Held every year on 21 March, World Poetry Day celebrates one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural and linguistic expression and identity. Proclamation by UNESCO of a World Poetry Day on March 21 has been largely the result of initiatives by members of the Hellenic Authors’ Society. In 1997, Greek poet Michail Mitras proposed to the Society that a day be designated for a celebration of poetry in Greece as well as in other countries and later poet Lydia Stefanou suggested that March 21, which usually coincides with the spring equinox, be selected.

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The first Poetry Day in Greece was successfully celebrated by the Hellenic Authors’ Society in 1998 at the old Post Office in Kotzias Square in Athens. The following year author Vassilis Vassilikos, Greece’s permanent representative to UNESCO at that time and president of the Hellenic Authors’ Society later, recommended to the United Nations Organization that March 21 be proclaimed a World Poetry Day. Supported by many countries, the Greek proposal was adopted and World Poetry Day has been celebrated internationally since 2000.

Greece, with its rich poetic tradition, will honor World Poetry Day 2017 with celebrations all over the country. The Hellenic Authors’ Society, jointly with the Hellenic Post and the Greek State Broadcaster (ERT) will organize an event at the Old Parliament House where there will be presented a new anthology by Ilias Gris titled Ο ΤΑΧΥΔΡΟΜΟΣ ΦΕΡΝΕΙ ΓΡΑΜΑΤΑ ΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΑ [The Mailman Brings Letters Poems], with the participation of forty poets included in the anthology. Ilias Gris (1952) belongs to the so-called “generation of the 1970s” in Greek poetry. Apart from poems, he has also written prose, essays and five thematic anthologies. His poetry has been included in various anthologies and has been translated in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Persian.

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Ilias Gris spoke to Reading Greece* about what changed and what remained the same in his poetry from the late 1970s when he published his first book to the present, noting that “if there is something that remains the same it is the poet’s vain passion and longing for the aesthetic perfection of his work”. He also comments on the anthologies he has published, explaining that they offer “a different insight into the ongoing preoccupation and turmoil that poetry entails”, “a pretext to speak as a writer in a different guise”.

Asked about the “generation of the 1970s”, he notes that “the burden of causes betrayed” has been “the most distinctive aspect of modern Greek poetry in its entirety” and adds that “it is the most diverse generation where a variety of voices with many different features converge”. He concludes that in times of “dynamic upheaval and unrest”, poetry – the vigilant guard of human conscience – “acts either as a consolation or as a secret blare for unsettling consciences”.

From Ρημαγμένη Πολιτεία [Ruined State] in 1980 to the comprehensive Λήθαργος Κόσμος [Α World in Lethargy] in 2014, how has your poetic work evolved during this thirty-five year period?

To be more precise, we should say from Oμολογίες [Testimonies] in 1977, although I have long disavowed that book. It was then, in the middle of that decade, that I made my first appearance, although I had been writing poetry long before. Even during the previous years of repression and demoralization under a dictatorship, a youthful spark had kept burning, if you were a free spirit. So, I started one evening, when poetry took my hand. Without any help! I was working in construction in order to survive, a feather in the wind, but reading and writing feverishly. I popped in and out of various doors, one time conversing with symbolism, other times with a social vision and its underlying political reflections. And there were times when I felt overwhelmed by an existential anguish… I can now say with certainty that I am one of those poets who, despite many deviations, always found their way back. And my path in poetry was an evolution.

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What changed and what remained the same?

If there is something that remains the same it is the poet’s vain passion and longing for the aesthetic perfection of his work.

Your poetry moves around three axes: social, existential, philosophical. What are the main themes your poetry touches upon?

Depending on his mental and emotional state, formed largely as a result of social conditions, a poet chooses to temporarily rest in one of these directions or to remain there for life. As for my poetic character, it is to be found in that first disavowed book. Yet, as time went by, I was more and more inclined towards a historic reading of human adventure. In this respect, I feel closer to Cavafy.

Which have been your main influences?

A poet’s ‘debts’, until he finally carves his own path, if he does, are many and varied. And I have to admit that apart from some names – some of them truly beloved as Yannis Ritsos, Nikiforos Vrettakos or Takis Sinopoulos – all my ‘debts’ converge on our fabulous, unsurpassed, and unrivalled demotic or folk tradition. I fell in love with it from an early age and remained faithful to it.

Apart from poetry and prose, you have also published exceptional anthologies. What’s the story behind these publications?

My fifth and hopefully last anthology is titled Ο ΤΑΧΥΔΡΟΜΟΣ ΦΕΡΝΕΙ ΓΡΑΜΑΤΑ ΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΑ [The Mailman Brings Letters Poems]. It is published by the Hellenic Post and will be presented at the Old Parliament House on World Poetry Day (21 March 2017) with the participation of forty poets included in the anthology, starting from the “generation of the 1950s” (Yannis Dallas, Titos Patrikios) and moving onwards to younger ones.           

Anthologies have been a break for me, offering a different insight into the ongoing preoccupation and turmoil that poetry entails. Three out of my fives anthologies have been a pretext to speak as a writer in a different guise. Let me explain. Το Μελάνι Φωνάζει [The Ink Shouts] (for the Polytechnic Uprising in 1973), Η Αρχαία Πατρίδα των Ποιημάτων [The Ancient Country of Poems] (on ancient Greece), and 1821 in Greek Poetry are anthologies accompanied by long texts either as introductions or postscripts that echo my personal view on these issues.

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What the reader realizes right from the start is that Ilias Gris, as well as all the poets of that generation, carries the burden of causes betrayed, as the experience was imprinted on the poetry of the first and second post-war generations”, to use Marios Michailidis’ words. Can we talk about a “generation of the 1970s” in poetry? If so, what are its common elements?

This “burden of causes betrayed” that the reader perceives as an element of my poetry – so aptly put by Marios Michailidis – is the most distinctive aspect of modern Greek poetry in its entirety. Which poetic generation from the interwar period onwards hasn’t put forward this “burden of betrayal” in its collective work? Yet, if you come to think of it, the deepest significance of betrayal involves at the same time a wake-up call for people.

Poetry is the vigilant guard of human conscience. Forty to forty five years since its first appearance, my generation has become established as the “generation of the 1970s” in Greek literature. Its important work as well as the individual work of each poet can only be evaluated by the only impartial judge, which is time! In any case, it won’t be an easy task as it is the most diverse generation where a variety of voices with many different features converge.

The country’s deserted streets, roads of subordination with vipers whistling and poetry the only one still standing…” What is the role poetry is called to play in times of crisis?

You cited a verse written thirty five years ago! It can be scary when you realize how painfully timely poetry could be. This, in turn, shows the role poetry plays in times of dynamic upheaval and unrest. Poetry that aspires to be genuine, acts either as a consolation or as a secret blare for unsettling consciences.

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Could the Greek crisis become a source of inspiration for younger Greek poets? If so, based upon which poetic and aesthetic criteria? Could a multi-faceted socio-economic phenomenon trigger a poetic ‘cosmogony’ and possibly a ‘new generation’ in poetry?

Aesthetic criteria in poetry have always formed the basis for the primary stake at hand: aesthetic fulfillment! This is certainly a heavy burden, especially for younger poets. To the extent they can avoid being tempted by the ease of imitating what represents a predominant poetic style or trend, then there is ground for hope; even though there is no reason why a new poetic generation should be established every time. Setting up generations is mostly a vehicle for scholars and academics. Who is in a position to predict “cosmogonies”? Following the “cosmogony” of Modernism during the first decade of the 20th century, whose birth was polyvalent and indeed a breakthrough, I see nothing similar happening in the immediate future. In this context, let me conclude by posing a question which is an answer: To which generation did Cavafy belong?

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

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Spyros Economides is Director of the Hellenic Observatory, Associate Professor in International Relations and European Politics and co-ordinator of the LSEE - Research on the South Eastern Europe Unit at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His doctoral thesis at the LSE on “The International Implications of the Greek Civil War” received the Robert Mackenzie Prize. His subsequent work has concentrated on the international affairs of South-eastern Europe and EU external relations in the field of foreign and security policy, on which he has published widely. He has been writing on the EU's Balkan experience since 1991. Economides acted as Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords EU Committee in its report, 'Responding to the Balkan Challenge: The Role of EU Aid' and is a regular commentator in international media on issues relating to EU External Relations, South Eastern Europe and Greece.

Professor Economides talks to Greek News Agenda* about the implications of Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Greek debt negotiations on the European project and foreign policy. He also talks about the relevance of Europe in Greek and Western Balkan countries' foreign policies in the Trump era, European enlargement, and the possible effects rising tension in the Western Balkans would have on Greece.

As you have noted in 2013, “the Eurozone crisis has marginalised the attention given to the EU's foreign policy capacity”. What are the implications of recent developments (Trump’s presidency, Brexit, Greek debt negotiations) for the European project and the EU foreign policy debate?

The ‘European project’, meaning the process and future of European integration, has been heavily affected by the broader Eurozone crisis – as well as the specifics of the Greek situation within it – as well as by Brexit. Essentially these crises have caused great uncertainty about the viability and future of the Eurozone and the nature of the EU as a whole. What they indicate is that on the one hand there is ‘disintegration’ in the EU in the literal sense: the UK – after the Brexit referendum – has opted to leave the EU, which is a clear form of disintegration.

On the other hand, the Eurozone crisis has indicated that there is also a process of ‘fragmentation’ within the Union. A process by which different states have begun being categorised in different ways - e.g. ‘PIGS’. Scenarios such as the creation of a multi-speed Europe are discussed more readily and become more likely. Different speeds of integration are possibilities. The distinctions between those ‘who can’, those ‘who can’t’ and those ‘who won’t’ are becoming much starker. The refugee crisis has made these distinctions sharper. All of these factors have made the EU weaker as it highlights structural and political problems inherent in the European project. As a result there is less time and money for foreign policy and perhaps, most importantly, the EU’s credibility has taken a heavy knock in the view on states beyond its borders. Of course, crisis always leads to calls for further and deeper integration: a federal Europe for many is the only solution to the crises highlighted above. So, there is always the possibility that we may see a deepening of the EU project as a result of crises but the question will be who will this deeper project consist of?

The election of Donald Trump has had a unifying effect among European states but it raises serious issues for EU foreign policy. Essentially, the EU (along) with NATO fears US disengagement from the European theatre; it is suspicious of the Trump administration’s intentions towards Russia; and it is wary of the populist influence of ‘alt-right’ politics and the world of ‘alternative facts’ on the European political and cultural landscape. All in all, this uncertainty is debilitating for the EU and its foreign policy at a difficult time internationally.

LSE Hellenic Observatory closely monitors Greece and its relation to Europe. What is ‘The Relevance of “Europe” in the Foreign Policies of Greece and Balkan countries in the Trump era?

Greece and the countries of the Western Balkans are firmly fixed in the European project and their futures lie within the EU either as members or future members. Greece’s economic troubles cannot be dealt with in any other context but that of the EU in that sense, Europe is more relevant than ever to Greece. The current Syriza-Anel government has at times sought to find economic support from other actors (eg Russia), and at times has been seen to push US administration to support its positions, but the context always remains Europe and the EU. Greece’s future can only be guaranteed in that context and the beginning of a ‘Trump era’, with all its uncertainties, will only reinforce that.

This is equally true of the Western Balkans. Yes, there are ties between individual WB states and other countries – again like Russia and Turkey – which are deep and at times controversial. Indeed, the US through NATO still plays a significant role in the region and will do even more so in time of conflict (and nothing can change constitutionally in Bosnia or Kosovo without US approval). But the EU is by far and away the most significant economic, political and security actor in the region and this will only be enhanced by the ‘Trump era’.

Would you like to comment on the EU Enlargement process with SE European countries? Is what commentators refer to as a “rising tension” in Serbia, Kosovo, FYROM and Albania going to affect Greece?

Rising tension in Bosnia, FYROM or anywhere else in the WB immediately becomes a regional issue. And any regional issue immediately has implications for Greece both diplomatically and physically. But one thing above all is in Greece’s favour: it is a member of the most significant organisations in Europe, the EU and NATO. As such, it has guarantees which none of the other states beyond it do. As for enlargement to the region, it is difficult to see any further accessions in the short-term (beyond Montenegro).

*Interview by Florentia Kiortsi. Many thanks to Alexis Georgiades, Press and Communication Counsellor – Embassy of Greece in London

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The National Library of Greece, under the direction of Dr. Filippos Tsimpoglou, General Director, is methodically preparing for a historic relocation that will enable its transition into a new digital era of innovation and extroversion. From the Vallianeio historic neoclassical building in the center of Athens, which together with the University of Athens and the Academy form the Athens Trilogy, the National Library is moving its headquarters to a state-of-the-art building erected by architect Renzo Piano for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC). At the building on Panepistimiou Street, feverish preparations are underway ahead of the moving process. The reading room has been temporarily closed to the public and every corner is a hive of activity, full of library employees and external staff, conservators in white coats and plastic gloves preparing the collections for the monumental transfer.

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The nearly 22,000 m2 (235,000 sq. ft.) impressive building at SNFCC combines tradition with technological innovation, conservation with information and communication, thus ensuring that the National Library can respond effectively to the ever-changing needs and challenges of the digital age. The entrance to the Library leads into a large open lobby that provides an immediate visual orientation to all the organization’s functions. The natural light creates an open hospitable environment for individual and collaborative learning. Within its new premises, the National Library of Greece will thus be able to strengthen its role in the field of Research, while expanding its focus from an exclusive research facility to an inclusive public resource, an active hub for knowledge, enterprise and innovation.

The General Director of the National Library of Greece Dr.Filippos Tsimpoglou spoke to Reading Greece* about the time schedule for the relocation of the Library to its new premises, noting that the library opening is being scheduled for Autumn 2017. He also elaborates on the new and enlarged role the National Library will be called to play in its new premises, explaining that the aim is to “offer a framework for information literacy, while applying innovative methods and approaches to learning which will constitute best practices and raise standards for all libraries in Greece”.

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In addition, he lays out future plans regarding the operation and actions of the National Library, pointing out that “'technological humanism' and user-centered design constitute core values of the National Library of Greece as it enters this new digital era”. He concludes with how he envisions the National Library of the future, noting that “at a time of growing extremism, post-truth and crisis, we hope to create the appropriate framework for synthesis, analysis, and creation of new meaning, using the treasures of the past to build a brighter future".

Filippos Tsimpoglou holds a PhD in Library & Information Science from the Ionian University (2005) and a BSc in Economics from the Athens University of Economics and Business (1983). He was the Director of the Cyprus University Library and an ex officio member of the Cyprus University Senate from 1999 to 2014. He served as Head of three Departments at the National Documentation Centre of Greece / Hellenic Research Foundation (1983-1999) where he managed major EU framework and development programmes. In 2008 he published his book Collaborations between Libraries: a systemic approach. He has also published numerous articles for international scientific journals, books and conferences.

Since 2014 he is the General Director of the National Library of Greece and head of the historic relocation project to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. He is leading the design of digital services which will enable the organisation to enter the digital era, as well as the development of innovative services that strengthen and expand the core mission of the National Library.

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What is the time schedule for the relocation of the National Library to its new building? When will the library be open to the public?

2017 marks the transition of the National Library of Greece to its new home at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). The landmark building was officially delivered by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to the Greek state on February 23rd 2017 along with SNFCC S.A., the company responsible for overseeing facilities operation and maintenance. Its cross-institutional Board of Directors was appointed to ensure the sustainability of this complex project, home of two major public cultural organisations, the National Opera and the National Library, as well as the Stavros Niarchos Park.

Starting from March 2017, the National Library of Greece has six months to complete the relocation process and two months to conduct pilot operation at the new building. Based on this framework, the library opening is being scheduled for Autumn 2017. It is important to note that the National Library of Greece will then be operating from three buildings which will host different collections and services: the SNFCC, a building located in the Votanikos area and the historic Vallianeio building on Panepistimiou Street, part of the Athenian Trilogy. The Vallianeio building will require extensive restoration in order to function anew as a reading room and events space at the heart of the city.

You have stated that “the relocation of the National Library marks the transition to a new digital era of innovation and extroversion”. What will be the new and enlarged role of the National Library in its new premises?

The relocation project of the National Library is not merely about moving books from one building to another - it is about undertaking a leap of faith. This project constitutes a complete transition into a new era, so that the institution may truly fulfil its core mission as a National Library, provide new services to the public, and continue to meet contemporary challenges. The transition process comprises 40 different projects, which are managed and implemented by the NLG in partnership with external experts and contractors.

During this transition, we are enriching our collections and purchasing books for the first time after many years. We are upgrading our digital services and acquiring advanced technological equipment for key departments (i.e. conservation, microphotography, etc.). We are integrating and training new staff while launching seminars for libraries across Greece. We are redefining the NLG mission and brand in order to address new audiences and we are designing a new Public Library Section which will offer special services and educational programmes for children and teenagers. We are planning a series of events that will re-establish our unique intellectual position and we will open up our collections to the world.

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Our aim is to offer a framework for information literacy, while applying innovative methods and approaches to learning which will constitute best practices and raise standards for all libraries in Greece. As you can imagine, managing this level of transformation within a Greek public institution during a time of uncertainty entails major challenges, which we hope to surpass by using a systemic approach and by building strategic partnerships.

At a more practical level, what about the necessary funds and personnel for the full operation of the National Library in the future? What are the state provisions in this respect?

The transition project is realised thanks to an unprecedented public-private partnership. The Greek State is providing a special subsidy of 5.200.000 euros and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation is providing a 5.000.000 euros donation. The National Library of Greece will require a yearly budget of 6.700.000 €, on top of staffing expenses, in order to cover the SNFCC facility management services and the institutions’ operations. We have now secured these funds from the Ministry of Finance on a yearly basis until 2022.

The NLG currently has 120 staff, which is insufficient. The 3785/2009 law predicts that the NLG will require 286 staff members for the full operation of the three buildings. The General Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Mr. Yannis Pantis, recently announced a hiring plan for 300 librarians at a national level, out of which 110 will be placed at the National Library. We are working towards securing the necessary human resources for tomorrow, while having the Library’s current staff work at full capacity on the relocation project today.

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What about your future plans regarding the operation and actions of the National Library? How will new technologies contribute to this end?

The National Library is reclaiming its leadership within the relevant scientific community in Greece, and redefining its role as a centre of excellence for the study of Hellenism globally. We are currently developing the Greek Libraries Union Catalogue in partnership with the Hellenic Academic Libraries Link at the National Technical University of Athens. This will provide a much-needed central database for librarians across the country to facilitate the cataloguing process, while enabling inter-library loans between institutions. Furthermore, we are acquiring access to major electronic databases which researchers will be able to access from within our new premises. Our digitization department is being enhanced with high-end technological equipment that will facilitate and improve the book scanning process and our overall digital preservation capabilities. At the same time, we are building a platform for our digital collections, which will provide remote access to digitized content, including manuscripts and newspapers.

Another area we are currently exploring is the development of the Greek Web Archive, which will ensure the preservation of our national digital heritage. We are developing an application for the digital legal depository, which will enable editors to submit their publications in print and digitally through a simple online process. New technologies will have a major role in the programming of our new Public Library Department. Studios for radio production, music recording and video-making, interactive applications, and open-source software will provide unique opportunities to children, teens and adults wanting to learn, experiment and co-create content within the new NLG building. “Technological humanism” and user-centered design constitute core values of the National Library of Greece as it enters this new digital era.

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Will the National Library act as a coordinator for libraries around Greece? How easy will it be to implement such a project?

Last year we founded the Greek Libraries Network, engaging 150 municipal and publiclibraries in a major Summer Reading Campaign, which produced over 3000 creative workshops for children across the country. 150 librarians were trained in fundraising and creative workshop facilitation, and developed diverse programmes based on a centrally produced bibliography and methodology.

The National Library of Greece has recently acquired the legal responsibility of coordinator of the Greek Libraries Network, which will expand so as to include academic, school and private libraries. With appropriate staffing and funding, the National Library aims to be the core institution providing library standards and prototype processes, training programs and experimental projects, providing the means to exchange information and expertise among Greek libraries, as well as fostering capacity-building opportunities. The network will enable the creation of common catalogues and will provide advocacy for financial, legal, and social matters that define the operation of libraries. Last but not least, it will facilitate the clustering of libraries under thematic initiatives such as e.g. funding programs for refugee integration or international book exchange programs.

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The ultimate objective is to put libraries at the heart of each community and substantially upgrade the services that they offer to citizens. The new NLG premises will act as a meeting point for training librarians, a space of experimentation for new services, and a central hub for guiding audiences to discover local libraries across the country. The National Library of Greece is claiming its role as the leader of libraries and the libraries’ response is highly positive.

How do you envision the National Library of our future?

We envision the National Library of Greece as a living ecosystem where curiosity, research, creativity and innovation enable communities to grow self-awareness, collective spirit, humanism and democratic values. We aim to create an international centre of excellence for the study of Hellenism and a unique destination for researchers in the field of Humanities. The NLG will be repositioned to inspire and coordinate an open platform for the exchange of know-how, resources and content among diverse organizations across a vibrant network of public libraries at the national level. Following this objective, we are in the process of building partnerships with Universities, Institutes and NGOs at both the national and international level.

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We dare to see the NLG as a model public institution that develops cross-sector synergies and operates according to the values of openness and transparency. The NLG, by its nature, stands between paradoxes: the old and the new, the analogue and the digital, the expert and the popular, the past and the future, the national and the ecumenical. At a time of growing extremism, post-truth and crisis, we hope to create the appropriate framework for synthesis, analysis, and creation of new meaning, using the treasures of the past to build a brighter future. In this venture, the National Library of Greece will invite not only Greek society, but also the Greek Diaspora and Philhellenes worldwide to contribute to the preservation and collective flourishing of Hellenism for future generations.

* Interview by Athina Rossoglou

 

frangakieuromemo2017Marica Frangakis is an independent researcher and a member of the European Economists for an Alternative Economic Policy in Europe (the EuroMemo Group) as well as a member of the Board of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, Athens.

Marica Frangakis talked to Greek News Agenda* about the proposals of  the EuroMemorandum 2017 report, how the Greek crisis could have been averted, the necessity of a substantial restructuring of Greek debt, the concept of burden sharing in order to deal with increasing European debt, as well as the how the European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe overlooks the inherent contradictions and tensions of European societies and economies. Frangakis concludes that in order to undo the harm done by the crisis there needs to be decisive shift away from the tried and failed policies of the past: the role of the Left is to push in that direction.

Could you talk to us about the EuroMemorandum 2017 report of the EuroMemo Group on European economic policy? What are the biggest problems identified in the report? What are the basic tenets of an alternative economic policy proposed in the report?

The European Economists for an Alternative Economic Policy in Europe (also known as the EuroMemo Group) is a forum for the exchange of critical ideas and the formulation of alternative proposals to those of the European Commission on economic and social policy. In fact, 2017 marks the twentieth year of the publication of EuroMemorandum reports, as the first one appeared in 1997 (also in Greek in https://www.euromemorandum.eu). It is worth noting that this year’s conference will be held in Athens at the Harokopeio University on 28-30 September.

The EuroMemorandum 2017 Report deals with a range of issues, such as the inadequacies and the lack of democratic accountability of the EU’s economic and monetary policy, the refugee crisis and the lack of EU solidarity, the rise of right-wing forces and economic nationalism, TTIP and more recently the equally regressive CETA, as well as the ineffectiveness of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

In each of these areas, the Report makes alternative proposals for a high and sustainable level of employment, for a substantial EU level budget to finance EU-wide investment, for overcoming disparities among regions, for a strategy of wage growth and against tax competition, for the democratic accountability of the ECB, for the support of refugees, for the establishment of mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and its neighbouring countries in the south and especially in the south-east of the Mediterranean Sea.

Has Europe learned any lessons from the way the Greek debt crisis was handled? Is there still a chance for a substantial restructuring of Greek debt? What does it take to make Greek debt "sustainable"?

The EuroMemo Group has been especially vocal in its criticism for the way the Greek debt crisis was handled by the EU and by its failure to learn from it. The Greek crisis could have been averted, had the speculation on the government bond market been dealt with in 2009/2010 and had the ECB intervened in the decisive way it did in 2012, when the Italian and Spanish government bonds came under pressure. Even today, Greece is the only Eurozone country to be excluded from the ECB’s quantitative easing programme.

Further, once started, the Greek crisis could have been contained, had the debt restructuring of 2012 been implemented at the beginning of the crisis, i.e. in 2010. Instead, Greece was given large loans at market rates in order to bail out its creditors. Further, these bail outs were conditional on harsh austerity and deregulation measures, which have ravaged the Greek economy and society over the past seven years.

The short-run debt restructuring measures agreed in 2016 and implemented in 2017 go some way towards reducing the risks faced by the high public debt of Greece in the case of an increase in interest rates. However, they do not solve the long-run problem of reducing the debt burden and boosting economic and social development.

Debt sustainability may be defined in a number of ways. The Stability and Growth Pact takes a static view in setting an upper limit of 60% of GDP, above which a member state is in breach of the EU fiscal rules. The IMF defines debt sustainability in relation to the Gross Financing Needs, which should not exceed 15% of GDP. The ECB takes a similar view. In view of the fact that the maturity of the Greek public debt reaches the year 2059, a substantial restructuring of the debt is deemed necessary in order to secure its long-run sustainability. The EuroMemo Group is an advocate of such an approach, which however meets with the resistance of the dominant forces of the EU at present.

What would be a good systemic policy to deal with the European debt issue as a whole?

As shown by historical experience, a systemic financial crisis of large proportions is followed by an economic crisis, which results in increased public finances, i.e. government deficit and debt. This is the result of the automatic stabilisers coming into play, as tax receipts are reduced while public spending is increased due to higher unemployment benefits and other crisis-related spending.

Most EU member states have in fact witnessed a significant increase in their public debt level as a result of the crisis. In this sense, the European debt issue concerns not only Greece but many more EU countries. A good systemic policy to deal with it needs to be based on the notion of burden sharing, which is absent from the conceptualization of the Eurozone, as well as from its architecture.

Assuming that there is the political will to introduce such a notion, there are many proposals as to how this can be done. One such proposal relates to the issuance of Eurobonds. The precise structure of the Eurobonds and their relation to the part of the debt that remains with the originator state are subject to discussion and negotiation by the parties concerned. In essence, this proposal would monetize part of the public debt of the Eurozone member states. Objections raised in connection with the risk of inflation are unfounded, in view of the fact that the Eurozone suffers from too low a rate of inflation, bordering on deflation in certain cases.

The multi-speed scenario for the future of Europe seems to be gaining traction.  The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe, presented five scenarios for how the Union could evolve by 2025. Could you comment on these scenarios?

The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe lays out different options/scenarios for the future. However, it commits the common error of a typical EU approach. It overlooks the inherent contradictions and tensions of European societies and economies. This raises the question of who the Paper is addressed to. We contend that it is primarily addressed to the European elites who seem to be obliviously slipping into a very uncertain future for European society, themselves included. Examples of issues not discussed by the White Paper include the following: 

a. The working conditions in a post-crisis working environment, characterized by heightened insecurity and an increasingly deregulated market environment;

b. The role of finance in post-crisis conditions; the five reports to be prepared by the Commission in the next few months do NOT contain finance!

c. The growth of a ‘subaltern’ class across the EU but with a greater emphasis in certain areas; pressing questions of increasing poverty and inequality and lack of opportunities for a full-filling life are not touched upon;

d. The growing appeal of ultra-right political forces, which was already evident in the 2014 European election results;

e. The marginalisation of new immigrants and the growth of racism.

Overall, the EU is indeed at a crossroad. The White Paper needs to undo the harm done by the crisis and the inadequacies/prejudices of the EU policy response to it. Populism and the rise of ultra-right forces may serve as a wake-up call for the European leaders and the class interests they represent; but, will they? Only a decisive shift away from the tried and failed policies of the past and especially the response to the crisis will do. Such a task takes resolve and vision on the part of the ruling political class; the role of the Left is to push in that direction. As the SYRIZA experience has shown this is not a linear process, neither a straightforward one. In this type of process, resolve and vision is paramount, on part of the Left also, so as not to lose one’s strategic direction amidst everyday political setbacks and compromises.

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi

See also: EuroMemorandum 2016: Addressing Europe's Multiple Crises

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Environmentalist, geographer, and engineer, Michalis Modinos was born in Athens in 1950. He has lived and worked in several countries on behalf of international agencies and organisations. He has published the following novels: Golden Coast (Kastaniotis, 2005), The Great Abbai (Kastaniotis, 2007), Homecoming (2009), The Raft (Kastaniotis, 2011), Wild West: a love story (Kastaniotis, 2013), Last Exit: Stymfalia (Estia, 2014) and Equatoria (Kastaniotis, 2016). He has won several literary prizes and distinctions, among them the European Prize for Literature. His scientific works include: Myths of Development in the Tropics (1986), From Eden to Purgatory (1988), Topographies (1990), Where is the World Heading to? (1992), The Development Game (1993), The Archaeology of Development: Green Perspectives (1996), The Eco-geography of the Mediterranean (2001), The Pathways of Sustainable Development (2003), Globalization and the Environment (2004).

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He has been an environmental activist, the editor of the monthly review New Ecology, and the author of numerous publications on environmental and development issues. He was President of the Greek Agency for the Environment and Sustainable Development, and the director of the Greek edition of The State of the Planet, in collaboration with the WorldWatch Institute. He has taught in academic institutions, and from 1998 to 2010 he ran the “Summer Ecological University”. He is a member of the administrative board of the Hellenic Authors’ Society. Since 2005 he has regularly been writing book and literary reviews for the daily press and several publications.

Michalis Modinos spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Equatoria, which is “a three level story about the years of the colonization of Africa, recording the story of the 19th century search for the sources of the Nile”. He notes that “Black Africa rarely appears in Greek novels” with the exception of “Alexandria with its extended Greek community that has attracted Greek writers” and explains that the western literary tradition usually depicts Africa “as a savage, mysterious place, full of magic and secrets to decipher”, “the unknown strange framework where adventures take place and where the origins of humankind are traced”.

Asked about how history, politics and fiction are intertwined in his books, he comments that “the conflict between progress and tradition or modernization and underdevelopment” is often discussed in his writings, noting that his books belong “to the tradition of the perpetual conflict of civilization and nature”. He concludes that “great narratives have been discredited nowadays and a good novel helps reconstruct reality (the World) and place ourselves in it”, while “it also leads to personal ‘katharsis’ in the Aristotelian sense of the word”.

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Almost a decade after The Great Abbai, your latest book Equatoria brings us back to the African continent. Tell us a few things about the book.

In Equatoria I wanted to narrate a three level story about the years of the colonization of Africa, recording the story of the 19th century search for the sources of the Nile in a genre similar to New Journalism. The language combines journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real life events. The plot develops a century after the story narrated in my book The Great Abbai. At the same time I wanted to give a travelogue, a retrospective on the past of the impressions and experiences of a fictional Greek explorer, a wealthy cotton merchant who, setting off from Zanzibar, reaches Equatoria and the Mountains of the Moon.

In fact I gave my name to the central character and narrator of the story in a refection game, taking partial responsibility for his views and reflections. On another level, it was very important for me to discuss, on the basis of real life events, the concept of the construction of a utopia – a hybridic, multicultural society- as it was attempted on the ground in the heart of Africa, the great lakes area of Northern Uganda and Sourhern Soudan (to be deconstructed in the end against the will of the people who created it).

Africa, in its million faces, has been occasionally depicted in Greek literature. What is it that makes Africa appealing to Greek writers? And, in turn, how do you explain the different ways Africa is portrayed in these works? Are there parallels to be drawn with the respective European literary tradition?

Black Africa rarely appears in Greek novels as a matter of fact. It is usually Alexandria with its extended Greek community that has attracted Greek writers (Tsirkas, Kavafis etc). The western literary tradition, in which Greek writers are certainly included despite the language gap, often used Africa as an appealing background, mostly in novels. Writers like Vern or Conrad (to name just a couple) usually depict Africa as a savage, mysterious place, full of magic and secrets to decipher. Elsewhere writers describe African nature and landscape in rather lyrical terms. Africa is the unknown strange framework where adventures take place and where the origins of humankind are traced.

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Any of these approaches help the plot to develop as an exotic environment, triggering the imagination of the reader. On the other hand, they shape and sometimes determine the central characters of a book. Some modern writers, including myself, use the African landscape or setting in general as characters equally important to human ones.

A researcher, environmental activist, geographer, traveler, fiction writer, literary critic. Where do all these attributes meet? Does writing constitute the binding thread?

Without a doubt. Since I was the founding editor of the influential monthly review New Ecology, and managed it for fifteen years, I tried, along with a group of intellectuals and activists, to popularize scientific questions and to build bridges with political action at both local and international level. This is how my first essaylike research books were initiated, starting with Ecogeography: Myths of development in the tropics (already in its sixth edition, something rather out of the ordinary for a non literary book). Thus arose the term «Ecogeography» that I also use in literary terms nowadays.

As regards the binding thread of all those professional occupations that you mentioned, I suppose literature was just waiting for me “around the corner”. If anyone reads my early essays and nonfiction books he will probably understand that despite the scientific and political questions raised, there has always been a narrative tone inherent, inspired by writings of social anthropologists and geographers. Thus, transition to novel writing was not very difficult in terms of style and form. It was rather a question of allowing my imagination to take the upper hand. Now I am completely devoted to fiction literature. I work full time and I find writing somehow redemptive after all those decades of working in academic institutions, international organizations, social movements etc.

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Some of your books have multiple references to the cultural and environmental decay of modern societies. How are history, politics and fiction intertwined in your books? And to what end?

I often discuss the conflict between progress and tradition or modernization and underdevelopment: see for example Golden Coast, Homecoming, Wild West – a love story etc. The prevalence of the development idea is mainly a postwar phenomenon - it was then that development became a central goal for practically all societies around the globe. Still my books do not belong to the post-colonial tradition, but rather to the tradition of the perpetual conflict of civilization and nature. I am interested in the circular time of Ecology, somehow more than the linear narration of history anyway. My concern is to incorporate global thematic lines into the destiny of my heroes.

Literature can by its own means depict reality in turmoil, offering at the same time a way out”. What role does/should literature serve in times of crisis? Should literature and art in general be politically militant?

Maybe now more than ever we must insist on the achievements of Western civilization, where we belong. Of course, my country cannot itself decide where it belongs and that is the tragedy of the times. In any case, to me, the persistence on values like freedom, rule of law, human rights and expanded democracy are nowadays an obligation for writers and public figures in general. It is one thing to adopt tolerance and respect of the Other (which I consistently do in my books) and another thing to accept a mess or even worse than that, imported totalitarianisms. All these topics, in fact, are discussed in Equatoria, together with the cultural conflicts, migrations, early globalization trends and the propensity of humanity to escape the “Beaudlerian ennui”, through immigration and travelling.

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What about future prospects? What purpose does depicting a fulfilled utopia, as the one your hero discovered in Equatoria, serve under current dystopic conditions?

Reconsidering the environment and reshaping our lifestyles and traditions, which are gradually being lost, will help us understand the problems and find solutions in times of increasing confusion and acceleration of changes. We need to set goals for the future, and in order to do so, we have to rediscover who we are and what we want to achieve. Still, literature plays a critical role in times of disillusionment. Great narratives have been discredited nowadays and a good novel helps reconstruct reality (the World) and place ourselves in it. It also leads to personal “catharsis” in the Aristotelian sense of the word. One last thing: I believe in cosmopolitanism in literature, a style of researching and writing that deals with the greatissues common to humankind.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

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Widely known to the Greek public for his successful films and TV series, director and writer Manoussos Manoussakis was born in Athens and studied at the London Film School. He has directed five feature films, “Bartholomew&r