A sad testament to the state of affairs in Greece

By Alexis Papachelas

The only real political issue in the entire Lagarde list affair is whether the Greek state could have used it earlier to locate large-scale tax evaders and recover a significant amount of lost revenues. That opportunity was obviously lost and did not reappear until recently.

The truth is however that this is not a simple process. Even countries with extensive experience in clamping down on tax evasion have stumbled over the plethora of legal and other obstacles that come with the use of data acquired through unofficial channels. They ultimately used the data as leverage against people who could not justify the size of their Swiss deposits.

The excuses heard in Greece over why the list was not used to this end vary. Some say that they did not trust the Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE) to deal with the issue and believed the list could be ill-used to blackmail the innocent along with the guilty. Others claimed that the list could not be used as evidence in a court of law and was therefore useless.

If the former is true, then one can’t help but wonder why a minister would agree to oversee a service that he viewed as unreliable. If the latter is true, then the serious question arises of which state service gave the impression in the first place that the list could be used.

Everything about this affair is wrong, because politicians and state officials are unaccustomed to having to work in a serious and methodical manner, with some degree of respect for protocol. If former Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou had simply filled out a form confirming that he had passed on the list to the Financial Crimes Squad, then he wouldn’t be in this mess and we wouldn’t have seen SDOE lose credibility. He could also have avoided a lot of problems if he was surrounded by experienced aides with knowledge of administrative procedure and law. But many ministers forget how ephemeral their role is and that they need to follow certain rules.

On the other hand, cynics (or realists) would argue that Greece does not have the overt or covert services to handle complex, sensitive matters such as these, which, moreover, have an international dimension. They see efforts to get the list from the French authorities as overly optimistic because they don’t believe that we have the know-how and experience to use it. As unfair as this accusation sounds, it unfortunately contains a grain of truth.

Who is to blame for Greece coming to this? The same politicians who are today paying the price, either on an individual level or as part of the system of power. They are the ones who dismantled the public administration so they could keep their cronies close at hand; they messed with the Financial Crimes Squad to serve their own interests and they created a system where so many could get away with so much.