The phone tappings shouldn’t be an excuse to disempower a PM

The phone tappings shouldn’t be an excuse to disempower a PM

The phone-tapping scandal may determine the outcome of the next election in Greece. It ought not to reverse the changes made to the institutional support around the prime minister. The latter should not be a matter of party or factional politics; rather, they concern the ability of a government – of any color – to deliver its policies. “Good government” is a matter of the national interest; complicity in phone tapping is a political question: The two should be kept separate.

Some years ago, I wrote a book (with Dimitris Papadimitriou) on how Greek prime ministers managed their governments. We highlighted a “paradox of power” between the formal strength of the position of the PM, enhanced under successive revisions of the Constitution, and the practical realities. We wrote of the period from 1974 to 2009 and we argued there were two enduring features of how the government operated, which fluctuated only modestly depending on who was PM at the time. Important reforms, like those initiated by Costas Simitis, were set aside. In general, the institutional capacity of the PM to give effective central direction to the government and also to coordinate actions across ministries was far more limited than a reading of the Constitution might suggest.

This argument was taken up by George Papandreou when he was PM (though he was unable to act fully in response), and it was advocated both by the OECD, in a 2011 report on governance in Greece, and by the Troika in its insistence in the Second Memorandum on there being greater central coordination for the implementation of the reforms it demanded. Both within and outside Greece, the government machine appeared fragmented and individual ministries acted as fiefdoms. This pathogenesis was not unrelated to a history of clientelism and corruption, as ministers’ actions went unchecked.

The institutional reforms of 2019-20 shared the diagnosis of the weaknesses and the solutions brought forward reflected international management philosophies. Fragmentation was (partly) replaced with centralization. Law 4622/19 reconfigured the relationship between individual ministries and the center of government, introducing a series of new benchmarks for the planning and implementation of policy in each ministry along with a new set of procedures for coordinating government activities. The “Presidency of the Government” was created (see also Presidential Decree 98/20), bringing under its auspices five previously separate general secretariats, with a total of 440 staff and an annual budget of €44 million. The oversight of the new structure was assigned to two ministers, Giorgos Gerapetritis and Akis Skertsos.

Again, structures must be distinguished from the people operating them. I put aside here the criticisms of cronyism in the appointment of political friends. This is hardly an innovation in Greek politics and could be addressed by separate reforms.

I put aside here the criticisms of cronyism in the appointment of political friends. This is hardly an innovation in Greek politics and could be addressed by separate reforms

In any event, the success of the government in submitting a “National Recovery and Resilience Plan, Greece 2.0,” which was much praised by the EU Commission and secured over €30 billion in funding for 2021-26, can be attributed, in part, to the institutional changes made within government. We might say the same for Greece’s early Covid response. Coordination across ministries and central direction had been made more effective.

These gains to good governance ought to be seen separately from the controversies concerning phone tapping. They produce independent benefits in terms of the delivery of government policies. They represent a switch from a Trabant to a VW, possibly even an Audi, and any new driver should appreciate the contrast. Whatever the chosen direction, the car will get you there quicker.

The culpability of the PM in the phone-tapping scandal will continue to be fought over. With the 2019 Law, Mitsotakis had made himself as PM responsible for the National Intelligence Service (EYP). He then gave de facto oversight of EYP to Grigoris Dimitriadis. Mitsotakis denies knowledge of the phone tappings of PASOK leader Nikos Androulakis and others. A British PM is required to be one of three signatories before an MP’s phone can be tapped. The other two are the relevant minister and a specially appointed judge. After a slow response, the Mitsotakis government has proposed that, in future, two judges and the speaker of Parliament would be needed to authorize phone tapping, taking the matter away from Maximos Mansion. Establishing accountability and safeguarding individual rights has proven a challenge for governments across Europe and there are legitimate concerns as to what happened in Greece and the changes being proposed.

Yet, the phone-tapping scandal was not produced by the reforms of 2019-20 and the institutional support given to the PM. Shady phone-tapping scandals occurred in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when the office around the PM was very different. Nor would a reversal to greater decentralization across government simply facilitate greater accountability for government actions. Indeed, accountability is easier with centralization: In principle, it is more difficult for those in the spotlight to blame others and hide across the archipelago of government. The 2019-20 institutional changes around the PM should not, then, be seen as “Mitsotakian,” but of generic benefit. That is not to say that refinements are not needed, but the changes should not be dismissed on the erroneous claim that the phone tappings prove they were misconceived.

Professor Kevin Featherstone is director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.