Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Juncker's 2025 Vision for Europe

With his State of the European Union speech today at the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, has sought to remind us all of the indispensable role of the European Commission as the unifier and pacifier of the European project. It was a remarkable speech that was quite visionary in some of the proposals that Juncker made. 
He sought simultaneously to put the accent on the European construct by stating his intention to defend his office and be part of the triumvirate together with Merkel and Macron that will lead to process of transformation (in other words, he sends the message that Merkel and Macron cannot and should not lead alone). His “all together” approach is bound to win him friends among the small and very small states that comprise the the bulk of the Union's member states that are concerned by the multispeed preferences of some of the bigger states. He also reminds small states that the attempts by some of them to disrupt the European project will fail – hence the stress of migration and Europe as a continent of dignity and solidarity. In his ‘federal vision’ for Europe, Juncker also caters to the European Parliament (EP) and its important role which he does not want diluted with proposals in favour of a separate chamber to deal with Eurozone issues.

Likewise, while he acknowledges the merits of Macron’s call for an EU Finance Minister, he suggests that this need not be a separate office but one within the Commission (hence the 'Community method' applies with oversight from the EP).  He further nods to the EP with the emphasis on a more democratic Europe and the need for transnational lists for future European elections. 

His proposal for the single post of the President of the Commission and the President of the European Council is also far reaching and a snub to the perennial tug of war between the national capitals and the European institutions yet it also acknowledges that if a more federal EU is to be constructed, then a double hatting approach needs to be applied much as is the case with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the Commission.

Finally, Juncker was effective in sending the message that Brexit, although “sad and tragic”, on 29 March 2019, provides the opportunity for the EU27 to come together without the many opt outs for member states that the UK had championed since becoming a member in 1973. The fact that the speech was short on a foreign policy vision with scant mention of the Western Balkans and Turkey and their accession prospects, reflects the priority to gain support for a common future at 27 before addressing who next is to this regard, the emphasis on trade policy, cyber security, migration (and the focus on Africa),  and values (democracy, equality, etc.) sends important messages beyond the Union’s borders.

The key question now is whether Juncker (and to a certain degree, his Commission) have the gravitas to push through many of the keys desiderata he raised today…whether Merkel and Macron will accept an enhanced role for the Commission that resets the balance somewhat in the relationship between national capitals and European institutions…and whether the countries opposed to a multispeed Europe will put their differences aside to negotiate in good faith for the more ‘federal’ project Juncker just presented. Juncker expects this new more powerful and democratic Europe to become a reality by 2025. 

Although the bar Juncker has set is high as are the challenges for the Union and the divergences among its member states, it is an achievable goal. In fact, a necessary one where what it at stake is the total meltdown of the elite-driven European project that has been holding Europe together since the end of the Second World War. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Time for Closure in Cyprus: Keeping the Faith

With the start of the new round of talks in Crans Montana on 28 June regarding the future of Cyprus, all the bets are on as to whether these will lead to a deal or be another part in a long process of reconciliation but not enough to cross the finish line. Although the momentum that was evident at the beginning of the year has significantly stalled, the United Nations through its good offices has managed to get the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, the representatives of the three guarantor powers – Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, and the representative of the interested party – the European Union, to return to the negotiating table.

The stakes are a historic deal in the making and the implications of a non-deal should the talks fail to yield positive results with the chances evenly divided for either outcome to prevail. 

The optimistic scenario stems from the fact that the leaders of the two communities – Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci -- have shown a remarkable degree of resilience albeit a number of setbacks that have injured their trust in each other but have failed to deter their faith in the possibility of a deal. In fact, most of the governance issues, the property issues, and the questions of missing persons are close to closure. This faith in the process has been helped significantly by the involvement and support of the growing and committed pro-solution civil society in both communities. Ever since the first opening of a crossing across the Green Line in April 2003 after nearly 30 years, and the subsequent opening of a number of crossings hence allowing Turkish Cypriots to visit the South and Greek Cypriots to visit the North, the number of pro-solution supporters across the divide has grown significantly. Civil society now plays a significant role in a number of the Technical Committees that have been established underpinning the attempts at political negotiation. These include, inter alia, the technical committees on gender equality, on environment, on cultural heritage, on border crossings, on education. The participation of a number of committed individuals from both communities in each committee working together to make proposals that the negotiators can work with has led to an ownership of the whole process where unlike the Annan Plan of 2004, the current agreement that is to be negotiated and drafted will be exclusively the product of the two sides, not the international community.

The civil society support and input has helped the negotiators keep the faith and overcome the possible lack of trust. It also sends a clear message to the guarantor powers that it would be hard for them to interfere in the formulas the two communities agree to. Civil society involvement has also led to the growing acceptance of widening the conception of security guarantees, as being primarily based on the number of troops the guarantor powers would like to maintain in the island as part of the deal, to a wider notion of human security where security is perceived in a more holistic fashion where issues such as the fate of the environment and climate change, the state of the economy, and gender equality are just as important notions of security. The presence of the European Union as an interested party in the process is also relevant given the fact that the Republic of Cyprus is a member state of the EU and that Turkish Cypriots are also considered citizens of the Union. In other words, whatever the final shape of the deal, united Cyprus will be part of the European Union.

The presence of the European Union and its declared intention to help in particular in the implementation of the deal when reached possibly provides political impetus to Turkey’s stalled relations with the European Union. In other words, should a solution be found in the pressing issues of security and guarantees with the consent of the three guarantor powers, Ankara could jumpstart its political ties with the European Union and provide new dynamism in the accession process or other areas of cooperation between the two sides. The stated intent of both Athens and Ankara to be constructive is hopeful.

Should the talks, which could last for as much as two weeks, stall or break down, it might be wise to find a mechanism to consolidate the points of accord and maybe even consider their implementation before a solution is found on all outstanding issues as the possibility of failure to advance further remains a strong possibility.

In other words, the parties should focus on keeping the faith in the process and bring to closure this decades-long conflict whose resolution would significantly impact positively on the bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey. This in itself in worth keeping the faith.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Greece on the cusp of change? Hold that thought

We live in an interesting world at an interesting time in history where universal access to information makes for complex deciphering of its trends and challenges. We live in a world where a country like Greece which accounts for 0,15% of the world’s population (ranked 78th) and 0,30% of the world’s GDP can still grab the world’s attention because of internal political and economic dynamics. Being part of the European Union, the world’s largest economy, and a member of the Eurozone, with the Euro being the world’s second most powerful currency, explains this discrepancy between the relative power of a Greece on its own and that of Greece as a midsize and longstanding member of the European Union.

As a result, the current electoral campaign which will culminate on Sunday, 25 January has all the makings of making or breaking the country’s global standing with the almost certain victory of SYRIZA, the anti-establishment radical left party. On its own, a victory of the left would raise a few eyebrows and nothing more as it would be considered normal that political change came about through the democratic process. But these are not normal times. These are times of high drama as Greece finds itself heavily in debt and in the midst of a prolonged recession which may or may not be abating and the elections have much to do with it.

The crux has been that the recipes for reform and growth have been slow in having an impact in part because of the establishment’s inability or unwillingness to tackle congenital structural deficiencies which necessitates clashing with vested interests of all types. As a result, an anti-establishment alternative in the form of SYRIZA has emerged. The problem that this raises is that neither SYRIZA seems to offer a credible alternative to reform other than promises to alleviative the pain suffered by a large part of the population due to austerity measures. After all, the crisis has left its indelible mark on Greek society. According the EC’s recently released report on Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2013, 35.7% of all Greeks were on the verge of poverty or social exclusion in 2013 while the unemployment rate of the economically active population (25-64 age groups) stood at 49.3%.

The concern with SYRIZA is that it is untested and that it seems to be having a hard time moving beyond the various strands of Marxist, neo-Marxist, and more mainstream leftist perspectives and their cacophony that the various factions making up the party represent and delivering a coherent message and work plan for the future should it assume the mantle of power. Albeit the efforts of Alexis Tsipras, its leader, to bring about cohesion, in the heat of the electoral campaign, SYRIZA seems to represent a motley crew or firebrand revolutionaries, inconsistent rhetoric and increasing populist promises ---as if these were normal times. As a result doubts persistently arise about its commitment to the European Union and the Euro albeit the efforts of qualified economists such as Yannis Varoufakis and others to defend SYRIZA’s economic vision and agenda.

Its main opponent, New Democracy led by the outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has also increasingly taken to populist rhetoric of better days ahead and less talk of reform at it tries to clip SYRIZA’s wings toward an outright, however slim, majority. Consequently, the already frail economy is beginning to become undone with revenues down, and uncertainty as to how the country will finance itself and pay its debts once the electoral saga comes to an end.

The constitutional procedures might also find themselves stretched to their limits once the election results become known as should no party get an outright parliamentary majority of 151 seats, the procedures for forming coalition governments will have to be implemented in parallel with the procedures for the election of a new President of the Republic (the failure to do so in December has led to the holding of these snap elections after all). A nefarious scenario of giving the mandate to the third highest vote getting party which could be the neo Nazi Golden Dawn party is not out of the question should the top two parties fail to form a government. Like most Greeks, I cringe at the thought of having Golden Dawn’s leader, who is behind bars awaiting trial, being sanctioned to become a dealmaker.

While Golden Dawn has been in crisis since September 2013 with the arrest of most of its parliamentarians on charges of belonging to a criminal organization, it shows surprising political perseverance and continues to have a hard core group of supporters in spite its vilification. Another sign that in these abnormal times the enemy within us refuses to give up its arms. As the campaign runs its course, as if it is politics as usual with promises on the right and left of free handouts while the continued presence of the neo-Nazis and the sheer magnitude of the country’s problems mount, it is hard to see how these elections are about serious change or transformation.

In 1981, when Andreas Papandreou with his populist demagoguery and his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) swept into power, they garnered over 48% of the popular vote and 172 seats in the 300 seat parliamentary chamber; today a possible SYRIZA victory would translate into a 35% of the popular votes (if the polls are to be believed) and anywhere between 140 and 155 seats. In 1981, only three parties met the 3% threshold to be represented in Parliament; today, between 6 to 8 parties are expected to meet it. And as Takis Pappas reminds us, Alexis Tsipras is no Andreas Papandreou, albeit the need for “someone capable of forging a new social majority into a mass political formation under the banner of a sensible program for economic development and national regeneration.”

Thus while these are not normal times, the political forces and their elite vying for the right to govern the country are nowhere near as transformative and forward-looking as they would like us to think. They lack the temerity to devise a new national social contract, to rebuild the country and provide for social justice and equity as well as repair and modernize the structural behemoth that is the state. In their attempt to ensure the right to govern, they seem to have forgotten why they are seeking the vote thereby pushing the country towards further insignificance. And if this is the case, the question then is why are these elections being held in the first place if the country is not on the cusp of change? Maybe because all they are capable is more of the same – their slow demise and with it of the country they purport to defend. 

published in openDemocracy on 19 January 2015 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Greek Cleavages

A quick weekend trip to Athens has brought to the limelight many of the traits/characteristics of what it is to be a Greek today. Political and ideological polarization undoubtedly prevails to the point that national symbols such as the flag and the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the uprising at the Athens Polytechnic have become instruments of partisan design. Witnessing a small gathering of Golden Dawn stalwarts in front of Parliament on a Friday afternoon (15 November) made me reflexively cringe. More troubling was their taking for their own use of the national flag as an instrument for their protest; in a way soiling it for the rest of us proud citizens of a proud nation. 

This past weekend also marked the honoring of the 24 fallen of the Polytechnic uprising of 14-17 November 1973 that culminated in the eventual fall of the military junta and the return to democracy in Greece in 1974. The annual pilgrimage to the site and the accompanying music by Theodorakis and Loizos and the voices of Farantouri, Kalogiannis, and Bithikotsis among others is chilling...a necessary reminder of what we take for granted today. Yet even this event that shaped a nation has become usurped by the Left that wants to constantly remind those that do not vote for it or support it that democracy exists in Greece only because the Left exists. A cursory reading of social and other media these days is telling of the deep chasm that is being cultivated in the battle for appropriation of national, historical and defining benchmarks. The perfunctory annual protest that converged upon the American Embassy is a manifestation of trite ideological arguments that make no sense today....yet plans are probably underway to continue with it for the next forty years.

On the other hand, I would like to think that there is another Greece out there as well such as the one I witnessed at the World Cup qualifier between Greece and Romania on Friday night when over 30,000 of us urged on as one our team waving our national Golden Dawn symbols, no Left ideological morality lessons...simply football and many goals.

This is all bittersweet especially in these times of political, social, economic, and moral distress where instead of rallying cries we have those laced with discrimination, partiality, prejudice, bias, sectarianism, and bigotry. The release on Saturday night of the ideological proclamation by a left wing terrorist group justifying the recent cold blooded murder of two members of Golden Dawn in retaliation for the murder of a left wing rapper by the neo nazi group exemplifies the deep cleavage that is Greece today, feeding on its insides. The atmosphere at the football game suggests that unity is possible ...but logic unfortunately seems to have its limits.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The enemy within

I was proud of my country and its institutions on Saturday, 28 September when numerous arrest warrants were issued for members of the neo Nazi,  national socialist gang that calls itself a party -- Golden Dawn. Among those arrested where its party leader as well as other standing members of parliament. I am still proud that they will be tried for their numerous hate crimes including their organized crime activities. It was about time to crush them even if if they cannot be nipped in the bud anymore. 

A week has passed. So much has changed, yet much remains the same. Instead of witnessing and experiencing a mass sensation of relief, and a wider debate around the issues of hate, racism and tolerance, all we have seen is much ado about embedded suspicion of the political system and within it where the so called 'democratic' political parties of the left and the right continue to snipe at each other in public about the objective of the arrests and the crackdown...where speculation is ripe in true conspiratorial nature about why the government took action at this moment in time and what the implications are for others that use violence or at least condone it for political purposes. Also vivid is the back and forth regarding the so called theory of the extremes; i.e., that Golden Dawn represents the right side of the political pendulum of extremism and that its leftist counterpart is just as virulent and deadly. The last few days are also witness to another phenomenon where mainstream media hosts stories about the jail conditions and eating and other habits of the jailed other words, a sinister twist in lifestyle news.

The public opinion polls indicate a gradual loss of the appeal of Golden Dawn...too gradual for my taste while many commentators equate the rise of the extreme rightwing with the effects of the economic and financial crisis that has crippled the social web of the country since 2008. In fact, many suggest that the austerity policies imposed by Greece's creditors have contribute to the rise of racism and hate crimes.

Did I expect anything different in the interpretation by society of what standing up to Golden Dawn means? Unfortunately, not necessarily but I am nevertheless appalled and think it is time to call a spade a spade...We the Greeks are a deeply racist society in denial that feel under threat when the overwhelming homogeneity in the Greek Orthodox context that is Greece is challenged...this happened with the end of communism and the massive influx of a million of some citizens of neighboring countries seeking a better life in the El Dorado then called Greece...Albanians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles, and others came en masse challenging the country's institutions and society that were unprepared to deal with the influx giving rise to virulent debates as to whether the newcomers had a place in Greek society, while the sex trade flourished and most were paid lowly wages that were largely undeclared to the fiscal authorities. The same has occurred with the new waves of migrants from sub Saharan Africa and North and South East Asia including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq (including many Kurds). The inability of the state to process these refugees properly and to provide the basic sanitary and other conditions for them while their cases for asylum were being considered meant the gradual degradation of historic urban neighborhoods of Athens primarily where they sought refuge in dilapidated housing projects while they were exploited by black marketeers and their ilk. The color of the skins of the second massive wave of asylum seekers obviously prejudices them further thus making their acceptance even more problematic. 

How have we reacted as a society? Principally either by turning a blind eye or by finding saviors in the exclusivists ideologies of Golden Dawn and others while leaving the few NGOs attempting to them just as marginalized. I succinctly recall a couple years ago as I was lunching outdoor in my favorite kebab joint in Monastiraki in the historic center of Athens when I was accosted by a poor refugee boy from Iraq to whom I gave my spare change. As soon as he left, an elderly man selling lottery tickets demanded that I buy a ticket from him. When I refused, he accusingly told me: "How dare you give your money to that foreign child that is a nobody and refuse to give me, a fellow Greek?"

Although the aforementioned is an isolated encounter, it embodies the enemy within....the prevailing racism which we do not accept we possess...the exclusivist perspective that suggests a go at it alone mentality...that we are a chosen people with a history that is the history of mankind...and therefore all our ills including the scourge of illegal immigration are exported by those seeking to exploit, subjugate, and control us...from the international creditors (in particular the Troika and the hated Germans), to the Jews (that guy called Soros is always somehow telling us what to do and financing suspect initiatives and institutions that promote dialogue), to the foreigners that enter illegally our country and take our jobs and women, to the Turks that never act as good neighbors, to the EU and Brussels that puts restrictions on our way of life (including how and when kokoretsi can be made and eaten)....and the list goes on...In other words, we refuse to evaluate ourselves and blame all our wrongs on others....What don't you get? Greece is for the Greeks (as they define themselves)!

The enemy is within us and unless we begin a national debate about it and educate ourselves and our children that the world is not as black and white as the Nazis and others make it out to be, we will never be able to expunge it.

Maybe one way forward is to establish RA Chapters in every neighborhood of every city and in every village...Racists Anonymous...where every stands up and utters "I am a racist" and then starts dealing with it...

Another approach is to start a public recognition of our inability to find fault in ourselves (we are Greeks after all, how could we be at fault?) would be to hold as soon as possible a million man march against Nazism, racism and hate which the democrats representing us take the lead in organizing and holding. And if they can't, our weak civil society should take the lead in mobilizing us. 

This is the only way to begin rub its scourge from under our skins and educate our children that it can never be a viable alternative to our constitutional democracy. It took the murder of a Greek for the state to wake up and begin dealing with the Nazis but unless we find a way to sustain this effort, it will all have been for naught and the enemy will remain within us and grow stronger. We cannot afford to be in denial forever.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Erdogan's Silent Democratization Package

The Democratization Package that was made public by Turkish Prime Minister Rexhep Tayyip Erdogan on 30 September leaves much to be desired although it could be described as a small step forward.

In today’s polarized political climate, anything the government promotes is viewed with much suspicion in particular in light of the upcoming electoral season beginning next year with local elections in March, the presidential election in August and the general election in 2015. In true autocratic Turkish political tradition, which Erdogan usually decries, the package was decided in back rooms among a small cadre of apparatchiks and unveiled to the rest of us. Obviously, it caters to the conservative-nationalist sensitivities of the Prime Minister’s electoral base in particular with regard to allowing women to wear head scarves in public places (though not everywhere) and token reforms for minorities. Most importantly and ominously, it sets the stage for widespread gerrymandering with a view to the forthcoming elections. The three possible options presented by Erdogan – maintaining the 10% threshold; lowering it to 7%; and a majoritarian system which would eliminate the threshold – all imply that the government will seek to maintain its aura of electoral invincibility by all means possible. 

The Kurds, the Alevis, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Rum community it represents must feel terribly deceived as the expectations which were cultivated by the government have not been met. While the Turkish alphabet has now grown by three letters, Kurdish can only be taught in private schools and political parties polling over 3% can receive state financial assistance; these measures might co-opt somewhat parts of the Kurdish community but the constitutional change needed to allow education in Kurdish in state institutions is nowhere in sight. While a university will be renamed after a prominent Alevi spiritual leader, the Alevi houses of prayer and their religious leaders are still not officially recognized. While the legal impediments to the return of the assets of minority foundations will be removed; the Halki Seminary remains closed. The EU must also feel frustrated as many of the demands of the minorities are prominently mentioned in its Turkey annual progress reports. This also applies to a number of other concerns that the democratization does not address. As a result, EU officials refer to the package as worthy of ‘modest progress.’ 

To some extent the problem stems from the fact that the process to define a new ‘democratic’ Constitution for Turkey has stalled in part because of splits within the opposition CHP party regarding some of the proposed reforms. Consequently, the democratization package only tackles what is doable at this stage and, most importantly, in the interest of the AKP which seeks to maintain if not augment its electoral base. The debate between majoritarian versus pluralist democracy that was in evidence during the Gezi protests is very much reflected here. For now, Erdogan’s ‘silent revolution’ is too silent to make a significant impact on democratic and pluralistic societal transformation.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The despondency of a citizen

Question: what does a frustrated and desperate citizen do when he realizes, as a horrified onlooker at the developments in his country, that not one of the parliamentary or extra-parliamentary parties (or constructs) expresses him? What does he do when the democracy he believes in and wants to constructively engage in is broke? 

It has taken the murder of Pavlos Fissas by a member of Golden Dawn, Greece's brand of neo-Nazis, to shock society into action....a society that has been largely silent when the Nazis murder or rough up immigrants. Yet even this call for a higher calling that this ideology minimizes us and should have no place in mainstream politics or otherwise has brought us closer by awakening most to the danger of extremism but has polarized us further as other mainstream political and social actors seek to equate extremism on the right with extremism on the left. Roger Cohen correctly coins it when he writes that "[t]he perfect political storm for violent extremism has descended on Greece."

I really find myself in despair …the whole gamut of the polarizing public political discourse disgusts me – the right versus the left, the far left versus the far right, the fascists versus the anti-fascists, the classification of violence into justified and unjustified or, in other words, the tolerance towards violence expressed openly by many of my country’s elected representatives and their minions, etc….whether proudly condemning or remaining idle in an unnerving quiet, the contribution of all political parties in the condemnation of my country is undeniable….I who believes in parliamentary democracy and its values and wants to have the right to a political discourse, what do I do? I, who believes in the value of my right to vote and agonizes over my ballot every time I exercise my right, what do I do?

What do I do under the current circumstances when any hope for change is stifled because my very representatives represent the past and contribute to its polarizing present? I do not ask what I can do because I currently I feel helpless, a citizen condemned with no choice or ability or strength to contribute to the reversal of the country's fortunes. 

The prevalence of a culture of hate, division, and sedition has become mainstream in the Greek body politic over the last few years as the political system is undergoing a very real and moral collapse makes all efforts to overcome the debilitating impact of the crisis come to naught.

Greece is seriously ill, past intensive care, almost into some sort of twilight zone where its ailments are abundant, gangrenous, infectious, and their cure a product of manifold interpretations by experts and, unfortunately, the oblivious political pundits that govern it or want to govern it and impart it with their political sophisms.

Hence, for this citizen,  the despair, the desperation, the despondency, the agony, the pain, the helplessness, the void, and all their derivatives....I ask, "what do I do do?" because asking "what can I do?" seems beyond reach, at least my reach...What do I do to keep believing my beliefs and values? What do I to make it through the economic morass that taxes me and my family beyond our means? What do I do to keep believing that this is an ephemeral ugly period that will pass and then I can start believing somehow that I the citizen has a role in society and I can ask "what can I do?" With the prevailing political and social elite and the deep seated culture of polarization and hate that has impregnated society, the answer is not at all evident.