Miltos Pechlivanos is Professor of Modern Greek Studies and Director of the Center of Modern Greece (Centrum Modernes Griechenland / CeMoG) at the Freie Universität Berlin. He studied Modern Greek Studies and Comparative Literature at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and at the University of Konstanz. His doctoral thesis was on “Discourses of Modernity Before the Foundation of the Greek State”.
Professor Pechlivanos has taught at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and, as a visiting professor, at the Universities of Munich, of Cyprus, and at the EHESS, Paris. His research interests include the theory and history of reading and literary communication, the history of knowledge and the reception of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas in modern Greek culture, the Modern Greek novel, and the history of Greek-German cultural transfers.
Miltos Pechlivanos spoke to Rethinking Greece* about CeMoG's activities and agenda, the cultural relations between Germany and Greece, Greece’s intellectual history, the German public sphere and Greek exceptionalism discourse in times of crisis, as well as about the need to re-conceptualize Modern Greece by incorporating her tensions and distinct traditions.
How does the ongoing crisis affect German students’ and scholars’ interest in Greece? Can you offer us an insight into the Center for Modern Greece goals and activities?
As we are dealing with a number of successive "crises", my answer must differentiate distinct levels. The ongoing financial and monetary crisis, the ensuing crisis in Greek-German relations and of course the crisis of refugee flows have brought Greek affairs at the centre of the German public sphere. And we should not forget that negative publicity is still publicity: the number of students interested to know more about Modern Greece is increasing (at this point we should add a new factor: the students - members of the so-called "new migration" to Germany due to the economic crisis). This visibility of Greece is reflected in the growing media interest in the country, in the number of scholarly publications, the public interventions of economists, as well as the ongoing research carried out by fellow colleagues from sociology and political science (some of which is carried out with the cooperation of German and Greek academic institutions).
Modern Greek Studies in Germany certainly include an agenda for the cultivation of Greek-German relations and the last seven years have set an urgent challenge for a systematic study of the history of these relations and its various distortions which of course include persisting stereotypes. I can not refer here in detail to the numerous CeMoG relevant initiatives, conferences and publications but one can trace them in the Centre's website: www.cemog.fu-berlin.de
CeMoG itself was established in 2014 at Freie Universität Berlin thanks to a Stavros Niarchos Foundation grant but also owes its creation to this new bilateral reality: the will to build and strengthen scholarly and cultural networks between the two countries, the need for organized dialogue and interdisciplinary-intercultural mobility promotion as well as the need to systematically study the common Greek-German history. CeMoG’s projects include, inter alia, organization of conferences, financial support for young researchers, the construction of an online and open access encyclopedia of Greek-German relations and exchanges, and the Edition Romiosini publishing program and digital library that focuses on translations of seminal Modern Greek literature oeuvres as well as various studies of Modern Greece.Are there any parallels between Greek and German cultural identity? What is the significance of German Romanticism for Greece’s self-understanding?
“Cultural identity” as such is subject to negotiation, it cannot be perceived, in my opinion, outside the history (and the stories) of cultural mobility and transcultural transfers. The members of the Rum millet (the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire) in order tο “become” Greeks in the 19th century, met with classicist Graecomania and Philhellenism as well as with the romantic nationalism of the Germans, that themselves strongly needed the classical Greek Ideal to construct their own “cultural identity”, as opposed, say, to French enlightenment and revolution. Greek intellectual historian C. Th. Dimaras has adequately stressed the importance of Greek 19th century intellectuals “meeting” with Herder, Heine and Nietzsche. On the other hand, we should not forget that Dionysios Solomos’ (considered the national poet of Greece) legacy, that "The nation must learn to regard as national what is True" (‘Το έθνος πρέπει να μάθει να θεωρεί εθνικόν ό,τι είναι Αληθές’) has been inspired after Solomos’ acquaintance with German idealism through Italian translations: His seminal poetic composition "The Free Besieged" (1826–1844) emerges from such creative, and never only bilateral, European routes.
CeMoG’s cultural events have included a major conference on 20th century Modern Greek Philosophy (September 2014), an area little known to Modern Greek Studies scholars, but quite important in terms of Germany’s influence on Greece’s recent intellectual history. Would you like to tell us more?
This special conference (Deutschland und Griechenland im Spiegel der Philosophiegeschichte. Transfers im 20. Jahrhundert) was organised by CeMoG after the meeting of the President of the Hellenic Republic, Karolos Papoulias with the President of the Federal Republic of Germany Joachim Gauck and the signing of the joint declaration for the establishment of the Greek-German Youth Foundation in Berlin (September 2014). The joint declaration followed the tribute paid by President Gauck at the monument of the village of Lygiades, where German troops executed 92 civilians, 34 of them children.
While in other cases we chose to focus on the World War II memories with talks about the German occupation and war crimes in Greece (as for example in autumn 2015 in cooperation with the Topographie des Terrors foundation in Berlin), in September 2014 we tried to see the Greek-German relations through the mirror of the history of philosophy. The conference was conceived as a vehicle for reflection upon European identity in Modern Greece putting forward the question of the reception of German philosophy. Presentations and discussions focused on the work of Greek mid 20th century Neokantian philosophers like Constantine Tsatsos and Panayotis Kanellopoulos, but also of later prominent figures like Panagiotis Kondylis and Kosmas Psychopedis, as well as on the fortunes of the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism in Greece. The conference proceedings will be published soon in Edition Romiosini publishing program."Drifting Cities", Stratis Tsirkas’ Greek modernism classic, was recently translated in German by CeMoG’s Romiosini Editions, inaugurating a new series on Greek fiction and academic literature. Why is Tsirkas’ work important for Modern Greek literature and do you think it will appeal to the German reading audience?
CeMoG’s Edition Romiosini took over from the earlier Romiosini Verlag in Cologne, through which Hans Eideneier and Niki Eideneier-Anastassiadi have been contributing to the translation of Greek literature into German since 1982. Not only will the editorial program of the Romiosini Verlag in Cologne be partly overtaken and published anew (in the first half of 2016: Stratis Myrivilis’ Life in the Tomb, Dido Sotiriou’s Bloody Earth, Mimika Kranaki’s Philhellenists, Mary Iordanidou’s Loxandra and Sotiris Dimitriou’s To hear your name well), but also new translation projects will be launched among which many non-fiction titles like Yannis Voulgaris’ monograph on post-dictatorship, democratic Greece 1974-2009 and Rika Benveniste’s Those who survived on Greek Jews who survived from the Holocaust. All titles of Edition Romiosini/CeMoG are offered free of charge for online reading and can also be obtained as a printed edition (Book-on-Demand) and some of them as an E-Book as well. We try to take advantage of all the possibilities of digital publishing seeking the greatest possible visibility for our books.
The Edition Romiosini started its journey in December 2015 with Stratis Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities. First of all, to correct an unwarranted lack of the German book market - this is a classic text of the modern Greek (and, in my opinion, European) prose that should be made available in German. In this emblematic trilogy about Greek conflicts in wartime Egypt Stratis Tsirkas reflects upon the postwar fate of modern Greece. It comes as no surpise that the trilogy was established as one of the main literary reference texts for Greek readers after the dictatorship. And one more thing: following the other leading writers of the Greek Diaspora, i.e. Ionian Islands native Dionyssios Solomos, Alexandrian Constantine Cavafy and Asia Minor descendant Giorgos Seferis, Stratis Tsirkas from Cairo succeeded in upgrading Greek literature and transforming the literary idiom of the Hellenic Diaspora into a constant quest for self-consciousness.
How the German reading public will receive this difficult book only time will tell. The first indications, however, allow for optimism, and I’m referring to the recent review in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Readers of demanding literature, as we read there, can now associate North Africa’s war front, not only with Rommel but also with the Greek of the Diaspora Stratis Tsirkas whose Drifting Cities can be situated in the same line with Sartre’s Les chemins de la liberté and Malraux’s L'Espoir.
Many aspects of Modern Greek history, culture and society are seen by prominent public intellectuals as exceptional, both inside and outside Greece. How do Modern Greek Studies internationally, and especially in Germany, reflect upon this view?
I may, rather spontaneously, refer to the title of a conference in Princeton in 2007: „Against Greek Exceptionalism“, or use Constanze Güthenke’s and Dimitris Papanikolaou’s project on „Questioning Greek Exceptionalism“. Or to cite an important position in C. Th. Dimaras‘ History of Modern Greek Literature, Greek culture "is expressed through the constant renewal that is caused by contact with foreign cultures". Its special character is the result of these rich and varied influences and contacts. In contrast «exceptionalist arguments produce inadequate history, limited self-understanding, and arrogant politics» (Mary Nolan) and can impede the opening of Modern Greek Studies, both inside and outside Greece, in the direction of comparative analysis, the study of cultural exchanges, and the search for wider reference frames and interpretative schemes.
German media narratives about Greece and the Greek national character seem to be instrumental in Germany’s policy toward the country and Europe. Can public/cultural diplomacy have any impact on the stereotypes involved?
The German public sphere has been flocked by unhistorical and populist images for the “other”. Greece and the Greek national character have been portrayed as “exceptional” or marginal in ways that prepared the ground for a “Grexit”. We should off course fight against these stereotypes by presenting images which are closer to reality: CeMoG is serving this goal with a variety of events and publications. We have also to study this crisis of representation in the public sphere in Germany and Greece and we should analyze the relevant stereotypes by using discource analysis and media sociology. Thus we are preparing a special Workshop to take place this May, where a project of the University of Crete and the Freie Universität Berlin will be presented (The Greeks, the German and the Crisis: Discursive actor attribution analysis of the Eurozone crisis debate / GGCRISI) with the participation of Greek and German journalists.How can we rethink Greece and the cultural relations between Germany and Greece through the current debates about Europe’s crisis and future prospects?
“Rethinking Greece” means to my understanding to re-conceptualize Modern Greek history, literature and language in a multifaceted manner, i.e. to enhance all possible perspectives through which we can read Modern Greece. Tensions and disharmony between our distinct traditions, scholarly and popular, classical and Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine, Ottoman and Balkan, Mediterranean and European can all be incorporated and reflected upon. Only if we reflect on Cavafy’s “We 're a mixture of races here: Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, Medes” (In a town of Osroene, 1917), taking steps beyond nationalism, we can build a cultural policy, suitable for the current circumstances where Europe in the face of the refugee crisis, by invoking exceptionalism, seems to betray its founding principles.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Stella Belia is a Greek activist for LGBT rights. She is the President of Rainbow Families organization, which represents Greek families of same sex parents and their children and strives for equal opportunity policies. She works as a kindergarten teacher in Athens and raises five children with her partner.
The introduction of a civil partnership law in Greece (December 2015) brought to the forefront the question of LGBT rights in the Greek society, and it is in this framework that Rethinking Greece* asked Stella Belia to answer questions on the current status of LGBT people in Greece, the human rights agenda in times of pauperization and crisis, the perception of homosexuality in Greek public opinion as well as possible conflicts between more traditional values and the liberal mindset that permeates the international LGBT agenda.
The recent enactment, with a broad parliamentary majority, of the of same-sex partnership law is regarded as an important milestone in the history of LGBT claims in Greece. How do you assess this development?
This law gave many people the necessary breathing space to finally talk openly about their sexual orientation, to organize their life and to solve many everyday problems. Yesterday I saw a gay couple that had been closeted all their lives sign a civil partnership contract and submit it to the municipality of a provincial town. After that their life will substantially improve, and this has great significance.
On the other hand, the fact that our children were left behind (the right of gay couples to adopt was not included in the new law) was a big disappointment for us. Up until the last minute we believed that the legislators would make a point of responding to the needs of the most vulnerable group of citizens: the children. Unfortunately it was not so.
We must understand that we are not talking about hypothetical persons. We are talking about real people, living next to us. I think that, although this law will not result in a huge influx of people signing up for civil partnerships, it will somehow educate society to a reality that otherwise would be kept hidden or invisible, as many people turn a blind eye to it.
European societies are on a track of granting universal rights regardless of sexual orientation. Do you believe that this battle has been largely won, or are you afraid that a political realignment in Europe could bring forth forces that might threaten those gains?
Many rights that we thought were established and inalienable -e.g. labor rights- lose their non-negotiable character and are put back on the table to be re-negotiated or repealed. The same goes for human rights: the current economic and political circumstances favor the rise of conservative parties and groups, which to a large extent derive their political power from people who previously upheld liberal ideologies. This is what happened in our country, where those who support the Golden Dawn party come mostly from the voters of New Democracy, the party "closer" to their conservatism.
This means that we could face situations where countries like France, which have made considerable progress in equal rights, plummet to racist and homophobic policies, in case of an election victory for Marie Le Pen.
To what extent do you think the economic crisis and the pauperization of the Greek population has affected the debate on the so-called human rights agenda?
Consider how human needs are classified (e.g. on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs): at the base we find the need for survival (food, water, etc.) and on the next step we find safety concerns: physical safety, labor security, resources, health, property, etc. With the economic crisis there is an increasing number of people who cannot satisfy even the needs at the base of the pyramid, like eating, and an even greater number of people who may barely meet those basic needs, but cannot meet the needs on the next level, because of issues like unemployment, no access to healthcare, inability to pay their mortgage etc.
It is therefore very difficult for a person dealing with any of the above situations to think about the remaining levels at the top of the pyramid, like social acceptance, self-esteem and self-realization. How do we talk to people about gay rights when they are in such dire situations? On the other hand, the duty of every well-governed state is to try and create the necessary conditions so that no citizen can be discriminated against for something like their sexual orientation. The pauperization of Greek society should not prevent the state from ensuring equal rights for all citizens.
What role could public education play in cultivating certain attitudes and social perceptions on LGBT issues? What are the specific actions that the State could take? What are the obstacles placed, and by whom, in this course of changing Greek education?
Firstly, Greek education suffers an obvious deficit: the Ministry of Education in our country – despite the various names it has been given over the years, such as Ministry of Culture, of Sports, of Life-long Learning, of Research etc – has always had attached to its name the term “Religious Affairs”. The fact that a secular policy area like education is part and parcel of religion brings to mind theocratic power structures. It also poses a significant obstacle to promoting changes in the education process towards inclusiveness and the dismantling of LGBT-related stereotypes.
Let me use the example of LGBT parents’ families. Our children, ever since they enter school, starting from kindergarten, don’t see in their school books any family resembling their own families. Besides, in the ranks of the teachers, there is a widespread perception, overtly expressed, of the heteronormative family as the “best” family and all other types of family structure are considered less than, inferior, deficient etc. As a result, our children are forced to keep their family reality out of their school’s door and they join it again only after they school.
It’s been a while now, since we – the organization of Rainbow Families – undertook the task to change this: we are trying to engage University departments that offer teaching degrees, so that future teachers are better informed on LGBT issues. We are also producing material to be used by educators who wish to depict the variety of different family structures. We are currently working on an Alphabet to teach phonology to toddlers and children of primary school ages: the text includes pictures and references to many possible family structures, so that all children can see in it a family that looks like their own family. Moreover, we keep broaching this issue in European conferences. Last but not least, we are in contact with organizations abroad, such as Schools Out, with a view to gaining from their vast experience on how to push things forward towards an all-inclusive school that gives all children space to develop and thrive.
During the recent conference held by "Rainbow Families" ("Love Creates Families," 13-14.2.2016), the word "fear" was often heard from young people living in the Greek countryside. Do you think that there is a two tier Greece as far LGBT issues are concerned, on a center / periphery axis?
I am citing an excerpt from the published life story of a gay guy living in the Greek province, specifically in Lappa, a village very close to Patras: “… I’ve been beaten several times. They took me out to woods; they stole my clothes and left me naked. They started spitting on me, kicking and laughing at me. They keep hanging out of my house and scream “Set the fag’s house on fire!”. I have suffered a lot. And the worst part is, my mother is currently severely ill, with a very serious disease, and they don’t even respect my need to take her out for a walk. They will attack me in front of her”.
This case of abuse was heard by a court, but the Greek justice system, instead of convicting the assailants, based its decision on the allegation that this guy and his aged mother were “provocative”. What else can I add? It is without a doubt that there’s a big difference between living in the anonymous crowd of a big city and living in a small village. Needless to say, the latter is way more difficult.
In response to the increasing migratory flows in Europe, some express fears that the "European way of life" will be “undermined” because of the influx of people of other religions, with different customs and values. Does this debate pertain to LGBT issues?
The refugee crisis is a matter that concerns everyone and everything. This is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history since the two World Wars. Surely these people come from countries with different norms but what does this mean? People usually choose to keep those habits and customs that do not undermine their new life. When our own people migrated to Germany, U.S.A. or Australia, the traditions they observed were the celebrations of big holidays and especially their fun parts, like the spit lamb on Easter, and not the traditions like the “vendetta” between families.
Now, with respect to the "European way of life", I don’t see us experiencing this way of life in Greece: Take a look at some high ranking church officials that adopt deeply negative stereotypes about gay people and demonstrate strong resistance against what they perceive as a “European way of life." Just remember a prominent Greek politician’s provocative statement about Luxembourg’s Prime Minister. This aspect of Europe, therefore, is not yet firmly established in our country.
In some countries LGBT issues figure prominently in the political agenda, and political parties communicate their positions on these issues to the citizens, just as they do on any other policy issue. Is that the case in Greece?
I think this gradually happening in Greece. So far we’ve been a weak, easily neglected minority, with practically no political influence. Since the vast majority of LGBT people are not openly out, politicians for the most part thought that defending our rights wouldn’t bring more votes, or even worse, could backfire. I can sense a change in the climate now, as everybody understands that we and our allies are acquiring political clout, in terms of influence and number of votes. I believe that soon this is going to lead to serious changes in several political parties with regards to the way they deal with our community’s claims.
*Interview by Alkis Delantonis & Ioulia Livaditi
Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist, writer and activist. She is the author of several works and books about the financial crisis, democracy and women's rights; She writes for the major Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter and is an op-ed columnist at the leftwing daily ETC.
In 2013, her book “Skulden, Eurokrisen sedd från Aten” (“The Debt/The euro crisis as seen from Athens”) was published in Swedish. It is worth noting that “Skulden” is not only the word for debt but also denotes guilt (as it is also the case with theGerman word Schuld), which is why the Swedish title cannot be directly translated into English. This is why a different title was given to the book when it was later translated and published into Greek. The title chosen for the Greek version of the book was “Stolen Spring” (“Κλεμμένη άνοιξη - Το χρονικό της κρίσης”), a title that was inspired by Stratis Tsirkas’ book ”Lost Spring”.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman spoke to Rethinking Greece* about her book in which she attempted to break the hegemony of the Greek exceptionalism discourse that was prominent in northern European circles, especially in the first years of the euro crisis. She also shared her views on the current policies applied to address the crisis in Europe and talked about her solidarity initiatives for Greece, as well as for being proclaimed “Greek-Swede of the year 2015”.
Since the outbreak of the euro crisis, you have written a series of articles on Greece, as well as a book. What was it that motivated you to focus on the Greek case?
Greece emerged as the center of protest against austerity measures in 2011. From the Aganaktismeni’s (Indignant Citizens Movement) spontaneous square meetings at Syntagma and other squares all over the country to general strikes and a resurgence of the Left, people showed that they would not silently accept being reduced to a debt colony. This impressed me and when I was contacted by friends in Greece who told me what was happening, I decided to come and write about what I saw. I ended up going back and forth for three years. I learned so much. Not only about the political developments, it was like studying history unfolding live, but I also made many friends.
Through your articles and book, you invited the public to “rethink Greece” by casting doubt on the view that the euro crisis was triggered by lazy retirement-seekers, an idea which was prominent in northern European circles (political and journalistic), especially in the beginning of the crisis. Can you elaborate more on your research/work with regard to this issue?
When I arrived in Greece in 2011, the effects of the austerity measures had not become tangible yet. What angered people was rather how they were depicted in the European press. The worst was the German press and Bild in particular. But Swedish media also spread a light version of the “Greek freak show” talking about hospitals with 50 gardeners and no garden, workers retiring at 40 and having luxury lives, and our biggest newspapers wrote that Greeks “took it easy under olive trees and drank coffee all day.” I have been doing investigative journalism for 13 years but to debunk this myth took me 15 minutes. Just looking at statistics from Eurostat, ILO, OECD and others showed that Greeks actually work more hours than the average European. Productivity is lower, that is true, but this depends rather on the nature of the Greek industry which is not so technologically advanced as the central or northern European heavy industry. This has nothing to do with the workers themselves! Why did this myth spread anyway? How come nobody fact-checked their articles? I don’t know. Either the journalists themselves are lazy. Or truth is inferior to hegemony. When the troika was preparing the way for austerity, this had to be explained to the average non-Greek as “they have been living over their means, they now need to cut down and this is fair”. How else could you justify the austerity measures?
In your view, how has the image of Greece in Northern Europe been affected in conjunction with the scapegoating and the dissemination of over-moralizing narratives related to the Greek society’s characteristics? Has the public debate changed towards a fairer direction after six years of economic and political crisis?
I would say that in 2013 the idea had changed. We now heard less about the lazy Greek and more about the humanitarian crisis that was taking place. I now think that at least people in Sweden have understood what is really going on. What really made it clear was the referendum in 2015, when people clearly voted no to austerity and were deceived by the government. Many voices were heard saying that this move was antidemocratic. The chief economist of one of the biggest Swedish trade unions wrote a report on Greece stating that debt ought to be cancelled. But of course since last fall, the refugee discussion has been the predominant one when speaking of Greece, we now hear very little on the economic situation if anything.
In 2013, you initiated a call for solidarity for Greece through an open letter that was signed by 22 prominent personalities of Sweden, published in the top- selling daily newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” under the title “Austerity policy must stop before it is too late”. What could be an alternative way to exit the euro crisis, according to your opinion? Do you consider that Scandinavia can serve as a model for mixed economy welfare state and prosperity that Europe should pursue?
My opinion is that when a country enters an economic program (I am referring to the troika) with 13% unemployment and 120% debt and after five years has 29% unemployment and 180% debt, then this program has clearly not served its purpose. Then why continue with it? There is no logic at all. The troika program has been an economic catastrophe and a human disaster for Greece. It should be ended now. There is no point in deceiving the public by calling it “the institutions” when it’s still the same thing. The longer it goes on, the worse.
Now the Scandinavian welfare model is another, bigger discussion. Many people in Greece have an idea of it which relates back to the 70’s when in fact Scandinavia has changed a lot and is no longer the social democratic paradise it once was. In some aspects such as privatization of education, electricity and railways, we are more neoliberal than Greece. Yet I think one of the reasons why Sweden, for example, still has managed to keep a relatively good standard of living is that we voted no to the euro in a referendum in 2003. Finland, with the euro, is doing a lot worse. Norway is in great shape and is not even an EU member. At the end of the day, if the EU was pressing Greece with the euro as their weapon, there is no reason to be scared of dropping it. The euro is not a magic ticket to the VIP club. It simply means that control over the money is not in the country’s own hands. If you don’t control your money, you are not independent, you can only ask for mercy from the bankers. And I think that in Greece, having studied its history, there is this double sentiment. The quest for independence which clearly is a red thread throughout history, from Kolokotronis to Metaxas “Oxi” and Aris Velouchiotis, but also the fear of loneliness which leads the country to jump from one superpower to another in the hunt for allies. And I think in July last year, these two tendencies clashed. Many Greeks want to be independent AND have the euro and unfortunately it is not possible at the moment.
Sweden has been traditionally following an open-door policy to immigrants. However, added to the existing strains of austerity, the escalation of the ongoing refugee crisis puts further economic and political pressure to Europe. How could one rethink the refugee crisis in these challenging times?
Oh I don’t know. This is not my topic. There are experts who have studied this matter and I have not. The only thing I have to say is this: If the world powers would stop invading countries in the Middle East and Central Asia all the time, the number of people on the run would surely drop.
You are a founding member of the “Network for Greece” organization in Sweden. Can you tell us more on this initiative and its actions?
We are not tied to any political party, the organization is for anyone wanting to express solidarity. We have five aims. Stop austerity; People before profits; Give the youth work and future in Greece; Solidarity with everyone living in Greece i.e. no to fascism and racism; and cancelling of the debt. What we do is to organize seminars, to inform Swedes on what’s going on, we hold demonstrations and we invited Aris Xatzistefanou to show his movies here. Members are both Greeks who lived here since the 60’s and those who came recently, Swedes who have been to Greece a lot and have ties to the country, and anyone with an interest in economy. Among our members are also the former ambassador to Greece Krister Kumlin.
You were recently proclaimed as “Swede-Greek of the year 2015” by the “Committee for cultural exchange between Sweden and Greece”. What does this mean to you? What, in your opinion, are the bonds between Greece and Sweden; how much do the two countries have in common?
Yes I was very honoured for that prize! Especially as I received it from Theodor Kallifatides who is a great author and has done so much for the relationship between the two countries. I think the relationship goes way back. Not only since many Greeks came here in the 60’s and worked in the industry and the first Swedes started going on charter in the 70’s, but remember up until the 70’s all Swedes who went to college had to study ancient Greek – the language – it was a requisite. The two countries also have in common the fact that they are small and obsessed with what the world thinks about them. If there is a Swede or a Greek who makes it in Hollywood we always have to point it out: “Look! That’s someone from my country!” A British or American never screams that when they see a countryman on TV. We also tend to think we are unique and start sentences like “in ALL other countries it’s that way, only in MY country it’s this way”. Another similarity is that since we are at the fringes of Europe, we talk about Europe as “the others.” We say we are going “to Europe” when in fact we are already in it.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
See also: Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s blog (mostly in Swedish) & Kajsa Ekis Ekman's book on Being and Being Bought, Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013)
Acclaimed Greek writer Theodor Kallifatides, who has been living in Sweden since 1964 and whose books have been translated and published in more than 20 languages, spoke to Greek News Agenda (GNA)* about some painful childhood memories and how it all began, what it means to be a bilingual writer, and how it feels to be called a “migrant writer”. He also shared his views on Greece’s brain drain, the refugee crisis, and Greece’s image abroad.
Q: It has been 40 years since you started making a living exclusively from writing. How did it all begin? At what age, and instance, did you feel the need to write for the first time?
A: It all started when I was very young, 5 years old to be exact. My father, who was a teacher, had already taught me how to read and write. It was during the Occupation of Greece in WWII. The Germans executed a man in our village, and to set an example, we were all forced to observe the execution. My father was already imprisoned. My older siblings were away. Thus, it was I and my mother who was holding my hand that watched the execution. I watched the man fall, and saw his dying gaze. That evening, I didn’t go out to play. I stayed in, and for the first time, without knowing why, I wrote something about that execution.
Q: You belong to that rare species of bilingual writers. What does it mean, in practical terms, to write in a language that is not your mother tongue?
A: It implies a constant insecurity, which is positive however, because one is always alert and in search of every word, writing with difficulty since nothing flows with ease. All this is good for a writer; ease and convenience are not, they’re an enemy. I have to know exactly what I want to say, without any rhetorical tricks. Writing in Swedish has forced me to be honest.
Q: A recurring theme in your novels is migration. How has it affected your mentality, your frame of mind as a writer? Do you accept the term “migrant writer” (invandrarförfattare) that is widely used in Sweden, or does it bother you?
A: The term “migrant writer” bothers me. I am a migrant, but this is not why I am a writer, irrespective of whether emigration was and remains an experience of decisive importance in my life.
Q: One of the consequences of the Greek economic crisis is emigration, especially of young and educated people (brain drain) leaving Greece in search for a better future abroad. However, this option is not always that simple or easy. Having gone through this yourself, what would you say was the hardest part and what would your advice to those opting for this path nowadays be?
A: Only if you know why you are leaving and are certain that there are no other solutions, only then would I recommend this path, emigration. Living in a foreign country entails many challenges and ordeals; it requires giving it all to survive. Determination and drive, perseverance and commitment, hard work and self confidence; you have to know who you are so as not to get lost.
Q: Another side of migration that Greece is facing nowadays is that of refugees from the Middle East coming to Europe with hopes for a better life. What is your view on the running public debate in Europe concerning the refugee crisis?
A: Europe is not dealing with how to help these people but with how to avoid them. It is shameful and idiotic because huge human potential that we’ll need one day is being wasted unreasonably.
Q: In what ways and to what extent do you believe that the image of Greece in Northern European Media and public opinion has been affected in recent years?
A: Unfortunately, a great deal of goodwill towards our country has been lost, and this is not only on account of any mismanagement of the situation, but because of the intransigence of the Institutions as well.
Q: You have now lived for over 50 years in Sweden, where you have enjoyed a successful career, have been awarded with honours and prizes and, above all, have gained the respect and appreciation of the Swedish public. Do you consider yourself in a way as an ‘ambassador’ of Greece abroad?
A: I don’t consider myself as an ‘ambassador’ of Greece, but I always defend the Greek people. This does not mean that I am blind to what’s wrong with us or others. But you don’t strike one who is down; you help him stand on his feet.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
Theodor Kallifatides was born in the village Molaoi of Laconia, Greece, in 1938. In 1946, he and his family moved to Athens where he finished high school and studied at Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre school. He immigrated to Sweden in 1964, where he has lived ever since. He studied philosophy and worked as a lecturer at Stockholm University between 1969 and 1972, and then as chief editor of Bonniers literary magazine “Litterära Magasin” between 1972 and 1976. Kallifatides made his literary debut in 1969 with a poetry book, but gained recognition mainly through his subsequently published novels. He is one of the most acclaimed contemporary writers in Sweden and is considered the most prominent example of writers from migrant background in the Nordic countries that have chosen to write in the Nordic languages. Since 1994, he began writing in Greek as well. In total, 18 of his novels have been translated and published in Greece (mainly by Gavriilidis Editions). His autobiographical work “The Past is not a Dream” was published in 2012, and his latest novel I will Always Return was published in 2015. He has published novels, poetry collections, travel essays and plays, and has received numerous awards for his works which usually revolve around memories of his homeland and his life as a Greek abroad. He has also written film scripts and has directed a film.
Read more: Leaving, Losing, Letting Go: Some Steps in Bilingual Transformations in the work of Theodor Kallifatides (Modern Greek Literature: Critical Essays, 2003)
Watch video (in Greek): Theodor Kallifatides - Writer (produced by ERT, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, 2011)
Aristides Hatzis is an Associate Professor of Law & Economics and Legal Theory at the University of Athens (Department of Philosophy & History of Science) with a doctorate on Law & Economics from the University of Chicago, founder of the GreekCrisis.net blog and the Athens-based John Stuart Mill research group.
He is the co-editor of Law and Economics: Philosophical Issues and Fundamental Questions (Routledge, 2015), Economic Analysis of Law: A European Perspective (Edward Elgar 2017).He is a member of the Editorial Board of the European Review of Contract Law, a fellow of the European Law Institute, a member of the scientific board of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), as well as a member of the National Council for Research & Innovation.
Professor Hatzis op-eds have been published by the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the CNBC and other major international and Greek media (Ta Nea, Protagon). He has also given interviews to major international media outlets: Bloomberg News, Economist, Euronews, BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Spiegel, U.S. National Public Radio, Time, Voice of America, Belgian State TV, Finish State TV, Swedish State Radio, etc.
Aristides Hatzis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about his department research and academic performance, his initiative to launch the Greekcrisis.net blog, the liberal heritage of Greece and the study of liberal political thought in Greece, the need for pro-free market reforms in Greece, as well as the state of today’s centre-right political parties in the country.
You teach Law & Economics and Legal Theory at the University of Athens. What are the dynamics of academic research of this particular field in your department (History & Philosophy of Science) and in Greece generally? What do you think is the level of the study of Philosophy & History of Science in Greece and what are the career prospects of Philosophy graduates in the country?
I am teaching law & economics at the Law School and Legal Theory at my department, the Department of History & Philosophy of Science. This is not a new department. It was established, more than two decades ago, in 1994. It is justifiably considered, academically, one of the best departments in Greece. This is not a subjective view. It was the conclusion of the external evaluation report for my department: “The Committee’s overall assessment of the Department is very positive. It is something of which the University of Athens and the Ministry of Education should be proud.” This is the result of an emphasis on academic excellence, a close, almost personal relationship with the students, a curriculum which is up-to-date and an atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation. One wonders what’s the future of a philosophy graduate in a country with almost 60% unemployment among the young. Happily, our students are regularly being accepted in graduate programs in many areas, in Greece and abroad. Their employment rate is more than the average and they are among the most satisfied students in Greece with the level and quality of their studies. Unfortunately, our students with the most impressive careers don’t live in Greece anymore.
My course is a mix of legal theory, political philosophy and institutional theory. It is a course on the history of the liberal constitutional democracy and the development of the rule of law, from Ancient Athens to the early 20th century. With references to the issues of the freedom of speech, the debate on self-ownership and human dignity, the relationship between law and morality (with a lecture dedicated to Nuremberg trials) and economic inequality. In this course and a sequel, in the form of a seminar, we deal with all the above plus current issues, like the integration of Muslims in western societies, police violence and torture, the freedom of the press and the contradictions in a liberal democracy. Every year we see 8-9 movies, we attend at least one theater play and the students organize 12-18 debates.
Law & Economics is my area of research for the past 25 years. I got my doctorate on law & economics from the University of Chicago under the supervision of Judge Richard Posner. Law & Economics (and the economics of institutions in general) is a relatively new field of study. It tries to answer questions like, what’s the suitable institutional framework for economic development, how to make the justice system more efficient, how to interpret legal rules in contracts, torts, antitrust in order to regulate behavior successfully. The Law and Economics approach is the opposite of a stagnant and barren legal formalism, which is still dominant in Greek legal theory. However, for the past ten years a great number of young scholars, colleagues, lawyers and judges are interested in the field. We have a rather large and lively community and we organize a very successful annual conference for young scholars.
One last word about research. Research in Greece is like a hurdles race, especially in social sciences. It is underfunded, you can’t organize a lab, you can’t help young scholars, you can’t invite a colleague, you can’t travel to major conferences, you have to spend most of your time in clerical work. I am trying to minimize cost by integrating my research and my teaching. This has some beneficial side-effects. My first audience is my students. And the feedback is invaluable.
You have launched the GreekCrisis.net blog which offers a variety of perspectives into the Greek crisis, mainly through International Press articles and commentary. Can you tell us a bit more about this initiative? How do you assess the public’s response to it?
This is a joint project. We started it with Dr. Yulie Foka-Kavalieraki, my wife, 6 years ago. It started very modestly, as a clearinghouse of information for the Greek Crisis. The great success was rather shocking to us. I remember that in the summer of 2012 we took some time for vacation and we started receiving emails from hedge fund analysts, bank managers and journalists asking us why “our service” had stopped. We have now 3.200.000 individual visits, almost 13.000 posts and a faithful audience. You can also find there all my opinion pieces published in the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal but almost everything you need to know about the Greek Crisis, including bibliography. Funny, and not expected, fact: only 14% of our visitors are Greeks! This is a public, pro bono service. We don’t have any kind of help, we don’t receive any kind of funding or donations and we don’t have advertisements. Our only hope is for this blog to become redundant. But I am afraid that this crisis will last longer than expected or feared.
It seems that there is a growing interest for the study of the liberal political thought and particularly British - American liberalism in Greece, reflected in initiatives such as the Liberty Forum of Greece and the John Stuart Mill research group, among others. Is it a trend, or a phenomenon with deeper roots?
Greece had a very strong liberal tradition, especially in the 19th century. Greece was founded as a liberal democracy by liberal politicians with strong ties and personal relationships with leading liberal intellectuals and politicians in Britain, France, Italy and the U.S.A. Unfortunately, this tradition was forgotten under the fever of the irredentist nationalism of Megali Idea for many decades and then by the bloody antagonism between communist left and conservative right after World War II and the ensuing ferocious civil war. After 1974 a number of liberal intellectuals tried to reintroduce liberal ideas in Greece, after almost a century. They had their failures but they managed to create a fertile ground for such ambitious initiatives as the Liberal Forum of Greece (of whose scientific board, I am a member) or the “John Stuart Mill research group”, another project my wife and I founded and organized with the help of my current and former students. Its success was unprecedented. We have 1.200 members, mostly students (from every Greek university) and young professionals, 70% of whom are young women. Our events are so successful we keep booking ever larger venues. This is also an initiative based on purely voluntary work. We don’t receive any funds, our events are free, we don’t have a budget.I believe that classical liberal ideas are going to exert a much greater influence in the not-so-distant future in Greece. Because these are ideas of the open society, emphasizing liberty, rationality, individual rights, the rule of law, political equality, free competitive markets and civil society. Greece is deficient (more or less) in all the above and this is the root-cause of its problems. The modernization of Greece entails embracing these ideals.
Greece was not only founded as a liberal democratic state, but also as a genuine European state. Of course there was always a great gap between political ambition, intellectual wishful thinking and the grim reality of a backwards society. Nevertheless, the Greek political elites managed (with a few exceptions) to keep Greece in the right side of history – “right” also meaning “winning”. The young Greek state was attached to the British empire, when the empire was powerful. In every European conflict Greece was always with the winning side (Balkan wars, World Wars, Cold War). Greece became member of the most privileged and powerful “clubs” (recently NATO, OECD, European Union, Eurozone). That is why Greece cannot imagine itself outside of European integration, even when this process has serious structural problems, even when Greek people are dissatisfied with their partners. Greece’s ambition has always been to be a part of the Western Europe. This was a challenging ambition but a wise and worthy one.
What kind of reforms does Greece need? And what is the reform capacity of the Greek society and the Greek political system, especially under the current circumstances?
Greece still has the least free economy in the European Union, one of the less free economies in Europe. It is still not competitive, despite the steep decline in labor cost, because it is also not supported by an economically-efficient institutional framework. The administration of justice is ridiculously slow. You need 4,5 years to enforce a contract, 3,5 to finalize a bankruptcy procedure. It is still hostile to investment due to overregulation, corruption, a nefarious macroeconomic environment, a banking system in disarray, costly energy and substandard infrastructure. Greece needs urgently radical pro-free market reforms. Unfortunately, this kind of reforms have very powerful enemies, the strong pressure groups – in the case of Greece and in order of importance: powerful cartels, professionals and public sector unions. Most Greek identify reforms, erroneously, with the extreme fiscal measures (tax hikes, across-the-board salary cuts) which were both inefficient and unfair. Consequently, we have the phenomenon of “reform-fatigue” without real reforms.
How would you translate the state of the liberal political ideology and centre-right political parties in Greece today? What does it mean for New Democracy as the main opposition party to have Kyriakos Mitsotakis in its helm? What are the consequences for the Greek political spectrum?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ election was a surprise to me. He is the first leader of the conservative party who can be characterized as liberal, after 23 years. However, I should emphasize that the party is not liberal. The liberal faction is rather weak and marginalized. Mitsotakis was elected by the Greek centrists who went enthusiastically to vote for him. He has to control his party and establish his dominance to win the elections, especially if the next elections are close. I think that his most important contribution would be to transform the party into a genuine European center-right party with a strong liberal element.
His election challenges the undisputed political hegemony of Alexis Tsipras (winner of four elections in a row). Now Tsipras has a formidable opponent. Mitsotakis can become Prime Minister in two ways. By behaving opportunistically, waiting political cost to undermine Alexis Tsipras or by persuading the Greek people that the liberal alternative is the only real alternative for growth, jobs, and the restoration of the rule of law and Greece’s reputation. The second option is the most difficult, but at the same time the most rewarding and sustainable.
*Interview by Vasiliki Diagouma and Nikolas Nenedakis
Watch Aristides Hatzis' interview with Crisis Observatory (In Greek with English subtitles, 28 November, 2014):
In an interview with Greek News Agenda, Nikolaos Stampoulopoulos, founder and creative director of New Diaspora – a participatory narrative hub relevant to the current Greek migration flow, its causes, its consequences and its future – discusses the idea that sparked New Diaspora, its mission and future goals and comments on how we can turn “brain drain” into “brain gain” and redefine the Greek collective identity.
What is the idea behind New Diaspora? What makes this initiative so important?
Over the last seven years of continuous recession, nearly half a million Greeks have abandoned their country; adding up to thousands of their compatriots who moved abroad before the crisis officially broke out. Most of those people are young, educated and multilingual. In my opinion, if we don't manage to reverse this massive 'brain drain' or tap on it from a distance, the prospect of a successful productive restructuring of Greece seems exceptionally difficult, if not impossible. The same goes for the redefinition of a collective identity that is not determined by obsolete, and sometimes negative, cultural stereotypes.
Launched in March 2013, New Diaspora started out as a bilingual digital storytelling platform, focusing on the personal stories of the new generation of Greeks living abroad during the crisis. Since then, it has grown into a participatory narrative hub, relevant to the current Greek migration flow, its causes, its consequences and its future. New Diaspora's mission is to bridge the gap between Greek 'neomigrants' and their birthplace, empowering both sides by becoming a point of reference and social synergy, that encourages the members of an international community to connect to each other, share experiences and ideas, collaborate and pursue common goals.
Apart from telling stories that matter, we try to provide people with useful information on moving and finding work abroad. We also partner with numerous other initiatives and organisations, in an attempt to facilitate the need for international networking and promotion of extrovert and innovative Greek business and cultural activities. Our ultimate goal is to help as much as we can in creating incentives for the return of expatriate Greeks, eventually reversing the tide and turning the 'brain drain' into a 'brain gain'. The current developments in Greece and the rest of Europe make this a formidable task, to say the least.
New Diaspora has received wide Greek and international media attention, your social media reach is constantly growing while new partnerships are inaugurated. What comes next? Are there new projects under way?
To this date, the entirety of New Diaspora's content and activities has relied on volunteer work, and that also includes the mini documentaries I have directed and published online for free. We are now in the process of securing funds from institutions and private sponsors, in order to hire people who will redesign our website and make it more interactive, and also help us increase our content flow and community engagement. In the near future we want to co-organise networking, cultural and academic events in various countries, starting from the most popular destinations in Europe. In addition, we are hoping that our proposal for a new series of mini documentaries about Greek 'neomigrants' around the world will find the necessary financial support. The platform is already there to promote such a series, as well as to discover people who have compelling stories to share.
The economic crisis has sparked a massive wave of ‘neoemigrants’ in what is called the “Greek brain drain”, often recorded and commented in the Greek and international press. What differentiates New Diaspora in the way it presents and promotes the stories of these neoemigrants?
New Diaspora's unfair advantage is its dedication to the cause of recording a migration wave as it happens, without trying to beautify or sensationalise anything. We care for all kinds of stories and opinions, instead of selectively focusing on the exceptionally successful and exceptionally unfortunate that Greek media seems to prefer featuring. Moreover, by letting expatriate Greeks tell their own stories in an unmediated way, we believe we can inspire people to discuss issues, seek solutions and become the change they crave for.
There are many people interested on this subject, both in Greece and abroad; and I'm not referring to Greeks only. This is a case study on an altogether new type of workforce and entrepreneurial mobility, and no one knows how it will evolve and influence the shape of things to come.
You have been living and working in Amsterdam since 2009. What’s your own story of migration? How has it influenced your perspective?
I lived for five years in the Netherlands, where I worked as a freelance filmmaker, made new friends and got used to riding a bicycle instead of driving a car. While the crisis was escalating back in Greece, it sometimes felt like I was living in a parallel universe with a totally different economy, mentality and climate. It wasn't always easy to stay focused on building a new life in a place I knew from the start I will never belong to as much as I belong to my homeland.
During my stay in Amsterdam, I realized that the growing influx of my compatriots was a story no one else particularly cared to tell, so I started filming my friends and my impressions of my life abroad. I still struggle to organise all this footage, hoping to create a feature length documentary on the period "I went Dutch". Meanwhile, the preparation and management of New Diaspora became a full time obsession that led me to the decision of returning to Athens at the end of 2014; seeking funds and partners to carry on from there. The timing was far from perfect, but I haven't regretted it yet.
You have stated that redefining an obsolete collective identity – that somehow seems to be stuck in the “Zorba” cliché of the 60s – is absolutely necessary in the attempt to rebrand Greece, an undertaking that cannot be achieved by the ones who are left behind. Which would be the core elements of a new Greek collective identity?
The whole notion of a collective identity is that it takes a living community to define it. When that community breaks up, its identity inevitably gets fragmented and distorted, ending up like a blurry reflection of an idolised past. I don't think there is anything wrong with the ancient and more recent Greek heritage, as long as we keep reinventing it and adding to it. If the crisis and the migration it causes make us too depressed or alienated to do so, we become trapped in a stagnant narrative.
We live in the age of internet and mobility, however, and it's up to us to stay connected and exchange ideas and experiences that will tell the future generations who we were and what we achieved. Therefore, I prefer to be an optimist who sees an opportunity for renewal in this gigantic brain drain, providing that both the ones who left and the ones who stayed behind (or came back, as it is in my case) will work together and produce economic and cultural wealth. I wish I knew what will be the specific characteristics of the civilization we will leave behind. My hope is that they will include equal rights, cultural diversity, freedom of speech and uncompromising democracy.
Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Dr Angeliki Dimitriadi, Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and Visiting Fellow at the ECFR Berlin Office since November 2015, spoke to Greek News Agenda (GNA)* and shared her views on how Greece, Germany and EU are handling the refugee and migrant issue. Dr Dimitriadi, whose research focuses on the management of irregular migration, commented on Turkey’s role, burden sharing between EU member states and third countries, as well as possible ways forward to manage the situation.
Q: How do you think Greece has handled the migrant and refugee issue so far? What could the Greek authorities have done more and what may be done now to better manage the situation?
A: I think the Greek state responded with significant delays, was mostly absent in the first months of 2015 and late in addressing the situation on the ground. But its European partners were also late in assisting a country that is in a particularly vulnerable position due to the economic crisis. The hotspots should have been in place since September- they were part of the European Agenda on Migration and are important in terms of screening and registering arrivals. It took too long to set up reception places and still a significant number of arrivals primarily of non-critical nationalities (Pakistanis, Afghans etc) are outside the scope of the reception facilities. Even if they will be returned they still need to be housed and cared for temporarily while under Greek jurisdiction in humane conditions with respect and dignity.
On the other hand, the search and rescue operations of the Hellenic Coastguard have been admirable and the efforts by some NGOs as well. Civil society carried and continues to carry the burden of response on the ground. The response has been impressive but for me it is also slightly problematic. Civil society replaces state mechanisms because the latter are either absent or ineffective. As a result no one fulfils their expected role. The state and civil society should be working together and in parallel but not replacing each other. Which is why from the beginning an independent authority should have been put in place coordinating NGOs, volunteers, ministries and agencies but also municipalities. This is apparently something that will now happen and is a welcomed move. The reality on the ground is that there are a million different needs from area to area and nationality to nationality and what we need is an organized structure that functions like an umbrella- and is able to pin point at any given time what the needs are, be able to allocate funds, material and personnel.
Q: What is your view on EU's handling of the refugee crisis, especially in view of the relocation system and the creation of hotspots in Greece? Does this solution ensure the sustainability of efforts needed to deal with the migrant flows?
A: The EU’s response has been fragmented. The Syrian conflict is entering its sixth year, which means we are five years late in preparing adequate response and burden sharing mechanisms to deal with arrivals we knew would eventually reach Europe. Absence of a solid and united response resulted in what we are seeing today; ‘coalitions of the willing’ but also ‘coalitions of the unwilling’. On the other hand this is not entirely surprising; The EU has a tendency to react fairly late to crises.
The hotspots are in the right direction- we need to know who enters the country and especially so when we are dealing with vulnerable populations, so that we can also ensure their protection. Relocation is more complex. The number agreed upon is realistically very small however; if the process worked it would have established a positive precedent of burden sharing in the EU. The failure of relocation in my view has to do with the fact that no wide political consensus was reached prior to the Commission’s proposal. It is emblematic of a wider problem at present in the Union; member states may commit but there is no mechanism in place that can ensure they implement their commitment. Additionally no alternatives were offered to those members unwilling to relocate refugees and by alternatives I refer to other means of contributing, perhaps more money, perhaps more specialized personnel in critical areas, equipment etc..
However relocation is only one measure and it was never designed to address the full scale of the migratory flows. The situation at present is much more complex within and outside Europe and will require a multi-pronged strategy to address the needs.
Q: What role could Germany play in the progress of the relocation system, and more generally for a fairer burden sharing between EU member states?
A: Germany has tried to lead extensively and it has also tried to assist Greece. The Chancellor remains the staunchest supporter of relocation and burden sharing. However, the recent results in the three state elections in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt are a reflection of the pressure Chancellor Merkel is under but also the increased division within Germany as regards the refugee policy. There is a gradual acknowledgement that relocation, as originally proposed, is not working. Hence the shift of focus to Turkey and the EU-Turkey deal as a last solution to address incoming numbers. This does not mean that Germany will not continue to assist or seek a European response but it will require allies and more importantly it will need to be able to point to progress on the ground.
I am not sure there is fertile ground at present for a fairer burden sharing between EU member states. At best we may hope for coalitions of the willing, to split tasks and responsibilities though in the long term that’s unsustainable. It is very difficult to achieve political agreements during a period of crisis and where events progress quicker than policy.
Q: How do you comment on recent discussions in certain circles in Europe regarding the Schengen zone, increasing border restrictions and imposing a cap on asylum applications? Could they possibly reflect a potential political rift within the EU?
A: This is not the first time Schengen is brought up following a migration ‘crisis’. We should not forget that after events of 2011 in Lampedusa at the height of the Arab Spring and following the Franco-Italian rift over the border crossing of Tunisians, EU leaders amended the Schengen code to include the re-imposition of internal border controls as regards a Member State, if there are persistent serious difficulties or deficiencies detected in that Member State’s control of external borders. At present the impression in Europe is that Greece cannot protect its borders. Realistically, there is very little one can do on the maritime border. The legal framework in place (and correctly so) prohibits push backs and requires rescue and safe disembarkation. The land border is a different issue and there I do think there were alternative ways for Greece to negotiate the wave through of the refugees to other countries. Obviously Greece could not and does not have the capacity to keep almost 1 million refugees in the country but a more organized and methodical manner of border crossing would have helped, regulated from the Greek side to avoid this impression of utter chaos. As things stand today, the discussion on Schengen and Greek membership hurts Greece at a political level. I agree that border restrictions and the asylum caps demonstrate a political rift in the Union but for me the question is between which countries. Irrespective of what is being said and done, the Visegrad states need Germany, the western Balkans traditionally look to Austria and Germany. The danger is that the inability to manage the refugee flows will isolate Greece further and that will have broader geopolitical and strategic implications for a country already fragile and already carrying a significant burden.
Q: How significant is EU’s and Greece’s cooperation with Turkey on the issue?
A: Turkey is a crucial partners in this by virtue of its geography. However, Turkey has showcased a remarkable ability to instrumentalise migration, i.e. it is using the issue of refugee and migrant flows to further its own political and strategic agenda. Thus, any cooperation should be treated with caution because for Turkey the Syrian refugees are a small part of a much broader issue as regards Syria and Turkey’s role in the region. We need cooperation but on equal terms and with respect to human rights. Greece also needs to carefully walk the line between cooperating and safeguarding its own national interests.
Q: What scenarios do you see unfolding for the refugee issue in the future? What could be a realistic way forward?
A: At present there are various potential ‘hot spots’ that can produce significant numbers of refugees, including Yemen, the Lake Chad region, and of course Afghanistan remains a source country. We will have to talk about legal means of entry especially for asylum seeking populations directly from third countries and reach a consensus and a way forward. It is unrealistic for Europe to expect third countries alone will carry the burden. It is also imperative to strengthen Jordan and Lebanon to continue hosting the refugee populations and improve living conditions. We also will need to discuss openly integration in Europe and address the present gap in integration capacity member states have. And we need to move beyond crisis-mode. The numbers that reached Europe since 2015 are undoubtedly significant and at times appear overwhelming but this is because we failed to cooperate with each other. 1 million people in a Union of 500 million inhabitants do not make a crisis.
On Greece I think the immediate concern should be to strengthen the Asylum Service, particularly first instance to avoid any potential back log. As regards the way forward Greece by virtue of its geography will always function as an entry point. This means that Greece has to develop a coherent asylum system that moves beyond protection and is linked with integration, offers assistance to those who receive protection until they can become self-sustained, create reception facilities and a humane return program. All the above require financial investment which Greece does not have. However it is an area where the Commission has expressed willingness to assist. Realistically all member states will have to realise that in one way or another they will have to undertake some form of burden sharing and that in the case of Greece a portion at least of those who arrive will have to stay in the country. But this can also be a huge opportunity and resource for the country if addressed correctly early on.
Angeliki Dimitriadi earned a PhD in Social Administration with a focus on irregular migration from Democritus University in Greece, a MA in War Studies from King’s College London & a BSc in International Relations & History from the LSE. Her areas of expertise are: Irregular migration, asylum, securitization of migration, Common European Asylum System, Afghanistan and Greece. She is also co-Investigator to the ESRC Urgent Research Grant (University of Warwick and ELIAMEP), entitled 'Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat: Mapping and documenting migratory journeys and experiences’, monitoring current refugee flows and is working on a monograph on the governance of irregular migration at the borders of the European Union, to be published by Routledge in late 2016.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou (& Ioulia Livaditi)
More @ Greek News Agenda: ELIAMEP Think Tank: Analyzing the Refugee Crisis, Opinion: Global Cooperation Key for Refugee Crisis, Opinion: No Scapegoating in a Real EU policy for the Refugee Crisis; Fact sheet: Greece Dealing with the Refugee Crisis
Sotiris Roussos is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Peloponnese; Head of the Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East & Islamic Studies (CEMMIS), and Coordinator of the Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East (CRPME).
From 1997 to 2003, he served as Senior Middle East Expert at the Greek Foreign Ministry. During the same period, he was a member of the Organising Team for the Athens Meetings between Israelis and Palestinians MPs, a member of the Task Forces for Water and Refugee Issues of the EU Special Representative for the Middle East, and the Greek representative in the Informal Group on the Religious and Cultural Aspects of Jerusalem. In 2009 he was appointed Personal Envoy for the Mediterranean Partners of the President-in-Office of the OSCE. Sotiris Roussos has written extensively on regional security and international politics in the Middle East, political Islam and the Christian communities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Professor Roussos spoke to Greek News Agenda* about the study of the Muslim World, the Syrian crisis and its repercussions, the Islamic State, Turkey, Iran, and the European stance on the refugee crisis:
You are involved in two major initiatives in Greece regarding the study of the Muslim World. The Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East and Islamic Studies (CEMMIS) and the recently established Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East (CRPME). Can you give us some more information on those two initiatives? What is their purpose?
We are talking about two distinct and at the same time interconnected initiatives. The Centre for Mediterranean Middle East and Islamic Studies (CEMMIS) has been, for ten years now, researching and reporting on the Middle East and the world of Islam. CEMMIS is the only centre in Greece dedicated to the study of the Middle East producing more than a hundred reports, bulletins and multimedia presentations. Established in the Dept. of Political Science and International Relations of the Univ. of Peloponnese and affiliated with the Athens based Institute of International Relations, it has trained more than eighty interns and researchers on Middle East Affairs.
The Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East (CRPME) came to fulfill the need, highlighted in the Athens International Conference on Religious Pluralism in the Middle East, to establish a follow up mechanism in Athens, which would examine the situation in terms of freedom of religion or belief and cultural pluralism, would codify the various problems and would elaborate concrete proposals and viable solutions. CRPME's website and newsletters report on the social and economic conditions of the religious communities in the Middle East, the cultural production, the demographic situation, the conditions under which religious rights are exercised and the relationship of these communities with the world and the communities of the diaspora.
It seems that the Syrian crisis is the result of a power vacuum in the Middle East, which in turn is due to the transition from a bipolar to multipolar international system. Do you agree with this approach? How do you think this that this vacuum manifests on a domestic, regional and international level?
Some American analysts tend to describe this period as "politics of incoherence" meaning the transitional period when the old has gone but the new has yet to come. What we encounter is the ascent of various regional powers struggling for hegemony in their near abroad. The only and lonely superpower seems ready to accept a kind of regional hegemony while these powers cannot threat US global supremacy. In such a transitional situation, Washington can also tolerate relatively ungoverned zones, if there are no vital American interests under threat. Syria is a case in point where the US initially allowed for regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to take the lead.
During the Syrian conflict, the Kurds have played a key role in combating ISIS. Do you think that in the near future Kurds will have an opportunity to establish a Kurdish state in the region, one that could unite the Kurdish people leaving today in four different states?
The Kurdish autonomous self-government in Syria seems to be the only alternative paradigm to both the Arab Baathist nation-state and Islamist extremism. However, I am afraid that no major power has any intention "to die in the ditch" for the Kurds. In other words, Washington would face no dilemma if they had to choose between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. And Russia would not alienate Iran (suspicious of any Kurdish entity) for the shake of the Kurds. It is difficult to find any trustworthy allies for the Kurds in the Syrian endgame.
The latest developments in the Syrian conflict have put Turkey in a difficult position. Do you think that Turkey can continue its aspirations to play a key role in resolving this conflict? What will be, in the long term, the consequences on Turkey’s role as a regional power?
There is no doubt that the Russian military intervention in Syria has seriously curtailed Turkey's ambition to play a decisive role in the Syrian endgame. However the country's geostrategic position, in conjunction with the refugee issue, gives Ankara a certain leverage. It seems that Erdogan will use this issue to gain not only financial aid, visas and re-kindling of the Turkey's EU Accession process but, most importantly, the European support for a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish borders. With the pretext of establishing a safe haven for refugees, Turkey will be free to thwart Kurdish plans for autonomy in Northern Syria.
What is the importance of PM Tsipras recent visit to Iran? Do you think that Iran is changing?
Certainly Iran is changing. The lifting of sanctions will bring serious changes in Iranian economy and society. It will terminate the conditions of the "war economy" that has shaped both politics and social hierarchies. Greece can only benefit from closer relations with Iran. Unfortunately these relations have been somewhat neglected for the past ten years and Athens has taken steps that could have been misunderstood as unfriendly to Tehran. But I am sure that the visit of the Greek Prime Minister has done a lot to dissipate such concerns and I hope that the visit is going to have the appropriate follow-up, in terms of concrete agreements and common projects.
How do you judge the European stance on the refugee crisis? Do you think that the EU relocation/resettlement proposals are viable?
The European Union sense of security was anchored on two main elements. The first was the American politico-military umbrella, which was necessary even during the post-Cold War era. The second was the interventionist welfare state, which was built due to the Social Democratic political and ideological hegemony. When both of these elements waned, they were replaced by greedy and barbarous financial markets producing a gigantic precariat, feeding individualism, social Darwinism, xenophobia and racism. Under such circumstances the refugee issue is not examined objectively, but under the pressure of social barbarism.
What scenarios do you see unfolding for the Islamic State? You have referred to an ongoing “perceptions war”, can you tell us more?
My prediction is that the Islamic State won't last more than two years. This means that there will be a military defeat in conventional terms. Even so, I am afraid that without a new home-grown paradigm of state-building in the region, the 'perceptions war' conducted by the spiritual offsprings of ISIS will last much longer.
*Interview by Nikos Papadopoulos & Nikolas Nenedakis
Read CEMMIS' Middle East Bulletin (Greek Review of Middle Eastern Affairs, January 2016):