At the Crossroads of Democracy – Interview with Vouliwatch-Founder Antonis Schwarz

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The situation in Europe is critical, putting in jeopardy also the democratic values of the state union. Many Europeans call for more participation in political processes. But lacking transparency and decisions against the citizen’s will let the gap between political administration and population grow steadily. EUdyssee spoke with Antonis Schwarz, co-founder of the Internet platform vouliwatch.gr, about grass-root democracy, transparency and the early elections in Greece next Sunday.

EUdyssee: Antonis, vouliwatch.gr is inspired by the German democracy platform abgeordnetenwatch.de. Can you explain what exactly it is you do and who is behind it?

Antonis Schwarz (AS): We provide a public dialogue between Members of Parliament (MPs) and citizens. You can ask questions and we conduct the moderation process. On the other hand, we look at how MPs vote in Parliament. Compared to abgeordnetenwatch.de, we also offer policy monitoring, where we have compiled the various party programs in condensed form. Our users can compare them based on various aspects such as economics or environment, comment and indicate potential for improvement. Then, there is Candidatewatch, where we observe the various election campaigns. Eventually, our users can upload their own bills and leave them up for discussion.

EUdyssee: You have over 7,000 Likes on Facebook. Is the page also being used actively? Do citizens engage in discussion?

AS: Yes. We have launched in mid-March 2014, a couple of weeks before the European elections. That gave us a good boost. With the upcoming elections in Greece, we can also observe an increased interest. Many people use our site.

EUdyssee: Is it rather people from the left wing, or do conservatives use your site as well?

AS: I would say that it is people from the emerging civil society in Greece, among them many who are engaged in the grass-root democracy movement. However, it always depends on the current situation. For example, there were plenty of questions about the privatization of the state-owned water companies during unofficial referendum in Thessaloniki. But our users cannot be reduced to one group. If anything, it is people between 18 and 35.

EUdyssee: When you say the ‘emerging civil society,’ what do you mean?

AS: I think that grass-root democracy movement is growing bigger these days. For me, Greece is a good example of what happens, when the political parties are left alone with all the power and when citizens don’t have the chance to participate in political processes outside of elections. Vouliwatch clearly supports the system of parliamentary democracy, but there has to be other means of civic participation apart from voting every four years,.

EUdyssee: You have mentioned the unofficial referendum in Thessaloniki. The organizers stood under a lot of pressure, even the day before, when Ministry of Interior tried to ban the referendum in the last moment. Despite the odds, the project turned out to be huge success. Where do you see potential and where do you see problems concerning grass-root democracy in Greece?

AS: That’s an interesting question. First, it would be a tremendous step to even have the chance for binding referendums in Greece. The danger here, like elsewhere, is the abuse coming from populist citizens’ initiatives, who attempt to question basic constitutional rights, such as freedom of religion by, for example, banning minarets. A corresponding constitutional court would be a possibility.

EUdyssee: How do you see the upcoming new elections in Greece? What can they change?

AS: It is difficult to estimate how the situation will develop, or, in case Tsipras should really win, if he will be able to form a government that can constitute a quorum. The likelihood of Greece leaving the Euro is relatively low. International financial markets estimate the probability around 15-20%. No one would profit from a return to the drachma. Right now, the most pressing issue, in case Tsipras should win, is, whether he manages to secure a majority behind him, and what he does with it.

EUdyssee: You have spoken of civil society and grass-root democracy. Can you explain to our readers how Vouliwatch is connected to that?

AS: We are a very young organization. Most of all we try to bring politicians and MPs to answer the questions of our users. In this respect, we are moving in the frame, which the constitution grants us. There are neither petition committees within the Parliament, nor any other formal ways allowing further influence. The only thing left is to write to your MP and hope that he or she acknowledges that. We try to make this process more public and want to provide an additional tool for the citizens to exercise pressure.

EUdyssee: Also with the help of the Internet, which is not exactly a common practice in Greece.

AS: Yes, that’s a problem. Let’s say, someone has made a petition, then Vouliwatch provides the opportunity to address the parliamentarians online, saying: ‘Look, we collected 5000 signatures, what do you do about that?’ Of course, a goal is also to make the Parliament itself more transparent. At the moment, the citizen cannot trace back how the individual members voted in Parliament. The income of the MPs are published only for a month in a non-editable shape and are also not complete. We know only what they have on the banks and what property they own. Perquisites are not displayed. So, there is a lot of space for improvement. But in this initial phase, we still focus on our basic function of public questioning.

EUdyssee: So it’s about communicating more openly and about transparency. How do you see the development of transparency in Greece in general since the beginning of the crisis?

AS: That has been an issue for a long time and became increasingly important with the crisis. I have the impression that in Greece the pressure applied by civil society could be targeted more efficiently. The complaints against the system are often not specific enough. People should look at details, saying: ‘Okay, the system does not work, we need to improve it right HERE, and then exert pressure right THERE. Membership in international organizations has proven to be good for Greece, too. In many cases the public is not aware of the fact that the country is frequently warned by the OECD, in which Greece is a member, because the transparency situation is not good. For example, it was a recommendation of the OECD that motivated the recent Party Financing Act. Currently, there are simply no public data on how political parties are financed. For a democracy though, this is immensely important. This example shows, how membership in an international organization can have a positive effect. Of course now it remains to be seen, how the new law will be implemented.

EUdyssee: We have recently published an article about how the conflict concerning the NSA affair and Snowden is hardly noticed in Greece. Is that also representative of the general interest of the Greeks regarding transparency? Do you believe citizens make a connection between the issue of transparency and the state of the country?

AS: Of course, people are absolutely aware. But I think it is too often just thrown into one box, thinking: ‘The system is corrupt and does not work’ and that therefore it is not worthwhile to make a difference. Many simply choose to adapt and make the best of the situation. For me, this feeling of futility is the greatest danger of the crisis, to see no more reason to deal with politics. Especially now that greater political commitment is needed, people retreat. Of course this cannot be generalized. Not all bury their heads in the sand. Just as we observe it in other countries in Europe, including Germany.

EUdyssee: In what fields do you see grass-root democracy as a possible alternative? We just had the example of the privatization of water companies. Where can a more active participation contribute to becoming more democratic in general?

AS: The government platform Diavgeia, which, by the way, is not an idea of the Samaras administration, is very important. Citizens can publicly comment on legal texts and the website is highly frequented. In Greece, there is plenty of interest groups that give very competent feedback. But, what would be interesting now is to see, what eventually happens with these comments. There is no annual report from the government about this. A follow-up should be done to check, how has been dealt with the feedback. A group of people is currently working on a website where you can trace back, how feedback has been included in laws.

EUdyssee: How would you compare the grass-root democracy in Greece with the one in Germany?

AS: Germany is a little further, because there seem to be more possibilities for the citizen to get involved on a local level. In Bavaria, where I partly grew up, people hold plenty of citizens’ initiatives. This creates a good breeding ground for a healthy civil society and deliberative currents are encouraged. This way, also the media can re-assert themselves as the fourth branch of power. Of course, there is still a lot of room for improvement, for example, by implementing the right to a nationwide referendum. The referendum on a European level is also important, particularly in terms of further Europeanization.

EUdyssee: There is a legal basis to do so through the European Citizens’ Initiative. The problem is, though, that these initiatives are permanently rejected by Brussels.

AS: Yes, the European Citizens’ Initiatives are not binding. The way, the Anti-TTIP movement is being handled shows that you can do very little when it comes to influencing controversial laws, that possibilities for participation are extremely limited.

EUdyssee: To what extent does this democratic deficit have an effect on the general decrease of interest in Europe? We observe strong tendencies towards a re-nationalization all over the continent, also in Germany. Is this connected to the fact that governments oppose the grass-root democracy movements?

AS: Yes. Apart from that, the Parliaments were pretty much excluded in many occasions during the financial crisis, as well. There was a big complaint report on this. Governments pressured that everything must go quickly – which, of course, is partly true, because the system would have collapsed otherwise. Overall I think that the people still connect many stigmata with the system of grass-root democracy.

EUdyssee: What stigmata?

AS: For example that populist requests will find open gates, or that the population will reward itself with gifts. But experience shows that the opposite is the case. Grass-root democracy could even lead to a certain social peace. Furthermore, people would be willing to pay more taxes. In Greece, for example, where the state is opaque, the people have no idea where their money ends up and they generally have no opportunities for participation. Thus, citizens are less willing to pay taxes.

EUdyssee: You said earlier that grass-root democracy in Germany is more successful than in Greece, because it occurs on a local level. Isn’t it a problem then, that Greece is not a federal state?

AS: Absolutely. This is a topic that you have to take a closer look at. In fact, the local authorities have relatively little to say in comparison to a federal state like Germany.

EUdyssee: What do you miss in Greece, if you look at the whole situation since the crisis started, both in politics and concerning the people? Where do you see progress?

AS: A progress is that civil society is emerging stronger and people have stopped to wait for the government or someone else to help. People try to take control of the situation themselves. There are self-organized hospitals and soup kitchens. It is very encouraging to see that there still is this social cohesion.

EUdyssee: Although the Greeks are not aware of this in many cases.

AS: It always depends. There’s this part, but there are also many people who are well informed. Especially among young people, it has become a trend to get involved. The collapse of the Greek economy performance, which is comparable to what many countries have suffered in World War II, has not led to a complete collapse of social peace. This is a remarkable merit of the Greek people.

EUdyssee: In a time of uncertainty in Europe, prejudices are on the rise. Being half Greek and half German, what do you think the Greeks should know about the Germans and the Germans about the Greeks? What are common prejudices that could be cleared quickly, if we communicated better?

AS: Let me put it this way. What Europeans should know about the Greeks is, that Greece, in a sense, is a relatively young country with a very difficult history. It was only in 1821, that the Greeks have broken away from the Turks. Some parts of the country followed a 100 years later. Then there was the catastrophe of Asia Minor, when the country all of the sudden had to take in 3 million refugees. Later came the German occupation and the military dictatorship. Greece was occupied by the Ottomans for 400 years and thus largely isolated from Europe. There was no bourgeois class. The wealthy Greeks were abroad, in Alexandria, for example.

EUdyssee: Just like a lot of Greek capital is abroad now?

AS: In a way, yes, but the big oligarchs are still in the country. It also plays an important role that the country has not experienced a period of enlightenment or reformation, which explains why the Church has so much power…

EUdyssee: … and constantly gets involved in legislative processes.

AS: Exactly. Greece has a unique history. It is considered European and the culture of the entire Western world roots there. But between ancient Greece and today has passed a lot of time. The many different occupations, the Byzantine era, during which many Greeks considered themselves Romans, show that the country’s identity is still very young.

EUdyssee: In Germany we know very little about Greece. About ancient Greece, of course, but for example, there is little awareness of how devastating the occupation by the Nazis was. In the German discourse on National Socialism, also in education, the country is actually non-existent. The crisis now has brought a strong revival of the stereotype of the lazy Greek, claiming also that the country is already being helped with the loans. What prejudices exist in Germany that people should urgently get rid of?

AS: Many and especially the media benefit from them. You just have to realize that it is a country between east and west. Keep in mind that many people in Greece say things like: ‘He studied in Europe.’ Somewhat as it is in the UK.

EUdyssee: And vice versa? The Greek media are indeed quite selective, to put it carefully. What should the Greeks know about Germans, or about Europeans in general?

AS: Sometimes, the EU is too highly stigmatized. Of course, there is much room for improvement, but I think that Greece has greatly benefited from membership, especially when it comes to funding money. We have to realize that we are members of a club where we cannot simply complain, while drawing money at the same time. But at the moment, the main thing is to deal with internal problems. People have understood that Europe is not the reason for the crisis, but the domestic problems.

EUdyssee: And people can very well differ between the German on the road and German politics concerning Greece.

AS: Yes, exactly. One must not forget that many Greeks have gone to Germany as guest workers. This alone has always kept up a lively exchange. I think there is more room for improvement in terms of prejudices as to what the Germans think about the Greeks.

EUdyssee: Finally: What concerns you regarding the elections on Sunday and what opportunities can be gained?

AS: The great danger is that the country leaves the Euro. Then, of course, we have to deal with over-indebtedness, but this is not just a Greek problem. Many European countries have to face this challenge. We must not forget that Greece is a country, in which problems show very drastically. Therefore, the solutions that will have to be found in this case, are highly interesting to many others, too. Spain is one of these candidates, where Podemos as a new party receives great support and evens seeks absolute majority for the next elections.

EUdyssee: Thank you for the interview.

AS: Thank you.

Antonis Schwarz, born 1988, half German, half Greek, grew up between Munich and Athens. Studied European Studies in London, then Management in Madrid. 1 ½ years ago he founded vouliwatch.gr together with other democracy activists.

Antonis Schwarz, born 1988, half German, half Greek, grew up between Munich and Athens. Studied European Studies in London, then Management in Madrid. 1 ½ years ago he founded vouliwatch.gr together with other democracy activists.