Ομιλία Θάνου Τζήμερου στην εκδήλωση του Βρετανικού Κοινοβουλίου
Portcullis House, British Parliament, 04-11-2015
Right Honourable Members of the British Parliament, dear all!
I thank you for the invitation and for granting me the opportunity to analyse the causes which find my country, a country which in the past inspired poets and philosophers, inspiring now only cartoonists and presenters of satirical shows.
Greece is a country in deep crisis, a crisis not just financial. I would dare say that the financial issue is the least of its problems. For the past 35 years, Greece has gone through a continuous decline in morals, institutions, public life, education and the quality of its leaders.
There has never been a precedent in world history where a government has ever explicitly adopted racketeering methods against its partners as its official national negotiation strategy. Amazingly, this is precisely what the SYRIZA government did during its seven-month so-called negotiation with the European Union. An EU that had already sanctioned an enormous debt “haircut” and two bailout loan agreements under extremely favourable terms for the benefit of a practically bankrupt nation. Suffice it to say, largely at the expense of other European taxpayers.
In all seriousness, the SYRIZA government went to Brussels, armed with that same farcical statement which was also central to its own election manifesto pledge: "You lend us money, we spend it. We will carry on spending in the exact same way that led us into bankruptcy; on huge pensions for fifty-year olds and on salaries for hundreds of thousands of surplus civil servants, many of whom sporting “ghost” job descriptions. Not only shall we retain those in sinecure public posts, but shall employ even more civil servants and encourage even more of them in early retirement. God forbid should we undertake any commitments against these new loans that we now request, and finally, we demand that you write off the old ones." …Simply astonishing!
What SYRIZA propagated inside Greece, was that there was no way the EU would ever dare turn down SYRIZA’s demands. The game plan was that, should the EU negotiators refute this “Neo-Bolshevik” Greek government and allow Greece to officially default, the subsequent fall-out would certainly herald the total collapse of the Union, a much greater evil for its leaders, and which they couldn’t afford!
I am indeed ashamed for my country’s government. I am ashamed for its politicians. I am ashamed of the image that modern Greece projects to the modern world. On the contrary, I admire the composure and patience of the Europeans that managed to sustain dignified negotiations for 7 whole months with such racketeers! Curiously nevertheless, SYRIZA won a second term in a row. How come? Have Greeks gone mad?
Surely not: For even the most irrational of behaviours there will always be a rational explanation. One only has to look at the entire picture. Please allow for a brief historical overview as this is essential to grasp this Greek Drama.
The rule of law has never really been implemented in Greece since its conception as an independent nation, a nation which missed on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Following the War of National Independence, the former 400-year Ottoman rule was crudely replaced by a “Greek style” Ottoman model of governance. The Greek State has for ever been a mixture of inter-quarrelling syndicates and interest groups. Central stabilising factor was the so called “state sponsored patronage”, a collective form of corruption, by now a well-established term in Greek politics. Right from the start, Greeks have always been casting their vote according to whichever government would promise them the most hand-outs, however intangible, furthermore, ignoring the fact that these intangible hand-outs would eventually, at some stage, have to be borrowed from somewhere.
Greek politicians, on the other hand, ensured their re-election by handing out public money in the form of mass appointments to increasingly surplus (and more recently invented) civil service posts for their followers, by unconstrained early retirements with hefty pensions and by ushering in frivolous benefit allowances. Genuine national strategy to encompass the whole of society has never been implemented in Greece. The political parties, historically, kept seizing power by any and all means, scrupulously or otherwise, with the sole purpose of looking after their own voting “clientele”, let alone of gaining access to the public purse, the taxpayers’ purse, as the late Baroness Thatcher used to say.
Consequently, the Greeks of the past were always divided according to vested interest rather than any substantial ideological differences. Such ideological differences only emerged after the Civil war in 1945-49. Under the pretext of the communist danger, the victorious “rightist” administrations of the 50s onwards, adopted practices of “legalized” fascism, which divided the Greeks between “loyalists” and the so-called “defiled” or subversive. Those stigmatised as “defiled” were not necessarily only communists, but also any progressive thinking individuals. No one could occupy public office, receive higher education, or even allow to marry a civil servant, unless they obtained a “certificate of political convictions”, issued by the police, which officially confirmed their so-called pledge of loyalty to Greek Nationalism and theirs or their family’s non-involvement in “unpatriotic activity”.
A vague a term as this may be, being left at the discretion of even a local policeman to determine such classifications in many cases, doesn’t take much to realise that such process soon fell victim to prejudices, personal vendettas, local feuds etc , thus arbitrarily stigmatising people for life (McCarthy-ism). This practice lasted until 1981, still keeping the civil war wounds open, and increasingly ingraining a reactionary perception to post-war generations that anything to the "right" is in reality fascist and regressive, while anything to the "left" synonymous with progress and humanism.
In 1981 and for the first time, a centre-left party called PASOK won the elections, under PM Andreas Papandreou. Having opened up public sector employment to the “leftists”, who up to that time were excluded, he was in with a real chance to lead Greece into national reconciliation. It was also in his favour that his election into power coincided with the (then) E.E.C’s enormous incoming financial torrents in the form of development package funds. Thus, Andreas Papandreou had also ample financial means to build the - by now - long overdue infrastructure and modernise the country, especially its institutional framework. Astonishingly, he did exactly the opposite. He instead fostered even more sectarianism, albeit this time it was the “rightists” that were now the outcasts, whilst all administrative power fell in the hands of his followers. In his first year in office alone, he swiftly increased the number of civil servants from 121,000 to 208,000! Incidentally, by the time the crisis broke out in 2010, civil servants’ ranks were increased to 1,100,000, burdening the State purse with a staggering cost of €31 billion per year!
Undeterred, Andreas Papandreou created even one more layer of debt production, and this time "exploiting peoples’ consciences": The patronage of Pensions. He offered early retirement at full pension to literally everyone: to 32-year old mothers of minors, to 40-year old military officers, to unmarried daughters of military officers or judges, to trade union leaders, to repatriated Greeks from the ex-Soviet Union, to distinguished artists as honorary rewards for their work, to anybody who had supposedly participated in the resistance against the German occupation, even those born in 1933 – and some say even later! 7-year-old partisans! To name but a few pension hand-outs…
Jaw-dropping benefits were also granted to members of certain unions through the so-called Supplementary Pension Funds, where in some cases, even when members’ insurance contributions were less than 200 Euros in total, these same union members ended up receiving nearly €200,000 each (!) in supplementary pensions to date! Whilst the masses were of course ecstatic – yet oblivious of any consequences, one could hardly argue with the party political foresight of such “national investments”.
Since the year 2,000, Greek working taxpayers have paid €200 billion towards their Greek pension recipients. This corresponds to almost two-thirds of the national debt. Equally, in all subsequent periods that the New Democracy party - the alleged Greek conservatives – were in power, they also conveniently imitated PASOK’s policies. The two parties, thus, created a monstrous mechanism of patronage with such power, that surpassed in real terms, even a prime-minister’s constitutional authority: The later efforts of PM Constantinos Mitsotakis of New Democracy and PM Costas Simitis of PASOK, to implement some liberal economic reforms were completely undermined and eventually rebuffed by their own parties!
This reign of “patronage” to-ing and fro-ing, grossly inflated the ranks of civil servants and severely corroded the efficiency of their services. Those who received mass appointments were generally party followers, usually without skills, with minimal education, low intelligence and without any professional ethic. To name an example: Mr. Rakitzis, the Inspector of Public Administration, discovered a very telling ministerial private memo attached to a job application of a recently employed civil servant. In it, the minister privately commented: “He is good for nothing. Just place him somewhere”. Political partisanship is so abundant at every public sector level that has eroded any notion of meritocracy, personal responsibility, has eliminated any concept of benefit versus cost, and, more crucially, degenerated to a point where even the most basic of administrative functions having been blown-up into a maze of indecipherable riddles. Whenever ordinary Greeks contact any part of the administrative mechanism, they are already well aware of their fate, of having to live through a nightmare of absurdity, stupidity, legal chaos, bureaucratic sadism, wasted time, wasted energy and wasted money. Unsurprisingly, this gets even worse for potential private investors.
Political parties have deliberately been nurturing civil service trade unionism as a means of controlling civil servants. It doesn’t take much to fathom that this also fed the uncontrollable dragon of industrial action. Every time trade unions of civil servants go on strike, the country literary grinds to a halt. It is officially estimated that, over the last four decades, the time lost to civil service strike action is more than 1,500 concurrent working days! This is approximately 6 years’ worth of work of the whole of the public sector!
The public sector trade unions have established an unprecedented code where there is a complete absence of any control and complete impunity for their members. Civil servants having been sentenced for embezzlement of tens of millions of Euros, or even for murder, still now continue on full salaries and still remain in their posts unchecked, as if nothing happened! Public sector trade union leaders are, by law, exempt from work, their dismissal is prohibited, they receive a special union pension and are illegitimately supplemented by the state itself (!) with hundreds of millions of Euros, being officially unaccountable for it.
Thus, the Greeks have learnt to survive within a hostile state administration that steals from them, does not fulfil its obligations and does not honour its agreements. It very often entraps them with retrospective taxation, constantly changing the rules of the game. The Greeks have learnt to operate within a non-existent institutional framework, where there are no checks and balances or separation of powers, where the justice system operates under the thumb of the executive, where it takes up to even 30 years to reach a court judgement, where most administrative regulations are not instituted through passed legislation, but through ministerial decrees, issued according to a Minister’s personal political interests. It is telling that out of the 110.000 pieces of legislation of the past 15 years, a mere 2% were physically voted in parliament. Ordinary people find it often impossible to undertake any course of action due to heaps of contradictory laws about almost anything. Evidently, in no way such Greece resembles a first world state operating under the Rule of Law. Thus, come election time, Greeks avenge one party by voting for the other, that is, if they don’t abstain altogether dismayed at the political system as a whole.
Such decadence has gradually driven away from politics almost anyone competent who could potentially reform this state-dinosaur. Although there have been notable examples of worthy, honest, and innovative politicians in recent years, only to be swiftly elbowed to the margins by their own parties, or driven away from politics altogether.
Most Greeks yearn desperately for a change. When TROIKA initially came into the fore, I remember being in a taxi and listening in of their arrival on the taxi radio. The driver, a simple guy, pleaded: “Can they please stay here forever? Can they get into the ministries, and clean up the deadwood? This is the only way for us to become a real state!”
Alas, this again did not materialise. In my opinion, two crucial mistakes were made. The first was made by the Greek politicians, serving the old system as per usual: First, PM Samaras and then PM Tsipras, discovered the populist charm of “revolution” against the bailout terms, which would also mean severe - hence unpopular - austerity measures, if the corrupt status quo was to be upheld at any cost. Hence, rather than holding mature public debates as to the real causes of the Greek bankruptcy and promoting the reforms necessary for the survival of the country, they fabricated politically expedient myths that “this hypocritical help from those (evil) foreigners under such terms is just a smoke screen in order to impoverish us”. Both Prime Ministers played this populist agenda of world-wide conspiracy. Even worse, in order to preserve the privileges of their (mostly) public sector patrons, despite TROIKA’s pressure for reforms, they chose to leave the public sector untouched, but tax-to-death the small/medium size private sector instead, thus forcing over 400.000 Greek companies to fold or relocate abroad. Two million Greeks have been driven into unemployment, underemployment, or emigration because of this.
The other crucial mistake was made by TROIKA themselves: Even though they were fully aware that the Greek politicians were utterly untrustworthy, did not make stern demands regarding the first two bailout agreements, that i.e., reforms should first be in place before any loan funds are made available. In fact, TROIKA ought to have implemented one of my own suggestions contained in my – now infamous in Greece - letter to Chancellor Merkel back in 2011: “Small instalments against specific implemented reforms, step by step. Not all the money at once!”
Unsurprisingly, the governments of PM George Papandreou and PM Antonis Samaras, although initially did pass the necessary bailout legislation, as soon as they received the funds, they promptly (and conveniently) annulled it, or simply did not enforce it. Data regarding pensions are revealing: Even in the middle of the crisis, there are still 200 different pension funds and 40 legal loopholes for obtaining early retirement. Even today, one-third of civil servants retire before the age of 55, with an average age of 56.3 years. 91% of retirements from the so-called "gracious" retirement schemes are early. Working Greeks pay €4.7 billion annually to pensioners below 60 years of age. And, 417,000 people are receiving from 3 to 10 pensions each!
Despite being aware of these facts, TROIKA curiously accepted and still continue to accept a ludicrous modus operandi whereby they allow the SYRIZA government to impose in-lieu “reform” measures instead of theirs, with politically expedient for SYRIZA, yet hugely damaging equivalents: In real terms, new taxes to defend old privileges.
At the January elections, the Greek people elected the SYRIZA party, based on PM Tsipras’ promises of unilaterally “tearing” the bailout terms, of tax reliefs and the end of austerity. Furthermore, he even promised new benefits and the further employment of hundreds of thousands of additional civil servants. Obviously such promises could never be kept. But the now desperate Greek electorate were really faced with a voting choice between former “slow death” at the hands of the somewhat more presentable yet still indecisive, ineffective, corrupt and taxing New Democracy and PASOK coalition, or, the – until then - untested party of SYRIZA, albeit full of blatantly false promises under the guise of humanitarianism. This time, the electorate voted for the untested, desperately hoping somehow for a change for the better.
While SYRIZA was recently elected for a second term, its populist leadership faces a daily painful humiliation, since they are now frog-marched into completely recanting on all their pre-election promises in an all-time spectacular U-turn. Having said that, the New Democracy party, are also equally forced, for the first time in their history, to face the question of their own ideological identity, entertaining even the chance of electing a reformist leader this time. This is of great interest to us. Most of our potential voters, fearing of “wasting their vote” on smaller parties, feel entrapped within this polarised Greek political environment. Many in the end vote heavy-heartedly in favour of New Democracy in defence, it being the lesser of the two great evils. On the one hand they try to ensure the defeat of the Neo-Stalinists of SYRIZA and on the other, they cling onto a miraculous hope that somehow New Democracy might finally change its direction towards reforms and a liberal economy.
We, Dimiourgia Xana, are consistent in our pro-European orientation and a radical reform agenda. We believe that the European Union is at a critical juncture in its history, since it is becoming necessary to transfer vital responsibilities from the sovereign member states to a central government. It is an extremely complex step, and we could discuss this for days. But it is we, the citizens of Europe, and no one else, who have to persevere for it, given that without the EU no single European nation by itself will ever be able to play a leading role in the world of tomorrow.
However, as imperfect the European structure may be, it should not be seen in any way as a scapegoat for the Greek problem. The state of our country is 100% a home-grown blunder, and we are fully accountable for honouring our debts to the last cent. Furthermore, we alone should show enough dignity to shoulder the crucial reforms against a glaringly defunct mechanism that creates it. As things stand, even if the entire national debt were to be written off today, that defunct mechanism would soon re-create it from the word “go”.
The reforms of our country are our own obligation alone. These can only be achieved by politicians and technocrats who will have to brave the political cost and willing to confront vested interests in favour of the greater good. Some would ask whether there are the necessary human resources to achieve this. But of course there are, albeit still nowhere to be seen in the wider media. Greece is full of intelligent, honest, energetic, innovative, productive, decent Greeks, who excel anywhere in the world when they find an environment where there is Rule of Law and meritocracy. Even in Greece, despite enormous difficulties, there are people who do work hard and do produce wealth. There are also many competent and honest public servants at every level of the hierarchy that make it their dream to work in an environment of transparency and legitimacy.
The healthy Greece exists everywhere, it certainly exists among the Greeks of the diaspora, it exists in this room, and it exists in the remotest Greek village. Greece is favoured by nature. It has abundant natural resources, history and culture. In the same way that we excel in the shipping industry, we can equally excel in all types of business, in academia and in research. Greece would be galloping, only if open-minded governance were in place, which would encourage enterprise and innovation,
To accomplish this, we are asking for your help. Not by giving us new loans, but by supporting reformist voices like ours, the voices that the Greek political system has been silencing for many decades. It is only a matter of time for the collapse of the SYRIZA Neo-Bolsheviks, only if our European partners stick to their guns and force the Greek Government to reduce the size and waste of its public sector. This can only be achieved by shutting down useless public institutions and – yes - laying off their staff. A road of hard toil will then begin in order to rebuild Greece from the ground up. This is an immense challenge, but we can do it! We really have no other alternative. There are many Greeks like us that have pledged to our children the delivery of a modern European nation, productive, civilized, proud and worthy of its history. We are determined to succeed, no matter how much we will have to fight.