It's the middle of a hot summer weekday and the streets of the Athenian neighborhood of Mets are all but deserted. Those residents who haven't escaped the city are holed up in their air-conditioned apartments and offices. I'm the first to arrive at Vyrini, the traditional taverna where I have an appointment with Andreas Pottakis, now one year into his tenure as Greek ombudsman.
It's been a while since we last met – our acquaintance predates our professional relationship – and when I express reserved optimism regarding the country's prospects during our preliminary conversation, he looks at me askance, as though wondering, “Who is this guy and what has he done with Yannis?”
Our formal discussion begins with the migration crisis, an issue on which the Ombudsman's Office, under Pottakis, has placed a great deal of emphasis, publishing, among other initiatives, a lengthy report in June about its management by the Greek and European authorities. He says of the March 2016 agreement between the European Union and Ankara that it “raises a series of problematic issues” and questions “how hard Greece negotiated before accepting it, given that it carries the greatest burden.”
Pottakis reminds me that it is a “nonbinding agreement,” and that – despite what Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has said – it does not require that incoming asylum seekers be restricted to the five islands with reception facilities. “Even the most effective administration would have trouble responding to the needs this policy creates,” stresses the 42-year-old lawyer.
Among other responsibilities, the ombudsman also oversees returns with a team of 18 specialized staff. “We have become so expert that we now train monitors from other countries,” he says. “Last year, without any additional funding, we were present at around half of the return and repatriation operations.”
One case at which Ombudsman officials were not present, and into which the independent authority launched an investigation last June, is the alleged deportation of Turks who sought asylum in Greece in the wake of the failed coup in the summer of 2016. The probe put the authority in the crosshairs of Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, who commented, “We'll see if its intervention is legal.”
Pottakis refrains from divulging any details about the ongoing probe, but notes: “We are investigating the case both because of the severity of the charges and the dimensions it has assumed, from interventions by domestic institutions to international players, such as the representative of the UN refugee agency in Greece and the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner. We had no choice but to mobilize – otherwise it would have been like turning a blind eye.”
As for Kotzias's intervention, the ombudsman says, “I do not think there is any doubt as to whether this particular investigation falls within our purview.”
Pottakis expresses serious reservations about the broader framework of the handling of the refugee and migration crisis. “The aim is to create a climate of deterrence,” says the ombudsman. “This is the intention of the Europeans, but also of the Greek government – they have clearly said so. I do not think that it will prove an effective approach, and from a human rights standpoint, it is certainly problematic. This isn’t 2015 anymore – it is not the case that public administration has reached its limits and existing infrastructure and the services cannot be improved; they are intentionally not upgraded, so as to deter refugees and migrants from coming to Greece.”
The toll of the crisis
According to Pottakis, the watchdog he leads received 8,000 complaints in the first half of the year – on track for a new record – as the economic crisis and the demands it places on people’s incomes has taken its toll (the chaotic new social insurance regime is a key driver of the increase in complaints).
In which way and to what degree has the rule of law suffered as a result of the crisis in the past eight years? “The truth is that the concept of the rule of law has come under pressure and rights have been compromised,” says Pottakis. “To take one example: The tax authorities act first – e.g. seizing a property belonging to the taxpayer – and inform you later. Another example, which I believe is of questionable constitutionality, is that taxpayers have to pay 50 percent of a tax fine before they can challenge it. Meanwhile – and we have already filed complaints on this issue twice – we have cases where pensioners are paying social security contributions on the basis of the pension they once got, not what it is now. And with EFKA [the new Unified Social Security System] it's been crazy! We are planning a special report at the end of the year on the new social security and insurance system, and particularly on the transition to it.”
The common thread binding these types of cases together, Pottakis points out, is “fiscal necessity,” but the crucial issue is whether “certain rights are being violated at their core.” We could, he says, talk about different labor and union rights, “which are without doubt very important, but which are also the product of a certain period, of particular socioeconomic conditions. If, however, we reach the point where a particular measure impinges upon the dignity of the individual, as is the case with some of the tax and social security measures imposed, then things are very serious.”
Pottakis expands on the theme of rights and their reinterpretation in different periods of time. “We still think of the public sector as we knew it back in the 1980s – this is why we haven't carried out many of the reforms. We focus, for example, on whether a utility supplier is state-owned rather than whether it offers quality services at a good price. We need to adapt to the new reality, not look backward and be afraid of evolution. This is what being progressive means.”
2015 and all that
Before being appointed to the post of ombudsman, Pottakis had firsthand experience of the SYRIZA-led government's “proud negotiations” with foreign creditors that nearly got the country kicked out of the eurozone, as head of the legal office of the General Secretariat of the Government. I ask him how he remembers that period. He takes a few moments before answering: “It was a very intense time, very difficult and, dare I say, historic. Things could have turned out very differently. The deal was struck at the point when the negotiations had reached their limits – temporal and otherwise. Some people were thinking all sorts of things back then, but it is one thing to examine a plan on paper, and without knowledge of the legal ramifications, and quite another to put it into effect.”
What compelled him to accept his present post? “I was assigned a very important mission at a time when this particular post really matters, because of the particular circumstances the country has found itself in the past few years.”