progressive liberal wing of the party, Hans van Mierlo was representing a more pragmatist one also called radical democratic. Three seats in the Parliament were won in 1986, and later three more in 1989. Although the party leadership was willing to participate in a coalition with the conservative liberal VVD and the Labour, the third partner involved, the conservative CDA disagreed and D66 remained an opposition party, although in a rather constructive way. This attitude was popular with the voters.

In 1994, they doubled their ballots for D66, with its best representation in parliament ever: 24 seats. The party could eventually enter its much desired coalition with the VVD and PvdA (social democrats). This lead to one of the longest coalitions in recent Dutch History, the two “Purple Cabinets” (Paars) of Prime Minister Wim Kok. D66 could eventually try to implement most of its program: the democratization of politics, the liberalization of the economy and several progressive social initiatives. Amongst these were the legalization of euthanasia, same sex marriage, the regulation of prostitution, the introduction of more direct democracy via referendums and the direct election of mayors. While the economic and social policies were supported by the other coalition members and succeeded, the institutional reform proposals were all refused by members of the other parties. In return for these elements of its program, D66 nevertheless obtained an increase of the funds allocated to education and research and innovation, as well as more environmental policies. It is also in 1994 that D66 European Parliament representation switched from independent to the ELDR group (ALDE). Anyway, Hans van Mierlo, then Foreign Minister, left the party leadership again in 1998, replaced by Health Minister Els Borst. The party lost 10 seats in the parliament although it remained in the second Paars cabinet. Els Borst was subsequently replaced at the head of the party by Thom de Graaf. At the same time, a group inside the party called “Opschudding” (Upheaval) began to demand a more progressive liberal approach in the party direction. Since institutional reforms were rejected again in 1999 by the Senate, D66 temporarily left the government, before joining it again during new negotiations.

All this ended in 2002, when, despite its objective economic success, the Paars Coalition lost heavily the general elections, destabilized by the electoral success of the newly founded populist LPF party. With only 7 seats left in Parliament, D66 found itself again in the opposition to the newly created Balkenende cabinet (CDA, VVD and LPF). This was made worse by the 2003 general elections following the disintegration of the LPF and of the coalition. D66 got only 6 MP’s. The Dutch atmosphere was very unfavorable to the moderate reformism and pro-European positions of the party. A wind of nationalism, populism and even extremism was blowing on the usually quiet Netherlands. Thom de Graaf left the party leadership and was replaced by Boris Dittrich. He managed to negotiate a new coalition agreement with the CDA and VVD, effectively replacing the LPF in the cabinet and thus marking a return to more balance in Dutch politics. De Graaf became Minister for Democratization and Dittrich managed to obtain reforms in the education and environment fields. But the party had to vote with the other coalition members for more controversial right wing measures. Unfortunately for D66, this contributed to alienate more of its traditional voters and when the Senate rejected again the constitutional reform which would have allowed direct election of mayors, de Graaf stepped down as Minister.

D66 entered into negotiations with the other coalition parties and got an “Easter Accord” for more reforms. Alexander Pechtold replaced de Graaf at the Ministry of Democratization Reforms and Laurens Jan Brinkhorst became Minister of the Economy. This accord was ratified by the D66 members in congress and in public (as the debates were broadcasted live on public TV). But in 2006, Dittrich left the party leadership, protesting against the policy of the other coalition partners to send more troops to the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. This was touted as purely a reconstruction mission to the Afghan government, but many D66 members believed it was simply a military reinforcement of NATO operations. D66 MP’s voted against the cabinet, with the opposition parties. Lousewies van der Laan replaced Boris Dittrich as party leader (disclaimer: at the time, I was part of the minority in the party in favor of the military intervention).

These dissensions and disagreements about both foreign policy and the more unpalatable measures of the conservative coalition lead to a disaffection of the voters. D66 lost ground in local elections and some members left the party. It is generally considered as one the worst moments of the party History. During internal elections, Alexander Pechtold replaced Lousewies van der Laan as party leader, a position he has hold since then. But before national general elections could take place in 2007, D66 stopped supporting the government about another issue: the debate on the naturalization of VVD fellow coalition MP Ayan Hirsi Ali. A motion of no-confidence was voted against VVD Interior Minister Rita Verdonk, but the Prime Minister refused to let her go, which precipitated the fall of the government. Both D66 Ministers resigned in June 2006 and the Balkenende cabinet continued as a minority government until the general elections of November. In these elections, D66 got its worst historical result, with only 3 MP’s in the Lower House of Parliament.

This lead Hans van Mierlo to publicly ask the question of the party relevance in the increasingly polarized Dutch political debate, at the 40th anniversary of D66 foundation. His answer was that, despite its errors of the past, there was still ideas, reforms and proposals that D66 could bring to the public. He also supported Alexander Pechtold’s leadership towards such goals. His feeling was vindicated by the better performance of D66 in recent polls and elections. In 2009, it managed to gain 3 representatives to the European Parliament. Alexander Pechtold’s combative dispositions in the Second Chamber debates won him the sympathy of the public and of fellow MP’s. Particularly, he began frontally attacking the populist far-right PVV party and positions, daring to call its leader Geert Wilders a racist. These oratory jousts with Wilders and with the government ministers made of Pechtold the de facto leader of the opposition in the Second Chamber. Such visibility helped in the ballot box and D66 won ten seats in the 2010 general elections. In the municipal elections the same year, the grass root campaign of D66 paid off as well, leading to record wins in city councils (more than 600 councilors all over the country). More disclaimer: I participated in this election campaign in the city of Rotterdam and I can testify to the enthusiasm shown by the party members and militants. Unfortunately, this was also the year that party founder Hans van Mierlo passed away.

At that time, the PVV of Geert Wilders, which was supporting the minority coalition of the Rutte government, took back this support about budgetary issues. Together with the Green-Left and the Christian Union parties, D66 took the responsibility to help the CDA and VVD caretaker government pass an austerity budget. In the September 2012 elections D66 program of reform proposals won it 12 seats in the current Dutch Parliament. This relative popularity is also reflected in the number of party members which rose to 23 500, an all-time record and a very good score for a small country like the Netherlands.

The party expects thus good participation and hopes for even better results in the 2014 local elections. In any case, it will be presenting even more candidates than in 2010. These MP’s, MEP’s, city and district councilors and candidates will defend the five principles of D66:
  • Trust in people’s own power (support creativity and self-development)
  • Think and act internationally (European federalism and participation in world affairs)
  • Reward performance and share wealth (economic dynamism and proper welfare)
  • Work toward a sustainable and harmonious society (prosperity respecting the environment)
  • Cherish civil rights and shared values (personal freedom, equality, the rule of law…)
Thank you for your attention.

12 October 2013

Society of Values

I know I haven't posted in a long time. Learning Greek, working from home and so on haven't left me with the free hours I was hoping for. Nevertheless, I have been recently involved in political activities again. I would like to it a bit with you. As you might know, I was involved in the Netherlands with the D66 party (social liberal, ALDE member). I even participated in the municipal elections for the Rotterdam centre district. I have always had a soft spot for social liberalism and I think it is the only path to extract Europe out of the current economic quagmire.

Now, if you know a bit about Greece politics, you would know that there is no equivalent to D66 in Greece. Or at least there wasn't until recently. During and after the Second World War, liberals were literally exterminated by the more extremist party militia. So since the 50's, there is no social liberal tradition in Greece. The junta obviously did not improve things in that regards. Recently, three very small parties participated in various elections, never managing to get more than one MP seat and an MEP one. The fragmentation of these centrist parties due to personal issues partially explains it, but also their fundamental ideological differences on some points made it impossible to cooperate.

But last year, a new party was formed, after the calamitous legislative elections, precisely to try and close this gap in the Greek politics. As a friend to one of the founding members and as fellow social liberal, I have decided to participate. This party is called “Kinonia Axion’’ (Society for Values) in Greek and its aim is to create such a social liberal movement at the centre of Greek politics. Its aim is to become an ALDE member at the European level and of course to get MP's, MEP's as well as city councillors elected in the next polls. But much more than this, the party is attempting a very ambitious platform of complete renewal of the system. I will quote their manifesto here:
Our vision for the future of our country is supported by diachronic values, the positive and dynamic elements of the Greek society, and by the highly professional national human workforce. Our mission is:
  • The reformation of the country
  • Economic, social, civic and ecological sustainable development
  • Social cohesion
  • Prosperity of the society as a whole
  • Equal participation in the European Union
Our pursuit is to ensure:
  • Effective democratic laws
  • A state that sponsors the development and prosperity of society
  • Moral and effective governance by people with the requisite will, ethics, merit and capabilities.
Our objective is to ensure:
  • Effective institutions of Participative Democracy, with effective control of the state and transparency.
  • A state of justice , in service to society and an open market
  • The virtuous and effective governance by persons that have the will, the virtue, the values and the faculties to produce results.
  • The creation of constant and long-lasting structures in the operations of the state
  • The integrated functions of the triptych, culture-education-work
  • The ‘’well being’’, the virtuous state and the security of society
Utilizing the principles of Democracy, which was born in our country, and compounded by the exemplary effects of its best practice by European democratic countries, we seek to create a modern Participative Democracy. In order to accomplish this, all of us we have to respond as active citizens, taking the initiative to establish societal values and make this vision a reality for our country.
This is a very ambitious program, I think, but I believe it is worth trying. Because to be honest, without this, Greece will not really ever recover from the current ordeal. In any case, I am proud to participate in this endeavour. In the coming weeks, Kinonia Axion will organise a major political conference in Athens, with guests from D66 (Netherlands), Radikal Venste (Denmark), ALDE (EU liberals), LYMEC (EU liberal Youth) and probably the German FDP. This conference (link), where I will give a short speech, is hold the 25th to 27th October 2013, at the Stratos Vassilikos Hotel in Athens.

23 July 2012

Greece, corruption and recovery

Greece has passed "successfully" the test of the elections, if you look at it from the point of view of European institutions and, more generally, of North-West European governments. A center right government has been elected, joining the fledgeling forces of Nea Democratia (winner because of the 50 MP's bonus) to the beaten down PASOK and the Democratiki Aristera alibi (DA, the untainted ones if you prefer). Although they all promised to renegotiate the Memorandum of Understanding with the European Troika, they all know that it is pointless, at best providing marginal relief in terms of growth stimulation. Nevertheless, the spectre of a takeover by demagogic groups like Syriza is out of the way and reforms, the most painful ones are being undertaken.

Unfortunately, the very fact that the test was successful will make the recovery even more difficult. It sounds contradictory, but it is quite logical. The parties in favor of maintaining this road to recovery are also the same corrupt phony elites that put the country there in the first place. To the exception of DA, the Ministers and more importantly the MP's in the majority are the incompetent people who have been feeding on the back of the Greek citizens since the Greek Civil War. And, very rightfully, many commentators (myself included) have pointed out the irony of letting the thieves policing and judging the robbery. Because let's be realistic here: it is grand theft we are talking about, and on a massive scale. In Greece, from the lowest level to the highest, everybody is on the take. There are very few exceptions, be it amongst higher civil servants or politicians. While generalizations are dangerous, you could be forgiven in assuming that any politician you name is probably doubling his/her already quite generous salary with bribes.

But the problem is way beyond this. Even if Greece, by some miracle, finds a sure way tomorrow towards growth and economic recovery, its budget and financial structure is mined by a major issue: there is no respect for the rule of law. In fact, when you look at it, even superficially, Greece has the means to balance its budget and recover enough taxes and State income to pay for decent government expenses. All it needs to do (easier said than done) is to enforce and apply its own laws. It needs everyone, from the simplest citizen to the bigger multinational business to pay taxes, it needs people to follow the rules and be fined or prosecuted if they don't and it needs everyone to stop stealing from the State. Because while stealing from the State, while it looks like a victimless crime, is in fact a crime against oneself and everyone else. Greeks simply don't understand this.

The illusion is that only fat cats and politicians steal, take bribes and tax evade. But the sad truth is that everyone does. Worse, even "honest people" simply have no respect for the rule of law. It begins with the simplest things: traffic rules, receipts in small transactions, and so on. No law is respected and no one enforces them. Cops rarely give tickets and never check traffic. As a result, not only they don't get money from fines, but they are not respected either. And of course, the Greek traffic is extremely deadly, with numerous accidents and severe consequences. So it is true that Greece needs to stop the tax evasion of its super-rich, the thieves living in their Filoteia and Kifissia villas, surrounded by barb wires and armed private guards. But it is also true that it is the entire mentality of a country which needs to change, from the taxi driver to the hair dresser to the cop to the city hall employee to the Prime Minister. Without this, Greece will remain the third world country it is, on par with Morocco for corruption and Yemen for ease of creating a business.

Greece can be a rich country, as it has the resources and the infrastructure to sustain itself easily. All it needs is to switch to modernity, not by creating more laws but by applying them and by switching on the very mind of the citizens. It is going to be a long process and a painful one. I wonder when it will start...

19 June 2012

Elections in Sun land

Unless you have lived under a stone for the last five years, you would know that there were elections in Greece to vote a new Parliament in. And you might know that it was the second time in a month, due to the inability of the politicians to work together for the good of the nation to form a new government.

This second round meant that the winner would be nearly automatically ensured to be able to get a majority or at least to build a coalition with only one other party. Indeed, the winner gets a bonus of 50 seats in the Assembly of 300 representatives, usually enough to make the difference. Here are the final results in English.

In this case, and while the winner, conservative Nea Democratia (ND), did clinch a relative majority, even these 50 seats were not enough and it will have to build a coalition (129 seats < 151). Nothing too bad, mind you, as the only other party which clearly announced it could work with ND was "socialist" PASOK who got enough seats to complete a solid majority (33 seats + 129 = 162 > 151). The self declared opposition party, SYRIZA, a coalition of no-communists, socialists and anarchy-unionists, got 71 seats. But the legitimacy of such a majority is extremely low. If one looks at the percentage of expressed votes, the 162 seats represent in fact 41.94% of the voices. SYRIZA would have an easy claim that, allied with parties opposed to the ND and PASOK policy, they represent more of the people. Legitimacy is a tricky thing in a democracy. As my old Constitutional Law teacher used to say, ultimate power is not in the majority in an election but in the street violence that the people can unleash if they don't feel represented.

So the real strength of ND will be its ability to attract the support (at least in the Parliament if not in the government) of another ally, in order to get this badly lacking legitimacy. ND and PASOK asked SYRIZA to join, but its leader, Alexis Tsipras, is too clever for Greece's own good and refused flatly. He knows that his popularity is only linked to his new boyish face and empty promises. If he joins the majority, he will disappear politically. So Antonis Samaras and Evangelos Venizelos (the ND and PASOK leaders respectively) will have to cut a deal with another party or two. The most obvious candidate is the smaller Democratiki Aristera (Democratic Left), a moderate party of progressive leaning technocrats. Its leader, Fotis Kouvelis, previously rejected such a deal, but concessions by ND and PASOK and opening by German negotiators could make him change his mind. Same is true for Anexartitoi Ellines (Independant Greeks), an ultra-conservative group of Church and Fatherland types.

None of these two parties got enough votes to help the future government cross the 50% votes legitimacy threshold. But, if both join, this threshold would be passed. Such a scenario is highly unlikely. To be honest, the presence of any of the two is very likely to prevent the other from joining as their ideologies are diametrically opposed. There is only so much you can ask for the good of the country...

11 June 2012

Politics in Greece

It is very difficult to understand Greece with North-West Europe references. Not that Greece is particularly "exotic" or "alien", but mostly because it has a rather troubled recent History that most foreigners or visiting tourists don't know well (and I was one of these poorly informed people). The political landscape in Greece used to be rather simple, at least seen from the outside, opposing since 1974 conservatives (Nea Democratia) to socialists (PASOK). Fringe smaller parties also existed, such as populist right wing LAOS (a Church and fatherland resurgence of older parties) or the older Communist KKE (pronounce koeh-koeh-A). But they never were in a position to challenge the duopoly of the two party system and the fact is that most current and numerous parties in Greece did not exist under their current form only 10 years ago.

Most of this is linked to the fact that Greece, from 1967 to 1974, was under the regime of conservative putschist colonels. Both conservative and socialist parties were created as a reaction to this regime and the communist KKE (which had been clandestine since the end of the Second World War) was only legalized at this time too. This has had a profound influence on the way Greek citizens view authority, political parties and ideologies. Parties were identified, consciously or not, in relation to their relationship with the colonels' junta (as it is called in Greece) and ideologies, behaviors, political myths and realities are also shaped by the trauma of the brutal dictature. Nationalist parties are often associated to this regime and illegal or damaging activities of leftist ones are often considered less negatively, because of their resistance to it.

All this changed in the last 10 to 5 years, and even more with the recent economic crisis. The political system has suddenly exploded, ending the dominance of the two party system. New players in the political field include radical left Syriza, Democratic Left (Aristera), Golden Dawn (neo-nazis), the ecologist Green and LAOS (Religious Nationalists). Most of these parties embody in fact, a certain modernity in the Greek system, for the better and for the worst. Indeed, all these new parties reflect issues and ideas that are found now in most other democracies, but which were prevented from expressing themselves by the two-party system. I use this term on purpose, as this "system" was not in any way a product of the Constitution of the IIIrd Hellenic Republic, but because it was, in my opinion a perversion of it. In other terms, both conservative and socialist put in place a strong nepotism and clientele system, corrupting the Greek democracy and effectively preventing the occurrence of political and ideological alternative. Of course, one should avoid excessive generalisation, and both parties certainly had honest members. But the leadership of these parties clearly and obviously maintained their power by way of services against votes and money against services. To get anything done in Greece (public or private) you would need a political support in one of these two parties. To a certain extent, this is still true today.

But the emergence and rise of other political and ideological offer, as well as the systematic failure by both traditional parties to handle the economic crisis, making it even worse, has created the current political quagmire. No party at the moment can claim any kind of majority. But more importantly, the separation between the parties no longer reflect the right or left paradigm but also the separation between old school politics and the new ways. The issue is as much generational as it is ideological. Hence the impossibility to build any coalition between parties which should, from an external point of view, be logical allies. It goes against the mentality of the politician involved but also against years of History. They are unable to handle the crisis or give coordinated answer to Greece's problems simply because there is no structure any more in Greece politics.