On February 5th the new Greek parliament was sworn in. It was the first time the majority of the government’s MPs took a simple civil oath rather than a religious one, after the Archbishop of Athens with his entourage had left the Parliament. For the first time in its turbulent history of one and a half century, the Greek Parliament observed its most solemn moment in a secular way.
While the whole of Europe anxiously watches the arm wrestling between the Greek and German governments, at home SYRIZA’s victory also inaugurates a different struggle, away from the glare of European publicity. This struggle is not related to the settlement of debt, but to the deepening of democratic institutions and the consolidation of a rights-oriented political culture. Still, the outcome of this struggle is crucially – though not entirely - dependent on the outcome of the negotiations with the E.U. As long as policies that exacerbate social inequality and injustice are perpetuated in Greece, we cannot seriously hope to reform the glaring anachronisms of Greek institutions. The country has been ruled at times by the modernizing parts of the Greek political elite, sometimes with a frank commitment to an agenda of fundamental freedoms and a critical attitude towards Greek nationalism. Yet major changes in the field of democracy and human rights have taken root in Greece only under the great social redistribution plan started by the first PASOK government in 1981, in the first years of later socialist governments, or immediately after the junta in 1974, at times of radical regime change.
Major democratic changes cannot last without a project of social goods redistribution alleviating inequality. Undertaking this huge project is imperative in Greece to enable a new wave of institutional democratization and human rights consolidation. We need to implement a humane immigration policy; give Greek citizenship to foreigners settled in Greece with their children; separate the State from the Church; democratize the police; address effectively the Nazi threat in our polity; establish better prisons; introduce civil union for same sex couples; change the school curricula that teach our children a purely Hellenocentric version of history. On many of these issues, Greece has been the object of repeated criticism from all international human rights organisations. And the list is just beginning.
The struggle for these changes need not await the outcome of negotiations with the EU. It must start today and continue regardless of what happens with the Greek debt. Yet we must also be aware that if the negotiations go badly, so too will the struggle for human rights and institutional changes. This is a certainty. It is not that these changes would further burden the poor Greek budget; most are financially costless. They are not costless, though, at the level of perceptions, ideologies and mentalities. Defeated societies mired in grief and suffering could not care less about their people’s freedoms, much less critical readings of their identity. If the Greek government is humiliated and forced to accept a new pax germanica, then our hopes diminish. If instead it gets what it has requested from the start – political space and time to start implementing its reforms - then we can be optimistic about human rights.
Today, there is an additional reason for these institutional reforms. The institutional transformation of Greek society is not merely an internal challenge but can, with the appropriate diplomatic moves, become a key negotiating tool with the EU. For many years, the European establishment has bemoaned the inability of successive Greek governments to implement rudimentary institutional reforms, and particularly the constitutional ruling that "Greek citizens contribute without distinction to public charges in proportion to their means”. (Article 4, para. 5). For the new Greek government, putting forward a convincing alternative program to the "structural reforms" demanded by the Troika is an immediate priority. If the EU acts prudently, these changes could become a mutually beneficial prerequisite for the settlement of the debt.
During the four years in which Greece has been under the Troika’s supervision, human and civil rights have been downgraded. "Europe", once synonymous with institutional modernization, rights and democratization for all the countries of the South, has come to represent punishment and austerity. The recent New Democracy-led conservative government was ideologically hostile to such changes; neo-conservatism went hand in hand with neoliberalism. Ignoring convictions of the country by the European Court of Human Rights became routine. But the cause of rights was also set back because, quite simply, the Troika and the EU cared nothing for the impact of their policies on human rights, which were cynically regarded as the necessary 'collateral damage' of fiscal adjustment, or even as appropriate punishment for the EU’s bad student. The International Federation for Human Rights documented the cost of austerity for human rights in a detailed report published on December 18th 2014. It is hard to imagine, for instance, any serious European country closing down its public broadcaster because its creditors demanded public sector layoffs.
Greece’s struggle today, therefore, is not only a struggle for economic survival. It is also a battle for functioning democratic institutions and respect for the human and civil rights of all those within its borders. That is what is at stake in the current negotiations. Today, the Greek case is also a human rights case.
Dimitris Christopoulos is the Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights, an Associate Professor of Political Science, Panteion University.