Democratic dilemmas that should not be – some lessons from Egypt

The news headlines of recent days have brought to the fore some serious shortcomings related to the functioning of democracy and attitudes towards it. The questions raised are fundamental and answering them poses some real dilemmas even to staunch believers in democracy around the world.

Events unfolding in Egypt since last week are as dramatic for the country itself as they are for the future of democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and beyond. A democratically elected President was deposed and replaced by the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, while opposition and religious leaders were clapping along. In this scheme, opposition leaders who lost to Mr. Morsi at the ballot box a year earlier were offered senior government positions in what is touted as a national unity government but is not. The main premise of the military-spearheaded “non coup” is that transitional arrangements will lead to a return to full legality and new elections through a dialogue of all political forces, while the country is rescued from economic disaster.

This may be more or less what the pro-Western and modernist elite, as well as millions of largely secular-leaning Egyptians may want to see. In their mistrust for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was there from the start of Mr. Morsi’s Presidency and was reinforced by some of his decisions and his rather poor performance, they are ready to twist the facts and participate in a process that denies democracy in the name of democracy. They claim the strength of numbers at Taxim Square and opinion polls, when they should know that in a democracy the only decisive poll is the ballot itself, which cannot happen every month of year. And they are directly or indirectly cheered on by outsiders, who preface their statements with words of sorrow for the rapture in the democratic order, but basically show understanding for the rationale put forward and are willing to give the new order a chance.

This is not good enough, though. If one sticks to principles things are very clear, and should be stated as such. Mr. Morsi has to be reinstated as the legitimate President of Egypt and the troops should retreat to their barracks. Those religious and political figures who are worried about the state of the country and the economy should discuss with the President possible solutions, including the formation of a national salvation government under him. And the good allies and friends abroad should encourage such developments with advice for moderation towards all sides.

Democracy has its limits and that should be openly said and accepted. Expedient majorities cannot legislate away individual or collective rights of smaller groups. Nor can oppositions focus on overthrowing those in the majority from day one of their term and with whatever means. In a democracy there is a legitimate and useful role for everybody, from government and opposition politicians to politically-neutral civil servants to the private sector and civil society. They can all contribute on the basis of their respective responsibilities that they should hold dear, and not only their rights, advancing their country in the process.

One can only hope that the next transition in Egypt, which should happen in the next few days, will be peaceful and that the settling of accounts will be limited to public debate and the ballot box without any further military interventions, arrests and killings. The opposite may bring chaos and even civil war to this largest and most influential of Arab countries, and may create a new pole of instability in a region already marred by old and new conflicts that transcend its narrow borders threatening the stability of the bigger world.

Georgios Kostakos

Brussels, 8 July 2013

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“Finite Planet, Infinite Potential” — The Salzburg Statement on New Governance for Sustainability

I spent a good part of the past February to June period helping prepare a Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS) session entitled “A Climate for Change: New Thinking on Governance for Sustainability”. The seminar took place from 23 to 27 June 2013 in Salzburg, Austria, at the beautiful Schloss Leopoldskron. About 50 persons from 26 countries, with ages spanning 60 years and professions covering a wide range of sustainability-related fields, came together to consider some major global challenges of our times. From conceptualizing the interconnections between people, the environment and the economy, to rethinking economics, trade and finance, addressing climate change and the food-water-energy nexus, learning from local good practices and investing in knowledge sharing and education, engaging civil society and the private sector, and holding institutions and other actors accountable at all levels, this was a very rich exchange, with an impact on all those that participated and hopefully beyond.

I am reproducing below the Salzburg Statement issued at the end of the session under the title “Finite Planet, Infinite Potential”. It can also be found online at www.salzburgglobal.org/go/515 , where the session’s report will also be posted in the coming weeks. Happy reading and hopefully acting in response!

Georgios Kostakos

Brussels, 6 July 2013

Finite Planet, Infinite Potential

The Salzburg Statement on New Governance for Sustainability

We, citizens of many countries and of the world, share our one and only planet with more than seven billion others. We call for leadership, justice and imagination at all levels to find ways to preserve the Earth and enhance prosperity and wellbeing for all.

We face a daunting future. Unless we change course, we will condemn our children and grandchildren to an uninhabitable planet. We must act with urgency, inspired by individual and collective wisdom, to address critical challenges such as climate change, population growth and biodiversity loss. We have to support and sustain life, now and into the future.

We need innovative approaches to governance that reflect the complexity and interdependence of sustainability challenges and that safeguard human dignity, gender equity and the common good.

This Statement is addressed to leaders of governments and international organizations, business, religion, civil society, science, education and the media, and to individuals. Ten priority actions can transform life chances and opportunities for current and future generations throughout the world:

  1. Move beyond narrow short-term thinking and vested interests, especially in decisions concerning food, water and energy security.
  2. Encourage and reward social and technological innovation for a low-carbon economy that addresses the needs of all.
  3. Support and replicate, on a sound evidence basis, dynamic and inclusive initiatives by cities and local communities.
  4. Engage civil society, business, and sub-national authorities in decision-making and partnerships for action.
  5. Stop subsidies to polluters, put a price or tax on carbon, and ensure that markets value natural capital.
  6. Use economics, finance and trade systems in new ways that compound rather than discount future value, encourage sustainable lifestyles, and enhance global prosperity, equity and resilience.
  7. Integrate assessment of climate and disaster risks, and supply chain viability, in infrastructure and other investments.
  8. Agree on common goals and indicators to accelerate and measure progress.
  9. Invest in exchange of knowledge and best practices, and in education for sustainability at all levels.
  10. Embed the rule of law and accountability in all decision-making and implementation, nationally and internationally.

Together, women and men of all nations, races and creeds, we have the knowledge and means to avert the grave threats facing humanity. The global transformation required may not be fast, easy, simple or cheap – but it is perfectly possible. We offer two proposals for urgent consideration:

    • Establish innovative, independent and powerful representations for future generations to align today’s policies and actions with the long-term common good.
    • Convene open and inspiring exchanges at neutral fora, such as Salzburg Global Seminar, to build trust and confidence between high-level decision makers and stakeholder groups, and look for new thinking and breakthrough ideas.

Salzburg, June 2013

 

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US Whistleblower Protection Programs

 

No comment — Let the official links speak for themselves…

http://www.whistleblowers.gov

http://www.sec.gov/whistleblower

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/contact-us/whistleblower-hotline

And two US civil society organizations that take their roles seriously:

http://www.whistleblower.org

GAP Statement on the Espionage Charge Filed Against Edward Snowden

by Government Accountability Project on June 22, 2013 ( The Whistleblogger2013 )

Federal prosecutors have charged National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden with multiple felonies. The charges include espionage, although several prominent lawmakers have questioned the legality of the intelligence-gathering programs revealed by Snowden, and whistleblower protections should shield him from retaliation if his disclosures expose illegal actions. Snowden is the seventh whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP), the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, which represents two of the whistleblowers charged with Espionage by this administration (NSA whistleblower Tom Drake and CIA/Torture whistleblower John Kiriakou) released the following statement regarding this latest development:

The Obama administration’s charge of espionage against Edward Snowden is not a surprise. This administration has continually sought to intimidate federal employees – particularly intelligence community workers – and suppress any attempt they might make to speak out against gross corruption, wrongdoing, and illegality.

In GAP’s view, Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He disclosed information about a secret program that he reasonably believed to be illegal, and his actions alone brought about the long-overdue national debate about the proper balance between privacy and civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security on the other. Charging Snowden with espionage is yet another effort to retaliate against those who criticize the overreach of U.S. intelligence agencies under this administration. The charges send a clear message to potential whistleblowers: this is the treatment they can expect should they speak out about constitutional violations.

It is particularly noteworthy that Snowden spoke truthfully to the public about NSA surveillance after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper intentionally lied in his testimony before the U.S. Senate about these same activities. Clapper, however, has not even been admonished for his purposeful, deliberate deception of both the Senate and the public.

It must be emphasized that the channels internal to intelligence agencies for whistleblowers are neither effective nor confidential. Their gross inadequacy is best illustrated by what befell GAP clients and NSA whistleblowers Tom Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe, all of whom suffered retaliation after they reported internally serious misconduct at the NSA. Like these three men, Snowden will face serious consequences for exposing the wrongdoing and crimes of others. At the same time, those who stretched their interpretation of laws to invade the private lives of Americans, while lying to the Congress and the public about their actions, will simply continue working.

GAP released a statement on Snowden and the NSA surveillance that can be found here. Media calls regarding this statement can be directed toward GAP President Louis Clark at 202.441.0333 orlouisc@whistleblower.org, or GAP Communications Director Dylan Blaylock at 202.236.3733 ordylanb@whistleblower.org.

Dylan Blaylock is Communications Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

 

http://www.whistleblowers.org

National Whistleblower Center Issues Statement in Support of NSA Whistleblower
Washington, D.C. June 10, 2013. The National Whistleblower Center issued the following statement in support of NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden:

Statement of Stephen M. Kohn, Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center

“Edward Snowden should not be prosecuted. Instead, the White House must keep the promise made by President Obama, during his 2008 election campaign, when he pledged to support legislation that would fully protect all government whistleblowers, including those in sensitive national security positions.”

“Until Congress enacts a law, setting forth reasonable procedures by which civil servants can disclose national security violations to the American people, the government should not prosecute these whistleblowers. Congress and the President must do their jobs, and stop destroying the lives of civil servants who try to report misconduct”

There is significant historical precedent for the protection of whistleblowers demonstrating that such protections were strongly supported by the Founding Fathers. Mr. Kohn previously discussed this precedent in his New York TimesOp-Ed, The Whistleblowers of 1777. Mr. Kohn is also the author of The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step by Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself  (Lyons Press, 2011).

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:

Mary Jane Wilmoth

(202) 342-1902
mjw@whistleblowers.org

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“Turkish Spring”, or how a good crisis should not go unexploited

As every one of us should know, Turks may be predominantly Muslim but they are not Arab. They speak a different language, they originate in another part of the world, and have their own separate history, even if they border and interact over centuries with the Arab world. So the term Arab Spring would not apply to Turkey, even if the country underwent a similar upheaval as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Turkey’s immediate neighbour Syria. Beyond semantics, there are fundamental differences of substance between the aforementioned Arab countries and Turkey. The latter is certainly a democracy, sui generis perhaps, like many are, but still a country with a political system that allows a free vote for all and where the government has the support of the majority of the population (unlike in some other democracies, one may note).

Turkey has been undergoing a revolutionary transformation of its own for several springs now, since the coming to power of the AK Party of Prime Minister Erdogan. This may be the most democratic time the country has ever known, with the millions of previously silent or silenced Turks of Anatolia, pious and hard-working people, having a government they can recognize as their own, rather than an overt or covert dictatorship that attempts to impose Western secular values, or at least appearances, on the whole country.

Let it be known, I am mostly a Western secularist myself, although spiritual in my own way. A few years ago I would have felt very uncomfortable being surrounded by women with covered heads, or men with Muslim caps and long beards. I occasionally still wish that they did not do these things and we could all look alike, distinguished by the brands, colours and styles of clothes that we choose to wear. After living for several years in New York, though, and even more recently in multicultural and increasingly Arab Brussels (it is the same Brussels of the European Union), I have to admit that I am more comfortable with all this. I can see that some people feel more confident, dignified and reassured when they follow the customs of their home countries, even in a human environment that has different traditions and may occasionally react. They feel that they continue to belong to a community, and may be lucky enough to still do so, at a time when globalization is tearing apart old identities without having created a new one – unless that is consumerism.

So I could not deny the Muslim faithful of Turkey their right to express their traditional identity and to have it recognized in the laws of their country, without fear of legal or military persecution. At the same time, I would see a revenge unworthy of pious people if now that they are in power reversed things completely and denied the rest of their compatriots the right to express their secularism and Western orientation. It is on this point that the recent protests in Turkish cities can be seen as justified. Combined with an increasing authoritarian streak of a Prime Minister spoilt by solid popular support, and increasing exploitation of developing economic and other opportunities by those around him, the protests may be a good opportunity to stop the earlier necessary rebalancing of the system before it tips to the other extreme.

It takes cool heads, common sense, patriotism and magnanimity on both sides to recognize this as an historic moment of new balance, make the necessary adjustments in positions and expectations, and bury the hatchets. At a time when Western democracies, especially in Europe, are trying to become more tolerant in response to their increasingly multicultural societies, it would be ironic for places from where migrants to Europe originate, like Turkey, to become less tolerant towards part of their own populations. Moreover, Turkey wants tourists, many of whom drink, or are uncovered women, or both. Why should it restrict those options for its own citizens who may want to live that way, and may have been living that way since the end of the Ottoman Empire?

When I was growing up in Greece in the 1960s I felt the pressure of the church and the pious society not to do any work on Sundays, fast on certain days, etc. I also remember the pro-Western dictatorship that we had at the time. Things may have not turned out perfectly for Greece, as it became evident recently, but the emancipation from the church, the ending of the post-civil war right-left divide, and the expansion of the secular middle classes were not by themselves bad things. What was apparently bad was the absolute populism, paternalism and sheer bad public management of people like Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who may be the unintended model for Prime Minister Erdogan.

Turkey is not Greece, and Mr. Erdogan is not the late Mr. Papandreou, so I will not insist on this analogy beyond the educational parallelism of the above few sentences. What is clear to me is that it would be a great pity if Turkey missed the opportunity provided by this explosion of sentiment by part of its population to rebalance itself, become a more mutually tolerant society, and set itself on a solid path of stability and prosperity for the next fifty years.

Georgios Kostakos

The Hague and Brussels, 6 June 2013

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This cannot be a German Europe

There is increasing evidence of a German takeover of EU policy making, not least through measures introduced — and imposed — in response to the financial problems of Eurozone states in the European South. There is also increasing sense that central EU institutions are sidelined by new structures put in place by and run under predominantly German influence. While this may be justified on the basis of Germany’s relative weight and actual monetary contributions, as well as the country’s constitutional approval processes, its generalization would not bode well either for Europe or for Germany.

The modern history of Europe has been marked by major wars between Germany, on the one hand, and Britain and France on the other, with the rest of Europe and the world eventually drawn in on one side or the other. After a second devastating defeat in the Second World War, the German miracle of discipline and systematic work has again brought the country to the top. The European Union has served as a more benign and consensual “Lebensraum” that guarantees a minimum market for German industrial products, under rules and monetary policies that suit Europe’s industrialized North. In contrast, one sees a lack of organization and propensity towards the good life, deserved or not, in the European South, and thus a North-South split within the EU, which is becoming increasingly pronounced.

German- and North-led policies and structural arrangements may have contributed to the bad state of the South, but a big part of the blame lies undoubtedly with the South itself. Some examples from my Greek experience: Loads of EU subsidies have often been used unproductively, in infrastructure and other projects and training not connected to the local economy’s comparative advantages and strengths. The state machinery has been populated by an excessive number of people often selected not on the basis of merit but after the intervention of politicians wanting to secure individual and family votes. A resulting low productivity and low or non-existent sense of responsibility by civil servants and workers in the broader public sector, including utilities. Widespread tax evasion, while benefits are milked out of state coffers for undeserved, occasionally criminally forged reasons. While similar incidents occur in all countries, their frequency and extent clearly increase the further South one goes in the European Union.

Is the imposition of German discipline on others the way to deal with this? Is it a German Europe that is the only solution, or there are alternatives? Before attempting to answer this rather specific question let’s go back to the realm of ideas. The source of a lot of the European Union’s troubles can be traced in the inability to articulate a narrative of Europe that is inclusive of and goes beyond its individual national parts, be they strong or weak, productive or rotten. Different histories, often of wars, languages and cultures seem to make European unification a pipe dream. The alternative way of functional integration has apparently reached its limits, occasionally descending to extremes of standardization, which further increase the democracy gap that exists between the peoples of the EU and its central structures, notably the Commission, without delivering real and lasting unity. This year’s first-ever EU budget to be passed with reductions compared to previous budgets can be seen not only as an expression of empathy with the Union’s governments and peoples going through austerity, but also as the beginning of the reversal of unification, towards re-nationalization.

In light of Germany’s being the undisputed engine of growth and basis of stability for the EU and the Eurozone, what could be an alternative scenario to uniformly “Germanizing” Europe? What could balance out German influence while preserving Germany’s positive contributions? Such a European “third way” should rely on some basic understandings:

— That Europe is diverse and cannot be dominated or represented by a single nation, no matter how strong or virtuous it may be;

— That Europe is rich in culture and languages, but it now de facto has a lingua franca, which is English that can be used for official business at least, containing the current Babel and allowing to have one discussion without extinguishing the national and local languages;

— That Europe has a model of social free market that has worked in the past and can work again, if both its public and private sectors do their job properly;

— That Europe needs to be united because divided it will fall, as it is falling, next to giants like the US and China;

— That Europe has technologies to reduce its energy dependence on outside powers like Russia, if only it makes good of its own talk about green economics and sustainability;

— That Europe can come up with policies that serve both the interests of its North and of its South, if only both are properly represented and empowered in the discussions, and if decision-makers at the EU level, including the European Central Bank, try to think of Europe as a whole rather than the nations they originate from.

The above principles can be developed further and can lead to concrete guidance for action. For that, a proper panEuropean debate is needed, across borders, cultures, languages and regions, bringing the peoples together to contemplate their common future. Such a debate should take place in the lead-up to the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament and should be decisive in allowing panEuropean thinkers and leaders to emerge. Beyond the new Parliament and Commission, this could also lead to new EU institutional arrangements, be they in the form of an EU Constitution or otherwise.

One could easily see, for example, a move towards a more federal centre, with a bicameral assembly, one of elected representatives as is the case now, and one of national and regional authorities, that would replace the European Council. The EU Executive, with one President and unitary structure, should be accountable to these two chambers for its actions according to the competencies attributed to the panEuropean/federal level of government. The system of national representation on political and bureaucratic posts in the central EU institutions should be discontinued and merit should be established as the main consideration instead. And there should be plenty of light shed on the proceedings at the European level for Europe’s peoples to see and understand what is going on.

Some final thoughts on our question about the desirability, feasibility and irreplaceability of a German Europe: Such a Europe would have balanced budgets, trade surpluses and a well-oiled industrial base producing the latest in engineering. Could this model be extended to the European South too? I doubt that it could be adopted in Cyprus, Sicily, Portugal or the south of France. The oranges and the olive oil that they produce is another kind of treasure that industrious Germans want to introduce into their diet for better health and mood. The warm beaches of the Mediterranean should be enjoyed for what they are, plus as a source of powerful solar energy, but not much more than that. The tourism industry of the European South can get better organized but taking away the relaxed feeling of the summer would defeat the purpose and undermine the interests of even the visitors from the North.

European unity will not come with enforced homogenization and extreme discipline that foresees only penalties without forgiveness or growth. It will come when the Spaniards and the Greeks appreciate the Germans for what they do well and what they bring to the table, which cannot be only money, and the other way around. And a well-run Union will be one that balances its peoples strengths and interests, and provides through its monetary, investment, and other policies the framework for all to thrive, in a complementary and mutually supportive way, with unity in diversity.

Georgios Kostakos

Brussels, 15 April 2013

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Rule of law for all

It is really disturbing what one hears about the treatment of those still held at Guantanamo Bay prison by the US. Although the exact number is disputed, it is clear that several dozen prisoners — the US Administration says about 40, while other sources according to the International Herald Tribune claim as many as 130 — have gone on hunger strike since February protesting against their indefinite detention and the legal limbo under which they are held.

It is even more disturbing to note that 86 Guantanamo prisoners have been cleared for release for sometime now. They continue, however, to be kept imprisoned, reportedly because of budgetary limitations the US Congress has placed on the Administration, and because of the search for countries other their own to receive them. This situation has to end soon, and the end should not be through the death or force-feeding (happening apparently in Guantanamo) of these human beings, who have rights as well as responsibilities under any rule of law system.

The US is a democracy not because its constitution or its authorities claim so. It is a democracy because its government generally respects the rule of law, internally at least, and its institutions and people are vigilant to push back and ensure that if there is any deviation. The application of law cannot exclude human beings because they are foreign nationals, have been accused of terrorism or are held in no-man’s land, as is Guantanamo.

If the US wants to retain its credibility in pushing for human rights and the rule of law internationally, it has to first apply it on its own territory and wherever else it is in effective control. Selective implementation of lofty principles only strengthens perceptions of double standards, leads to cynical rejection of human rights as a self-serving Western construction, undermines the global standing of the US itself, and eventually corrupts its internal democratic functioning.

Georgios Kostakos

Sparta, 13 April 2013

 

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Crime and punishment regarding Iraq

Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, it is being widely acknowledged that this was an illegal war, based on fabricated intelligence and with regime change foremost in mind. Moreover, it was fought without proper planning for the post-Saddam era, and at a cost of dozens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars, leaving a mess in Iraq and beyond. This much is being admitted publicly even by protagonists in this drama, like the then Deputy Prime Minister of the UK John Prescott.

The natural next step in any law-abiding society with a reasonably long statute of limitations would be to assign responsibilities, investigate and prosecute those responsible for all this loss of life and treasure. The means might differ from one country to the other, with options including parliamentary or judicial commissions of inquiry or plain public prosecutor investigations. But one would expect something along these lines to happen both in the US and the UK.

Those directly involved in the fateful decisions will of course continue to pretend that they have nothing to account for. And if the docile attitude that the press and other opinion makers adopted in 2003 continues they will get away with it. But the Emperor is naked and people have started to whisper it; it will hopefully soon become an uproar. It would be grossly unjust and corrupted otherwise. A regular citizen is prosecuted if s/he kills one person or destroys one house. But as leader one has immunity if one causes the death of thousands and plunders his/her own and another country’s assets and resources…

Of course, there can be mitigating circumstances and mistakes made in good faith. But that is for the judicial process to decide. Those who made the wrong decisions have to explain themselves, in public. And they have to accept the consequences of their actions, as they wanted to make others pay for their wrong deeds. When that happens in earnest, and only then, may the professed moral superiority of the West be proven in practice.

Georgios Kostakos

The Hague, 19 March 2013

 

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Crunch time for Syria

The statement earlier this month by the leader of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib that he was ready to negotiate a settlement with members of the Assad government, and the subsequent statement of Prime Minister al-Halqi expressing a similar will from the government side gave reason for hope. However, the now apparent inability of the National Coalition to unite in support of its leader’s statement, in a backdrop of new attacks on Aleppo, as well as on government and opposition installations in Damascus and elsewhere, throw the possibility of any direct peace talks back into doubt. That should not be allowed to happen. Instead, those with any degree of leverage with the Syrian government and the opposition should make clear that the Syrian parties cannot expect any support for their respective interests unless they sit down and talk to each other in earnest.

One positive thing that became evident during the short-lived spell of hope was that there can be broad international support for talks between the opposition and the government. The Russian Foreign Minister’s welcoming of Mr. Al-Khatib’s openness to dialogue should be reciprocated by those closer to the opposition, including the US, UK and France. There is always room for political maneuvering and relative positioning but this should be kept within limits, and should be firmly placed within a framework of talks between the Syrian parties themselves.

Iraq, in particular, should be kept in mind in all this, and the waste of lives and treasure that took place there should be avoided in Syria. In the event of a settlement, or while moving towards one, there should be no blanket demonization and persecution of Baath Party rank-and-file members, civil servants and other professionals. Politics excluded, Syria has been functioning better than many countries in the region in terms of public services and social cohesion, taking also into account that it is not particularly endowed in natural resources like most of its Arab neighbours are. A smooth transition would engage decent elements of the state machinery and would put emphasis on the continuity of public services and the state, with positive openings to those thus far excluded, rather than negative purges and summary replacements.

There are well-based allegations of war crimes committed by the Assad government, as well as by opposition forces. All these allegations should be duly investigated as soon as the situation on the ground allows it, and the culprits should be brought to justice, irrespective of who may have been patronizing them during the conflict. There should be no one-sided victors’ justice, if the situation in Syria is to stabilize for the long term, but responsibilities should be handed down impartially to those to whom they belong.

Responsibility lies with all sides, inside and outside Syria. Crunch time should not be allowed to drift any further, for the sake of the suffering Syrian population more than anything else.

Georgios Kostakos
Brussels, 24 February 2013

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Post-Platonic Greece

A couple of weeks ago it was reported in the Greek press that a very old olive tree, reputed to have survived since the times of Plato some 2400 years ago, had been cut for firewood by a desperate Athenian who could not afford the high heating oil price. It was a very sad piece of news, at first reading at least. It showed how low Greece and its citizens had fallen, at mere survival mode, sacrificing a living monument for the sole purpose of temporarily satisfying a mundane need. It felt like the end of Greek civilization, or rather of any connection that modern Greeks had with the glorified Greeks of ancient times. And was a sign of the decline, shortsightedness and destructive self-indulgence of modern Greeks.

At second reading, though, this may not have been as tragic an incident, after all. No, in no way am I suggesting that the cultural treasures of Hellenic civilization be sacrificed to temporarily relieve the many problems experienced by modern Greeks. That would be utterly detrimental to a very important part of humanity’s heritage and would do no justice to Greeks and non-Greeks alike. Moreover, it would not be sustainable over the medium- and long-run, living off what is left of ancient glories that is. What is not so bad, though, is the symbolism that this act conveys.

The cutting of the umbilical cord to the glorious antiquity may not be such a bad thing after all. It is this connection and its incessant reminder in schools and the society at large that has been a major spoiling factor for today’s Greeks. It is as if you had a billionaire for a father, or a genius, or both. Why should you work, why should you plan and why should you worry? Moreover, no matter what you did, you would not manage to measure up to those bigger-than-life ancestors, so why even try? No, you could live off the inheritance, the value of which everybody recognized, so they better pay for it, and pay you, the legitimate heir and DNA carrier.

But now that the connection is symbolically gone, literally cut up into small pieces that can fit into a stove or a fireplace, today’s Greek may realize that he or she is now responsible for his own acts and future, for better or worse. Once the warmth of the burning wood is gone, today’s Greek may realize that s/he is left out in the cold and has to fend for him/herself. And scary as this may at first be, it can have an awakening effect and be empowering at the same time. It may wake up the creativity and responsibility, which are somewhere in there, sleeping the sleep of the pampered heir, but occasionally still showing themselves in individual acts of greatness, often by Greeks who have left the homeland and have taken their destiny in their hands. Because Greeks can operate well in an environment that has rules and demands from them, as well as rewards. But they dose off and short-circuit themselves and each other when they are under the influence of glories past.

So, may you go to a better place and rejoin Plato, ancient olive tree. Thank you for ushering Greece with your symbolic sacrifice to its post-Platonic era, and may this be another glorious time of creativity and humanism indeed.

Georgios Kostakos
On the road, 4 February 2013

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In search of soul for Europe

The 10 December celebrations in Oslo for the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union were grand and moving. They felt like confirmation of success of a bold experiment that started in Europe in the 1950s, under the then still fresh memories of the Second World War.

A lot of progress has indeed been made over the last 60 years on the European continent towards peaceful coexistence, cooperation and development. So there are certainly good reasons to celebrate. This is not the end of the road, however, and success is in no way absolute, nor should it be taken for granted. The European Union of now 27 and soon-to-be 28 member states has been peaceful and quite prosperous within itself. But its role vis-à-vis the rest of the European continent, notably the start and escalation of the wars in former Yugoslavia, needs to be more honestly discussed for lessons to be learned. Also its record on prosperity seems to be compromised by the current serious problems in the European South and beyond.

In this piece I do not discuss specific problems and concerns in both the peace and prosperity areas, but rather focus on the big picture, what for me is the core reason for which Europe seems to be wobbly and even failing: the lack of “soul”, of European identity among citizens and leaders alike, the lack of a common concept of what is Europe and where it is going.*

The frequent EU ministerial councils and leaders’ summits show in their bickering and horse-trading the fragmentation of the project and the lack of a common vision, beyond reacting to the markets and other external factors that batter the Union. The solutions that are devised only add to the complexity of an already very complex machinery, and seem even more detached from the average citizen, who can neither understand nor practically influence any of this. So in the end it is more nationalism that comes out of this experiment, as Europe is in a way used to impose tough choices on reluctant publics by leaders who cannot lead, realize that they have to act together, but want to keep their national turfs and cannot rise up to the continental challenges.

Does anybody think of the European Union as a whole, a potential polity of some 500 million people, bigger than the US in population and in aggregate the biggest economy in the world, above the US and China? Does anybody worry about imbalances within the Union, how to secure a decent leaving for workers and farmers both in the North and the South of the EU? Does anybody run the institutions that have been created, notably the European Central Bank, with that common good in mind? I doubt it, and if it is the case it does not show these days.

One could of course rightly point to the European Commission and the Parliament as close to having such a pan-EU picture. And it may well be the case, to some extent. But you can also see the fragmentation there, with political parties in the European Parliament just being associations of sovereign national parties, while the Commission is unable to inspire and gain legitimacy among EU nation state citizens beyond its technical role.

It is about time that leaders emerge and institutions behave in a way that really thinks and speaks of the EU/”Europe” as a whole. If that has to start from the Eurozone, which is more closely interconnected, so be it. The broadening of the Union has been at a serious cost to its deepening. Real deepening would mean a common political discourse and common economic, social, foreign and defence policies, with sovereignty basically transferred to the corporate entity from all constituent states, unlike the current sense of domination by a few strong powers. It would thus get down through direct links to the individual citizen, which is where sovereignty really lies.  With English as the common language, even if the UK did not participate, such an entity would balance a common core identity of democratic governance, well-being and solidarity, with a wide variety of linguistic and historical backgrounds, in an inclusive and mutually enriching way, rather than an endless fight of competing nationalisms.

If the Eurozone were to really integrate, it could become the “federation of nation states” that Mr. Barroso talked about in his last State of the Union address in September. This potential federal or confederal entity would have a population of about 330 million people, which is slightly bigger than the population of the US. It would have about two-thirds of the GDP of the US and would rank third, after the US and just after China, in the ranking of world economies. It could also have a single, strong voice (not the current collage of voices) at the United Nations, and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, through the current French seat. Moreover, it could have unitary representation and significant weight in other multilateral institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. This entity would not be against anybody but for its own citizens, and it would have a positive influence on broader global stability, by offering a solid pole along with those of the US, China, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil and other established and emerging polities and economies.

If all started to work towards it – leaders, civil society, academics, the press, the private sector and individual European citizens – this could soon become a reality. The 2014 elections for the European Parliament offer a good opportunity to publicly debate, if not start to implement, such a project. Irrespective of the outcome, a public debate would create awareness and would build up the legitimacy of whatever project ended up being implemented. Arrangements to separate the institutions and competencies of an eventual political union (“Eurozone”/”Europa”/”European (Con)Federation”?) from the rest of the EU would be complicated and messy, but solutions would be found. Technical arrangements are a minor problem once Europe has found its vision and soul.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 13 December 2012

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*Apologies here to those who would rightly argue against the interchangeability of the terms “Europe” and “European Union”. Strictly speaking using “Europe” to refer to the EU is as incorrect as using the term “America” to refer to the USA. In the case of Europe as a continent, the appropriation of the term “Europe” by the EU disenfranchises all those countries that belong geographically to the continent and politically are members of the Council of Europe, but are not members of the EU. At the same time, like “America”, the idea of “Europe” is a rallying term mostly used by the one entity that goes beyond individual nation states and represents a good part of the continent, aspiring to include even more. So apologies for this methodological looseness but this is more of an aspirational piece and political commentary than an academic essay.

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