A system based on assumptions

n «The Twelve Tasks of Asterix,» a film inspired by the comic book and shot in the mid-1970s, one of the 12 tasks assigned to the feisty Gaul and his portly companion Obelix is to find Permit A-38 in The Place That Sends You Mad. Now Greeks – or anyone living in Greece for that matter – will watch this film with great amusement, but also with a faint, wry smile, because the travails of the two indomitable Gauls are a daily occurrence in this red tape-tangled country. We see Asterix and Obelix climbing up endless stairs in a futile hunt for all the necessary paperwork. Successive administrations in Greece have talked about tackling the monster of bureaucracy and indeed a few steps in the right direction have been taken, such as the establishment of the KEP Citizens’ Advice Bureaus as well as the simplification of some procedures. Yet the problem remains and it has an insidious effect on every aspect of life. Many of the assumptions on which the bureaucratic system relies are out of step with modern society. For example, every household must have at least one person who does not work and has the time to go to the bank to pay bills, the tax office to settle the family accounts, the post office to pay road tax, the doctor to get the monthly prescription for the family’s medications, the social security fund to have the prescriptions stamped and the pharmacy to get the medicine. When it comes to foreigners living in Greece, the nightmare cannot be put into words. Another assumption is that people can afford to take time off work to get all these and more chores done. With an increasing number of people working in the private sector, where the rules of the game are very different to those in the public sector, this presents a serious problem for many. But the worst assumption of all is that the citizen has a duty to play the go-between for civil services. The onus of proof should not rest on the shoulders of the taxpaying citizen/client. In every transaction with the state we are required to prove the validity of our claim and the honesty of our intentions, having to provide endless documents, each stamped by a different person, each acquired from a different place. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty? The state has a very warped view of its citizens. The time and frustration that go into these tasks are, to say the least, corrosive. And one can only imagine what unfolds when one does not speak the language. The inane processes required to complete a seemingly simple task makes people angry, uncommunicative, defensive and downright fed up. The most mild-mannered person can be turned into a raving lunatic, spitting bile at a complete stranger. It is a humiliating process – and this goes for the people on both sides of the desk. It does not make for happy citizens. In the film, Asterix ends up with smoke coming out of the top of his helmet and with poor Obelix bouncing off the walls. But at the end of their 12-step trial, Caesar says that the two Gauls are indeed gods, gives them control of the Roman Empire and goes off to retire to his country home with Cleopatra. In Greece, at the end of our travails we get, at best, what we paid for.