Yiorgos Petalotis: Apology to the Greek people
28. February 2012. | 13:14
Author: George Gilson
When George Papandreou signed the first EU-IMF bailout, Yiorgos Petalotis was government spokesman. As deputy justice minister today, Petalotis concedes in an interview with the Athens News that Pasok and ND brought disaster to the country with bad policies, now and in the past.While he will not come out to say whether the bailout will avert bankruptcy, he does not mince his words in criticising Germany’s stance towards Athens
When George Papandreou signed the first EU-IMF bailout, Yiorgos Petalotis was government spokesman. As deputy justice minister today, Petalotis concedes in an interview with the Athens News that Pasok and ND brought disaster to the country with bad policies, now and in the past.
While he will not come out to say whether the bailout will avert bankruptcy, he does not mince his words in criticising Germany’s stance towards Athens
Athens News: Will the new bailout agreement save Greece from bankruptcy?
Yiorgos Petalotis: To say that an agreement will save Greece from bankruptcy is a grand statement. I see a great fluidity that is highlighted by the repeated backpedalling of Germany in particular. That leads to second thoughts about how the Germans and other partners see Greece’s place and their place in Europe. We saw how [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schaeuble said one thing one day and quite another the day after, leading us to fresh negotiations on an agreement that should have been finished. That shows that Germany has a stance today that is not the most European. That is what stirs doubt.
I strongly believe that what is happening is the best that could be done for Greece. It gives a big breather on covering borrowing needs and a prospect for debt viability. It is a big opportunity to put order in our own house.
Many Greeks are angry over Schaeuble’s and other northern officials’ ridiculing of Greece. Do you see improper behaviour towards Greece?
Greece gave others the right to judge us due to our management of our politics. But when they insult us, that crosses every red line. Everything has its limits. It is morally unacceptable, but it also creates a negative reaction and resistance in public opinion.
Our partners should not fool their own citizens - to whom they are playing up - with a false image that everything in Greece is awful but that all is well in Germany and Fin-
land. The German president was recently ousted for reasons that would have turned everyone against Greece if it had occurred here.
We admit our mistakes, shortfalls and procrastination, but a partner with EU solidarity should help us find our way and not insult us. It is up to us to guard the state so no one can express themselves the way an EU member [Germany] did recently.
Is the troika trying to push Greece to leave the eurozone on its own?
Yiorgos Petalotis: That has been one interpretation of Schaeuble’s position lately. I cannot see an EU benefit to Greece’s leaving the eurozone. It will open a Pandora’s box, and Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy are right after us. It seems that these countries will be subjected to the same experiment as Greece, so there is no will for them to leave the eurozone.
This is an unacceptable practice by our partners: to keep piling on our responsibilities, in instalments. It is in our hand to show the decisiveness, courage and responsibility to do the things that need to be done.
Could we have avoided the memorandum if drastic measures had been taken at once, when Pasok came to power in 2009?
Yiorgos Petalotis:I have wondered about that. I believe that there was no way we could have avoided the memorandum. We could have had greater knowledge and readiness before the elections. We should have been more decisive after taking power.
We lost time, but that could not have averted the memorandum. I was present at all the talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel - who was not convinced the EU must act - with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Chinese. Putin told [former premier George] Papandreou to go to the IMF.
Polls show party breakups - Laos, New Democracy and so on. Where do you see party politics going?
The big parties, Pasok and ND, were unique in Europe for garnering 40-45 percent of the votes. We won’t have that, in the short term at least. That is why it is an opportunity for political synthesis that is based on specific policies, not on personalities.
[Among leftist party leaders] Dimar’s Fotis Kouvelis is high in the polls, but [Synaspismos’ Alexis] Tsipras was polling 18 percent and barely passed the 3 percent threshold in 2007.
I respect Kouvelis and there is an ideological kinship with a large portion of Pasok. But it is not enough for a party to have a good leader. We have not yet heard the policies of the Democratic Left on how we will survive as a country in the current conditions.
That is the basic issue that will bring back to Pasok those who today say they will vote for Kouvelis.
Do the two parties that handled the economy over three decades have responsibility for this disaster? Do you feel you owe the Greek people - the poor and pensioners in particular - an apology?
Yiorgos Petalotis:That is obvious. We all owe an apology - the whole political system - and especially the two parties that ruled.
Pasok offered a lot to Greece by evening out class inequalities. It brought to the fore people who had been marginalised for decades due to the Civil War and dictatorship. But Pasok also bears huge responsibility because as a progressive party it should have given political and social directions on what kind of society we want. The phrase “Tsovolas, give it all away” [referring to then finance minister and EU handouts] was a Pasok outlook for many years.
Over false horizons and borrowed money we created a feel-good society that looked to the public sector. Although we instituted public hiring with the Peponis law, we created a bloated public sector and a private sector that was demonised because it profited from it. The result is today that the private sector is essentially dependent on a state that lacks credibility.
We made a lot of mistakes. We allowed society to have a sense of false prosperity, we bred trade unions that were there not to defend labour rights but as part of a bad state machinery and we are now paying for that. We offered much but we made great mistakes, and we clearly should apologise to the Greek people even for recent mistakes. We did not dare complete reforms even in the crisis. We did not manage to create a social welfare net.
The good thing today is that we can no longer hide. Finally, even if forced to do so, we politicians are telling the truth.
Speeding up justice
The legendary delays and red tape of the Greek judiciary have for decades and many cases amounted to the denial of a fair trial. Since 1997, Greece has been convicted 360 times for such delays by the EU’s court of justice. But it was the troika that insisted on immediate action, thus a new bill that overhauls the Greek civil procedure code was tabled on February 22. Consensual divorce will be sped up, trial postponements will be limited and judges’ efficiency will be evaluated. Deputy Justice Minister Yiorgos Petalotis gives details
Which reforms in the bill were requested by the troika, and which by the European Commission Task Force?
Yiorgos Petalotis: For years there were chronic problems that were often tantamount to denial of a fair trial. Despite the patch jobs, we never saw a radical solution that would settle legal disputes out of court, so we never changed things in a fundamental way.
The delays are the big issue. We have been convicted in the European Court for delays, but not for the root of the problem.
There was longstanding resistance to reform. When political cost was a paramount concern, governments did not want to rock the boat but only to repair problems that were urgent. That is how we got overloaded court dockets and hundreds of thousands of pending cases, including tax cases that would produce state revenue.
That is where the troika and the task force gave us direction. We pledged to have tried 140,000 tax cases in the administrative courts by 2013. The state loses revenues from the delay. When citizens object to pension, tax or customs decisions, they can’t get justice for years.
Judiciary bureaucracy led to the delays, as did multiple, overlapping laws, which prevented lawyers themselves from being aware of the full legal arsenal. That led to wrong decisions and appeals; it took many years to exhaust judicial appeals.
Take this example. You apply to the Social Security Foundation (IKA) for a pension and it is rejected. You appeal to a local administrative board. Then it goes to the administrative lower court, then to an appeals court and then to the Council of State. There are citizens who died and never got a verdict. That is a huge cost in time and money.
There were structural problems that were kicked down the road for years.
How will the new single-judge appellate courts for narcotics, theft, robbery and such cases help relieve the backlog?
Today appellate courts have too many judges working on cases that could be done by a single appellate judge with experience and knowledge. By freeing up judges we can handle many more cases.
The new law limits court case postponements. Will that help?
Courts hand out postponements routinely, even when only one postponement is allowed, for serious cause.
Even at the court of first instance, a case can be postponed five times because of lawyers’ strikes or because a witness has not been called. That is pathogenic. Imagine what happens at the appeals stage.
Will the electronic submission of case documents help speed up trials?
That addresses a longstanding need. We have had long lines of lawyers, apprentices and citizens who wait around and develop improper relations with those asked to set earlier court dates. Now the lawyer can submit documents from his or her office. The political system lost the train to development, because it did not help adjudicate disputes speedily.
Is the whole civil procedure code being overhauled?
The code is changing on many fronts. The first thing we must see to is the organisational chart of the Greek courts.
We also could not accept the fact a court started at 9am, handed out some postponements, started the first case at 10am and broke at 12 noon, after having tried only one case. Then there was a court conference and the ruling came out at 2pm.
We extended the court workday by two hours and only for court secretaries who are in the courtroom.
Until know, judges were promoted solely based on years of service, regardless of disciplinary breaches. That is unjust to really good judges. So we have introduced evaluation by a commission of judges, which will consider promotions. You cannot promote judges when you have a three-year backlog.
Today, reviews are purely formalities and judges are reviewed based on the rulings that they themselves decide to provide to the inspector, so, essentially, there is no evaluation.
In administrative courts that resolve citizens’ disputes with the state bureaucracy, the government agency may not send the file on the set court date, and that can lead to a two-year postponement. Now, civil servants who do not send files will face disciplinary action.
You downgraded the transporting of illegal migrants from a felony to a misdemeanour. Why?
Yiorgos Petalotis:[Coalition government partners] New Democracy and Laos objected and the clause was withdrawn. We will see what happens in the full parliament. For years this act was a misdemeanour, until 2007, under New Democracy.
All prosecutors in border regions where this is a problem favour making the crime a misdemeanour, because the punishment was very harsh - two years in prison per illegal migrant plus fines.
The culprit was tried immediately with an emergency, same-day procedure and he was jailed. It is easier to try a misdemeanour. Now that trafficking is a felony, culprits are remanded in custody and are tried one or two years later. If they did it for a living or endangered the life of the migrant, it was judged as an additional felony then as well.
The transporters are usually used in turn by the big traffickers, who give them 500-1,000 euros; they are arrested, while the masterminds roam free.