EU Elections: The Eurosceptic Challenge in Greece and Beyond
May 14, 2014
Elections for the European Parliament have been held every 5 years since 1979. Over this time, North Americans have paid limited attention to their conduct or outcome. The upcoming May 22-25 elections, however, appear to be drawing more interest from both the North American and Russian perspectives.
The ‘big question’ about this year’s EU parliamentary elections is whether the outcome will clearly demonstrate that the economic policies of the European Commission undermine both the stability and democratic ideals of the European Union. If the outcome does reflect a serious challenge to the nature and scope of the EU economic policies, then the European Union will be required to fundamentally change its policy course.
Some might see the economic instability of the EU as being heavily influenced by the history of poor management of the public debt in southern member states. The economic viability of the EU is also being challenged by political groups within the original member states of the old European Common Market. Their skepticism about the current viability of the EU runs the political gamut from left-wing to right –wing. This broad critique ranges from simple opposition to a tightly managed ‘federal’ Europe to outright hostility to the basic concept of a politico-economic ‘union’ of independent states.
Despite their differences, all of the national ‘Eurosceptic’ parties share two common traits. First, their critiques concern the impact on individual nations of EU policies dictating the movement and management of domestic and foreign goods, labour and financial capital within the EU. From the perspective of a growing number of member-state political groups, many of these policies have made it increasingly difficult for a nation’s elected representatives to respond effectively to the needs of their own citizens.
Many of the Eurosceptic parties and groups across Europe also object to the electoral and administrative structure of the EU. According to the terms of the 2003 Lisbon Treaty, the European Council, consisting of the 28 EU heads of governments, must “take into account” the parliamentary election result when choosing the Commission president. Their selection will be approved by the newly elected members of the parliament in July. If the nominee is not accepted, the national leaders have one month to submit the name of a new nominee to the MEPs. Many Eurosceptics see the direct election of a European President to be more democratic.
At this point, the candidates for the European presidency include Jean-Claude Juncker (centre-right European People’s Party), former Luxembourg prime minister; Martin Schulz (centre-left Socialists and Democrats) a German MEP; Guy Verhofstadt (liberal ALDE bloc) ,former Belgian prime minister; Jose Bove and Ska Keller (Green Party), from France and Germany respectively; and, interestingly enough, Alexis Tsipras (European Left), leader of the left-wing Greek opposition party, Syriza, and a severe critic of his country’s Eurozone bailout .
While the debates between presidential candidates may help inform the European public of the choices between candidates, that knowledge will not necessarily be reflected in the eventual decisions made by their elected representatives in the European Parliament. Despite the value of gaining access to useful information, the EU voting public does not have the power, or political right, to select or even influence the designation of their president.
The EU member states with the largest number of voting ‘skeptics’ are the UK and Greece. According to a London School of Economics study, 50% of Greeks feel that they have not benefitted from EU policies, while an additional 31% feel that the EU is ‘going in the wrong direction’.
Given the significant impact of the Greek bailout and the high negative perceptions of the EU imposed austerity measures, I chose to contact the former Greek Ambassador to Canada, Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos, a candidate in the upcoming EU parliamentary elections.
Readers of the Millstone may recall a previous interview I conducted with the Ambassador regarding the effects of the Greek economic crisis. The political party he represents is known as EPAM (Unified Popular Front). EPAM is participating in these elections, according to Mr. Chrysanthopoulos, with the goal of working with other like minded parties to “contribute to the dissolution of the present structure of the EU in order that the interests of the European people are protected.”
The questions presented to him were meant to determine not only EPAM’s political platform, but also to gain an understanding of why so many Greek people feel that the EU is not meeting their basic needs and concerns. In short, if the current EU path is taking the wrong direction, then what is the ‘right’ direction from the perspective of EPAM?
Question: Mr. Chrysanthopoulos, the London School of Economics has noted that 81% of Greek voters feel that the EU is ‘going in the wrong direction’. Can you give me an example of how the EU is ‘going in the wrong direction’?
Chrysanthopoulos: While the EU was created to stop wars in Europe, to further economic development of its member States, and to safeguard the interests and dignity of its peoples, it gradually developed into an EU of the bankers– totally disregarding the interests of its citizens. Not even in my worst nightmare could I have imagined that the EU would sacrifice my country for the interests of the banks and financial corporations. This tendency of favoring the growth of corporate interests over that of the European people was intensified by the setting up of the Eurozone in 2000.
Question: Who bears significant responsibility for the continued decline of European national economies, and in some cases, a correlated decline in democratic standards?
Chrysanthopoulos: The governments of the member states of the EU and the EU itself are responsible for the decline of the European national economies. One characteristic example is the failure of the Lisbon Strategy, launched with enormous publicity in 2000. One objective was to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic economy in the world by 2010 This goal included increasing employment and providing better paying jobs while reinforcing social cohesion.
And of course the opposite happened. In 2009, it was admitted by all that the Strategy had failed. In 2000, the unemployment figure was 20 million in the EU of the 27 member countries while in 2013 it was 26.2 million according to Eurostat. And the Strategy failed because the EU member states refused to follow the measures mentioned in the Strategy and the EU administration did not exercise the necessary pressures on the individual governments.
Question: Do you think that many Greek people see a similar trend toward economic and democratic decline in the development of the EU, and that this might help us in understanding why so many Greeks are leaning toward the ‘Eurosceptic’ voting position?
Chrysanthopoulos: On December 19, 2009 an interview of mine was published in the Greek newspaper “Eleutherotypia”. In that article I mentioned the surveillance of citizens taking place in the UK; about legislation that was to be adopted in Germany allowing the armed forces to intervene inside the country to quell social unrest; Slovakia not allowing members of the Hungarian minority to use the Hungarian language (this issue was finally solved); and the global monitoring of bank accounts, etc.
I also recalled the statement made to the ambassadors in Ottawa right after September 11, 2001 by the then Foreign minister of Canada John Manley. He said that in the fight against terrorism we should not sacrifice democratic institutions, since if we do, then democracy loses and this is what terrorism wants.
The article concluded by proposing that Greece, Spain and Portugal, countries that had suffered from dictatorships, take an initiative to enhance democracy in the EU. Personal appeals to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the first two had no results.
I believe that the September 11 attack in New York and the Madrid and London bombings that followed played an important role in the decline of democracy in the EU. Restrictive surveillance measures were either imposed on the EU by the USA or were adopted by the EU on its own initiative.
The economic decline and measures imposed upon Greece further eroded democratic standards. There is no freedom of the press today, and journalists are instructed not to write or report in a negative way about the situation in Greece. Others are harassed by the state. The measures imposed upon Greece violate the Lisbon Agreement and also the Greek Constitution. Violations of human rights were mentioned also in a report published in March by the UN expert Cephas Lumina on the debt of Greece.
Question: You have also noted in a recent speech at the University of Athens that certain changes in the administration of the EU have resulted in policies being developed by bureaucrats rather than representative officials. Given that you have noted this apparent trend in the development of the EU; would one of your goals, if elected as an EPAM representative, be to promote administrative as well constitutional changes?
Chrysanthopoulos: Until 2003 when we had the grand enlargement, the EU was working effectively but not as well as during the 70’s and 80’s.Then the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, within the framework of the General Affairs Council, were solving by themselves, without the presence of experts, issues of the EU budget, agricultural prices, etc. They locked themselves up, even stopping the clock, until the early morning hours and came out with solutions; solutions that took into consideration the interests of their people.
These closed meetings continue to take place today, but emphasis is given to contributions from the experts with results working against the interests of the European people.
From 2004 onwards, the situation has changed for the worst. The Ministers come to the General Affairs Council, make a statement (written by someone else) on all items of the agenda and then leave for the so-called bilateral meetings, without listening to what their colleagues have to say. If EU politicians were really keen on promoting good policies for Europe as a whole, they would at least dedicate three days per month for the General Affairs Council, instead of one. But since the EU is no longer a priority for them, they will not stay in Brussels for three days and so the EU falls more and more in the hands of unelected officials, the bureaucrats.
EPAM is participating in the elections for European Parliament, so that along with other sympathetic parties, it can contribute to the dissolution of the present structure of the EU in order that the interests of the European people are protected. Whether or not the likeminded parties within the European Parliament will have the necessary power to do that remains to be seen. But the European Parliament does have the authority to block the appointment of the European Commission, to censure it and also to stop the adoption of the EU Budget, actions already undertaken a few times.
So if we are in the European Parliament, we will strive also for the restoration of the respect for human rights in Greece and in other EU countries; human rights that are being violated by the austerity measures imposed by the Troika (EU, IMF and European Central Bank).
Question: In December 2013, European Commissioner for Employment Laszlo Andor of Hungary argued that Greece did not need a third bailout. From his perspective, Greece needs a reconstruction plan with an emphasis on debt relief. (Cited in Kathimerini 2013)
Given that the sovereign debt of Greece is largely held by international financial institutions and foreign governments do you see any hope that Commissioner Andor’s perspective will be seriously considered by its current debt-holders?
Chrysanthopoulos: It should, but I do not think so since the international financial institutions and others only care to make quick money. But for EPAM that is not the issue. Our solution to the crisis is the following:
The Loan Facility Agreement of May 2010 signed between Greece and the member states of the Eurozone should be repudiated This rejection will be based on articles 48-52 of the Vienna Convention of the UN concerning the Law of Treaties. These articles anticipate invalidating the Treaties if there are errors in the compact, fraud, coercion of a representative of State, etc. All these provisions are applicable for Greece.
EPAM will also ask for compensation to be given to Greece by the EU and the IMF for damages they have inflicted on the country. According to our conservative estimates, the costs amount to around 320 billion euros. It should also be mentioned that article 41.3 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (this is incorporated in the Lisbon Treaty) states that ‘’Every person has the right to have the Union make good any damage caused by its institutions or by its servants in the performance of their duties, in accordance with the general principles common to the laws of the Member-States’’.
Interest payments will automatically cease when the Loan Agreement is repudiated. The ensuing compensation to be given to Greece will enable the country to repair much of the externally caused economic damage and to implement effective development policies.
Greece will also have to depart from the Eurozone, in order to be able to implement beneficial economic programs. These reforms cannot be implemented under Eurozone rules.
At a later stage, Greece will exit the EU in accordance with procedures anticipated in article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Greece joined the EEC in 1981 in order to safeguard its democracy (after a seven year military dictatorship), to enhance its economic development, and to protect its territorial integrity.
As we have seen, the EU has increased the continental wide democratic deficit, while in Greece authoritarianism is increasing. The EU has not shown that it is in a position to protect the territorial integrity of any of its members, while the economy of Greece has been destroyed by the austerity measures.
Under these conditions there is no reason for Greece to remain within the EU. We are not saying that our plan for exiting the crisis will be easy to implement. But it is a much better solution than the continuation of a policy that is destroying Greece.
The destruction can be seen by the following numbers: the Greek government signed the Loan Agreement of May 2010 in order to reduce the public debt which in 2009 was 129% of the GNP or 299 billion euros. After two memoranda and mistaken policies undertaken by the EU, the IMF, and the Greek governments, the debt increased to 175% of GNP or 321 billion euros. Unemployment rose from 470,620 people in 2009 (or 9.5%) and then reached 1,374,054 people (or 27.6%) in 2013. Suicides have totaled some 4000 people from the beginning of the crisis.
Our positions have been made known to the Ambassadors of the EU in Athens. I have personally met most of these individuals and I delivered to them a letter from the Secretary General of EPAM, Dimitris Kazakis.
Question: You mentioned earlier that EPAM’s goal in running candidates for the European Parliament is to ‘work with like minded parties to contribute to the dissolution of the present structure of the EU’, but you have also noted that Greece should eventually exit the EU. How can you work with like minded parties to dissolve the present structure of the EU, if you believe that the country must exit all participation in the EU?
Chrysanthopoulos: We are running for a seat in the European Parliament so that we could use it as a forum to voice our complaints against the EU. If likeminded parties from other countries achieve a strong presence in the parliament, then it will be easier to challenge the system through blocking the adoption of the EU budget, or by not agreeing to the composition of the European Commission. This has happened before.
As I said earlier, the EU, up to this point, has not shown that it is in a position to protect the territorial integrity, or the socio-economic security of any of its members.
Question: In terms of the mechanics and logistics of seeking a seat in the European Parliament, can you give some examples of what is involved in running an ‘anti-EU’ political campaign in Greece?
Chrysanthopoulos: On a recent trip to northern Greece, EPAM covered the air plane costs: but when landed in Kavalla, our local organization had to drive us around and feed us. We had to sleep in places that our local organization managed to find for us, such as at a closed hotel belonging to an EPAM member and an empty apartment of a Greek dentist who is also a member of EPAM.
EPAM has no source of funding except the contributions of its members and friends. We get money through receipts of selling coupons. When we held a big speaking event for EPAM leader Kazakis in my community area, we hosted 400 people, and managed to raise 400 euros by selling some homemade food, refreshments and Kazakis’ books.
We have about 100 regional organizations all over Greece. Each member of these groups is supposed to pay monthly dues of 5 euros, but very few can afford this. The regional organizations usually send part of their income to the central offices. So basically we are running a shoe string operation through the contributions of party members and friends.
Our local organizations tell us when and where to go, and they organize interviews with the regional TV and radio stations. We use flyers, posters, word of mouth, and community newspapers to promote our events. In areas where we do not have affiliated groups we improvise. We also use megaphones: two days before an event we use loud speakers to advertise an event. Many people applaud us from their balconies. Quite efficient and cost effective.
It is clear in Greece that the political promotion of EU skepticism is a ‘grassroots’ movement. Candidates for office have to be innovative and cost conscious in developing their campaign strategies given that there are apparently no individuals with deep pockets who support their platforms. Cooperation across borders is also crucial.
EPAM and various like minded parties across Europe have signed a joint declaration on the EU (www.epaminternational.wordpress.com). One of the signatories, Campaign for an Independent Britain (CIB) (www.cib4freedom.co.uk/), which describes itself as a non partisan educational organization, rather than an electoral party, has influenced the development of a Eurosceptic political party, the UKIP. The UKIP, according to the BBC, is the most popular Eurosceptic party in the British Isles running for election to the EP.
Although the CIB and UKIP have different structures, they do share a common goal to have Britain withdraw from the EU. However, the fact that they compete for members, commitment and financial support dilutes the possibility that either will achieve their shared objective.
The more divided the Eurosceptic movement becomes; the more likely it is to be conquered by its pro-EU political adversaries. The ‘pro-EU’ vote is likely to prevail regardless of the growing political challenges, but the advocates of essentially promoting the status quo are further aided by organizational divisions within their opponents.
One might ask why any of this EU debate is of any importance to the residents of Canada. That question is easily answered. Our government just signed the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, so any substantial developments and changes in the European Union could have a significant impact on our trade balance.
The most important reason for Canadians to give serious consideration to this debate concerns the ongoing discussion of the benefits and liabilities of greater North American integration. As in Europe, the advocates of increased integration see positive outcomes in a growing economic union with the US and Mexico. As the argument goes, collective economic power lifts all boats.
But listening to the points of view of the Eurosceptics should also give us pause. We must consider how any short term benefits of an economic union might eventually lead to the decline of the Canadian form of democracy. Could the long term price be many of our core beliefs and principles such as universal health care?