Playing politics with Greece’s future

Playing politics with Greece’s future

What is the public role of expertise in Greece? When should governments listen to them? No one expects a modern society to emulate Plato’s Republic, but the question goes to the very heart of a widespread institutional problem and one that undoubtedly holds the country back. Indeed, the “brain drain” from Greece is not only prompted by monetary incentives, but by what is seen as the lack of opportunity at home.

Greece has struggled to provide proper space for homegrown technocratic expertise for decades. “Politics” is everywhere and made more frenzied by lapses into populism. There is only a limited and weak sense of the difference between the “political” and the “civil” spheres, between partisan loyalties and scientific expertise. Politicians take their turn in power to command loyalty and to distribute the gains of office. Tribal loyalty overcomes all other concerns; experts must be either “one of us” or “one of them.” The notion of “independence” is an anathema; experts must succumb to the political sphere. Political figures, up and down the chain, are paranoid about possible threats or other centres of authority.

Into this cauldron, walk figures of stature and goodwill. There is a litany of tragic cases. We all know individual cases, but can only highlight the more prominent. Over the past few years, Andreas Georgiou, the former chairman of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), has been the subject of repeated political attacks which left foreign observers, and the EU institutions, aghast. His expertise and his integrity had to be sacrificed in the name of a cheap, populist campaign.

Now, we have the case of Professor Stamatios Krimigis. Without doubt, he is one of Greece’s most pre-eminent academicians. He is precisely the type of expert the country needs to help it move forward. Returning to Greece from a highly successful career in the USA, he responded to the call to head up the new Hellenic Space Agency. His motives were patriotic, pure and simple. Yet he felt forced to resign after little more than four weeks. The point at issue was that his new agency was not to be independent at all; rather, the minister of digital policy, telecommunications and media, Nikos Pappas, made it subject to the political control of the general secretary of telecommunications and post offices. Krimigis’s successor, Christodoulos Protopapas, not only lacks expertise in the relevant scientific area, he also has some very strange views about science and the role of Saint Porphyrios in the advancement of technological innovations. Indeed, his writings on the matter have raced across the internet for all to see. This saint could, he claimed, stop time itself. And Protopapas, sadly, could also perhaps delay scientific advancement in Greece. The damage to Greece’s reputation abroad – indeed, the ridicule – should not be ignored.

I had the honor of serving under Krimigis on the Greek Council for Research and Technology (ESET) some years ago. He led the council most ably to a new agenda of transparency and of supporting research in Greece and he was able to do so because of Anna Diamantopoulou, that rare specimen of a politician with the confidence to define boundaries and delegate tasks. Sadly, such efforts were stalled by the incursions of the first Samaras government.

The list of cases indicates that the problem is not confined to the present government, but is part of a deeper cultural condition. It affects how governments, of all shades, seek and receive expert advice. The limitations are not just a matter of the scale of the available resources in key areas. Rather, ministers prefer individual inputs for reasons of control and safety. As a result, the flow of knowledge is discontinuous and institutional capacity is left marginalized. The quality of the policies produced suffers as a result.

The way politicians approach academics is compounded by how the latter manage their universities. In essence, too many play the same game as the politicians: privileging internal politics over meritocracy. The effect is that when governments seek serious advice they often opt for a committee of foreign experts, who are not tainted by domestic politics and its tribalism. Again, the signal denigrates Greece: It’s as if Greece is being self-identified as a banana republic, devoid of its own resources.

“Experts” are out of fashion in many places today, the UK included. Pro-BREXIT campaigners told voters to ignore the experts, the public knew better. Experts are shunned by populism wherever it arises. Knowledge is devalued: it’s like saying to someone who is sick, “Go and ask a plumber.”

The difference in Greece is that the problem runs deeper: It’s a mentality combined with clientelism. Neither can cope with separation or independence. Given the recent crisis, the political psychology of continuing in this way is a tragic farce. After all, it’s not as if the political system has delivered resounding success.

Kevin Featherstone is Eleftherios Venizelos Professor of Contemporary Greek Studies and Professor of European Politics, London School of Economics.

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