Over the last few months, there have been countless stories demonstrating the difficulty much of the Northern Mediterranean faces when it comes to introducing and actually implementing political, economic and cultural change. At the heart of too many of these stories is the region’s aging population, not because they may be more politically conservative and less eager to embrace necessary change – though they very well might. Instead, it seems they are the ones with the largest slices of the populations invested in the past – those with the most to lose should existing systems be scrapped in favor of more efficient but ultimately unfavorable solutions or those whose egos would be most called into question if national governments finally confessed that they were misguided or simply unsustainable. It can be difficult to admit that you got it wrong and in top-heavy countries like Spain, Italy, Greece and even Germany, getting some momentum behind questioning the status quo can be downright impossible. Recently, there have been a few stories coming to light that do well to demonstrate this challenge, as countries’ old guard have begun pushing back against reform efforts, occasionally in transparently desperate ways.
In Athens, amid loud charges that any call for greater oversight or financial transparency is a conspiracy by EU powers to consolidate power in Brussels, this push back has even resulted in charges of treason. Brought into the Greek government to provide a semblance of order after the country’s deficit was found to be double original reports, Andreas Georgiou set about trying to create what he hoped would be a functional, honest and ultimately boring Hellenic Statistical Authority or ELSTAT. Once the head of the International Monetary Fund, Georgiou was offered up as a technocratic solution to investor worries about the validity of Greek economic information, meant to calm nerves by offering the clearest picture of Athens’ fiscal standing and how much help was actually needed.
Once in place, Georgiou found the task to be far more difficult than first thought but after some effort, he was able to present a firm deficit number with 15.8 percent of GDP, up from the 13.4 percent the statistics office had previously offered up. Sure it was higher than what was expected but it provided a firm place to start working. The reaction from the country’s old guard – namely the ones who had previously and erroneously reported the rate to be around 6 percent – was not what he expected, but possibly should have. According to a Planet Money report, the office first demanded that the report should have been subject to a vote by a statistics department board and union, suggesting perhaps that the figure was up for discussion. Following a possible hacking of his computer, Georgiou was informed that he would face treason charges for actions against the state and could face life imprisonment. For providing a figure that called into question the absolute authority of a body already shown to have provided dangerously faulty economic statistics, Georgiou could face a lengthy stint in prison.
For some the charges fit into a larger narrative of EU overreach, with the new figure meant to allow for greater oversight from Brussels and forced, painful austerity measures but the message of the charges was clear – despite being at the helm when the country got into this mess – when these grand mistakes were made – we are not to be questioned.
Not relegated to financial problems, this old-guard push back can be seen in Spain with the on-going trial of Judge Baltazar Garzon. The controversially crusading judge, who has previously gone after Augusto Pinochet, members of Galician drug smugglers and the Basque separatist group ETA, finally pushed too far when he aligned himself with family rights groups intent on pursing investigations into disappearances during the years under Francisco Franco. First joining with the groups in 2008 as a part of a push to excavate mass graves believed to exist from the Franco period, Garzon immediately ran into resistance from members of the government who pointed to mass immunity agreements passed during Spain’s transition to parliamentary democracy in the late 1970s. Not only that, these campaigns would be chasing ghosts as many, if not most of the perpetrators in question were long since dead.
At first persuaded against continuing thanks to political pressure in 2008, Garzon again took up the mantle and opened an investigation into the death of 114,000 people during the Franco period. As an investigating magistrate, Gazon can initiate cases rather than just oversee them. In response, the political pressure has evolved into charges out outright abuse of power, perverting the course of justice and most recently, of accepting bribes while on sabbatical at New York University. The message seems clear – do not question the actions of our recent past – there are to many with investments in keeping the past where it belongs.
I know it may strike some as a stretch to connect these stories but I believe that both demonstrate an unwillingness by the old guard to face up to the questionable actions of some to the detriment of the country. If these events are not addressed, is it fair to expect them to be avoided again in the future? And should that old guard retain the ability to bury those events firmly in the past?
Image: Baltazar Garzon in El Mundo