IBNA/Interview: Costas Douzinas, MP and the Chair of the Permanent Committee on National Defense and Foreign Affairs

by Spiros Sideris / balkaneu.com / 09.09.2017

Mr. Douzinas, we are in Tallinn were you are participating in the procedures of the Estonian EU presidency, where the parliamentarians who sit in foreign affairs committees will discuss which issues?

This is a standing meeting which takes place every six months in the capital of the country holding the presidency to discuss foreign affairs and defense issues. This year, the Estonian presidency has placed at the top of the agenda the issues of common defense policy which appears to be developing in the EU and foreign affairs issues emphasizing of course on the issues affecting the Baltic States, relations with Russia, etc. At the last moment, however, due to developments with N. Korea, this issue was added to the agenda yesterday. It is mostly a meeting where, of course, decisions are not made, but a generic discussion and briefing takes place, so that the EU parliaments can be up to speed with the general positions followed by the foreign policy of the EU. Usually, Mrs. Mogherini, the High Commissioner for these issues, is present at these meetings and she briefs us. It is mostly an informative meeting.

I would like to say that the Greek delegation has formed a committee in the last two years, comprising of all Mediterranean States, the Group Med. We meet before the conference get underway and we jointly decide on a few positions we will promote as a Mediterranean group. In the past, we had tabled amendments many times to the final conclusions of the parliamentary conference. The Group Med amendments led to political discussion with tension and disagreement between the Visegrad group of states and the Baltic states and the Mediterranean delegations.

The issue of contention was and remains the relocation of refugees. We repeatedly vetoed the final conclusions when they did not refer to our concerns and the need for a fair resettlement of refugees from Greece and Italy throughout the Union. For the first time this year there is no such resolution. The rumor is, because we were not given reason for the abandonment of the conclusions, that we have politicized this procedure and are not prepared to leave the issues of refugees and immigrants out of the conclusions. So to avoid the tension caused by the 7 Mediterranean states’ insistence on extensively mentioning the immigration & refugee issue as well as the obligation of EU member-states to show solidarity and share the burden, the hosts here decided that there will be no resolution this year.

When will there be a shift from negotiations to action? We are discussing a common foreign policy and a common EU security policy. But we constantly talk without any real action. 

This is a wider problem that isn’t a recent phenomenon. The problem is that on the issue of security, obviously all EU member-states are NATO member-states and there is overlap; but not only this. There is of course NATO whose main mission is security and defense, while the EU has other priorities, economic, political, social, employment, development, etc.

The relationship between NATO and the EU has been difficult, with some key states, such as the Netherlands and Germany insisting that a full Defense Policy be shaped, and even some kind of EU military force. Many other states have reservations and the question of an EU army has stalled. There is a kind of military headquarters and a limited number of battle groups but there is no real EU army.

What has happened in the last two years and even more recently, in the last 6 month, is that due to the great crisis that has hit the entire EU at every level – and in light of Brexit too, which is highly significant in this area because Great Britain is a great military power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council –a big discussion has begun on security and defense issues.  In part, it is used as a counterbalance to the crisis and the retreat of the EU. The EU’s decline on economic and social issues, is being partly compensated through the potential increase of responsibility and capacity in defense, security and foreign affairs.

I believe that this turn was influenced significantly by several recent terrorist acts in many European states, which have alarmed the governments and people of these nations; the radicalization and the chance that these terror attacks may continue to be carried out by citizens that have been brought up in Europe or by jihadists that have arrived from the Middle East has consequently led to this issue becoming extremely significant in the EU. I would say that I don’t see us moving very fast in the direction of creating a European military force. Personally, I would think this would be a wrong direction. This is my personal view, not necessarily the view of the government. The EU is a social, economic, political Union in crisis and our current priority is not to suddenly start creating armies and acquiring arms but rather examining how this crisis could be overcome where it really exists. This is in the areas of civil rights, the welfare state, labor and growth. In the areas of defense and security, soft power of which old Europe has a lot is much more effective than fighter planes and tanks.

You said that there is a crisis. Could this crisis perhaps be an ideological crisis that is beginning to develop? We are here in Tallin where a few days ago there was a convention where Nazism and Communism were compared and there was a notion that they are similar. There was a reaction to this of course.

This debate equalizing Nazism and Communism is over I think. At least in most European states I believe. It is a discussion for historians to have, not politicians. Secondly, there are so many historic lies and inaccuracies and even ideological falsification behind this equation of two ideologies and regimes. The ideology of Nazism wanted to destroy large parts of the world population because they were the “wrong” race, religion, color or sexuality; the other ideological and political plan, in spite of everything that happened under Stalin in the USSR and elsewhere, remained an ideology that believes in the liberation of humanity regardless of race, gender, religion, color or sexual orientation.

Therefore, this equalization is both historically inaccurate, and as you say, it has a clear ideological direction which we thought to be over, to have become an issue for historians to examine, not an issue to be the subject of comparison. It is the job of historians and social scientists to work out what led to the greatest atrocity and tragedy in history, the holocaust and the mass extermination of populations across Europe by Nazis, which also happened in Greece.

As for Communism, we have to learn how policies and plans for social justice could be designed avoiding the errors of the past. But, the equalization is unacceptable and I believe it is not up for discussion politically in most of Europe. There is no great clash over these issues.

Obviously, the Baltic States and other countries that became part of the ‘real-existing’ Socialism after the end of WW2, will naturally be cautious when looking at history as they believe they were the victims of the USSR’s policy and that of their domestic communist parties. It is an important issue and must be respected.

On the other hand, in Europe and globally today, there is no ideology, party or trend that supports a return to the regime of old communism. This story has finished. For better or worse, this kind of socialism or communism is not part of the historical agenda. Today, the big stake is between an aggressive form of capitalism, the so called neo-liberalism; forms of social-democracy that appear across Europe, unfortunately not yet in Greece; and the so called radical left, part of which was born out of communism but was the first to criticize communist regime before anybody else, including right-wingers. What this radical left is trying to do now, in very difficult conditions, is analyze what social justice means and even what Socialism might mean in the 21st century. It doesn’t have and will not have any similarity with what happened in the USSR and other communist states, it has nothing to do with communist and statist power, or a party organized in an extremely disciplined and controlled way which is transferred down to and reproduced by the rest of society.

For the left of the 21st century, there is no socialism without freedom and democracy. So, the two main axes used by the opposite side to tackle the left, socialism and communism, namely democracy and freedom, are not just parts of the left, but they are its main components. Our main issue and question is how to try and build the left of the 21st century without having any magical solutions or handbooks and instructions telling us how to do so. We must do it as the left governs in Greece and, we hope elsewhere too. It is a case of not knowing how to swim but entering the water and learning to do so without an instructor. In any case, in order to learn to swim you must go into the sea.

There is a feeling that the parliament and politics in Greece have deteriorated and are lacking the ethos of past years. Do this concern you and what do you plan to do about it as a parliamentarian and at party level even?

As you know, I lived in Britain for many years. I am a professor of constitutional law and jurisprudence. So, I followed British politics very closely as well the House of Commons. I must say that in comparison parliamentary procedure could be improved. I don’t make comparisons with the past. I am evaluating what I see happening now.

One is that there is no proper discussion, quite often you get parallel monologues. One MP of the opposition or the ruling party says something and someone from the other party takes the floor and there is no reply. Most colleagues have made some notes beforehand, they read these out and this makes for a still speech. There is also an unacceptable behavior witnessed, mainly by minor opposition MPs who shout, swear and act like hooligans.

Finally, I think parliamentary scrutiny must improve and increase. The main job of parliament is to legislate but not just that. It must also hold the government to account. This is the job of the parliament plenum via question time, as well as the committees on each policy area. I believe that when accountability is limited to PM and ministerial questions, there is only the MP asking and the Minister answering in the House –even in possibly a televised debate – they don’t generate the necessary interest about the government’s work so that the criticism expressed by MPs is heard. The only exception is when the PM or well-known MPs are asking or answering questions. This is not enough in my opinion. I think we should have created greater scope for committees, for example, to take a current affairs issue and have meetings with academics and experts so that parliament can be informed and provide information about various issues. In this way we could improve the image and the scrutiny exercised by parliament.

Let me give you two examples of how we are trying to improve proceedings: We spoke earlier about Europe and its future. The foreign affairs committee called a session where we didn’t follow the usual procedure where each party representative speaks in turn and says things more or less known to everyone. Instead, we called professors from Germany, Great Britain and Greece who are experts on the EU crisis, who spoke almost as if they were at a scientific conference, so that MPs and citizens could hear the views currently voiced in the academic debate on the future of Europe and where it is headed. The second is something unfolding as we speak. We have the big Brexit issue. It clearly adds another piece to the EU’s great existential crisis, but it will also greatly impact Greece, our students, employees, shipowners, property owners, businessmen, the tourism industry, etc. When the Brexit “divorce” is settled, Greece’s relations with Britain will be different. In this direction, we are thinking of arranging a series of meetings of the Committee of EU affairs and the Committee of foreign affairs, which I have the honor to chair, dedicated on Brexit. These will perhaps be decided beforehand and we will discuss different issues each time. The education and research issues, or business, shipping, etc. In fact, yesterday, a meeting of committee on EU and social affairs was held to discuss the chances Greece has to have the European Medicines Agency move from London to Athens as many organizations will now relocate from London to other cities. These are examples of a reasoning which says the many problems Greece faces, require special knowledge in order for them to be analyzed and resolved; and it is important that the Parliament participates in this process as its role is to hold the state mechanism accountable but also to provide assistance so that there is full knowledge of what is happening. Subsequently, we can take initiatives of our own – such as questions, amendments, etc. – or based on the government’s work, in order to support it. I should add, that the downgrading of parliament’s work is not just a Greek issue, it is an international issue. In the last 30-40 years, the role of the parliament has lessened while the power, capacity and competencies of the executive have increased. And we must address this.

Costas Douzinas is a Pireas MP and the Chair of the Permanent Committee on National Defense and Foreign Affairs. He is a Professor of Legal and Political Philosophy at the University of London. His new book ‘Syriza in Power: Reflections of an Accidental Politician’