The shameful prosecution of a Greek civil servant is a reminder that there's more to democracy than the ability to vote

Andreas Georgiou’s real ‘crime’ was, finally, starting to tell the truth about the extent of Greece’s public sector borrowing in 2010. Surely something like that could never happen here... or could it?

Ben Chu
Economics editor
Sunday 17 June 2018 17:02 BST
There have been no Greek-style prosecutions of officials in the UK, but it’s quite wrong – and utterly complacent – to fail to see any parallels at all
There have been no Greek-style prosecutions of officials in the UK, but it’s quite wrong – and utterly complacent – to fail to see any parallels at all (Getty)

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” proclaims Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. In Greece the analogous cry is: “Prosecute the statistician.”

Andreas Georgiou, the former head of the Greek statistics agency, was convicted last year of a “violation of duty” and given a two-year suspended sentence.

The charges – that Georgiou failed to present deficit figures to the agency’s board – are transparently trumped up. Indeed, they were brought by two political appointees to the board.

The International Statistical Institute, which represents statistics agencies all around the world, has looked closely at his work and concluded that “there is absolutely no merit to the charges”.

Georgiou’s real “crime” was, finally, starting to tell the truth about the extent of Greece’s public sector borrowing in 2010. If anyone deserves to be charged with a violation of duty it is his predecessors, who obscured the true, dire, borrowing situation.

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Georgiou has effectively been made a scapegoat for the EU/International Monetary Fund bailout programme and the resulting economic misery inflicted on the country. That programme was, it is quite true, flawed in design and idiotically carried out. But the fault was in no conceivable way attributable to Georgiou.

Last week the Supreme Court in Athens rejected an appeal by Georgiou – after even its own prosecutor recommended the conviction be annulled. And the Syriza government, which ought to be standing up for the blameless civil servant from an independent domestic institution and making efforts to prevent this apparent perversion of the rule of law? It doesn’t see any problem. What’s in it for them to defend a number cruncher and a former employee of the reviled IMF to boot?

It couldn’t happen here, of course. We don’t do things like that in our long-standing and stable democracy, do we? Well, we’re not as far away as one might hope.

Recall the assailing of the Bank of England’s governor, Mark Carney, by senior pro-Brexit politicians for not being sufficiently cheery about leaving the European Union. Recall the similarly vicious attacks on treasury civil servants when they produced projections of the economic impact of Brexit which were entirely in line with every credible external modelling exercise.

Think of the November 2016 condemnation of three High Court judges as “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail, the most influential newspaper in the UK. That paper’s former political editor and the author of that very piece of propaganda, James Slack, incidentally, was hired as Theresa May’s official spokesperson only months later. Is it any wonder ministers were so disgracefully hesitant about standing up for the judiciary?

Over in the US, think of Donald Trump’s continual trashing of the integrity of the independent FBI and Department of Justice. Observe Trump’s unilateral decision, as a “personal favour” to the Chinese president, to lift a ban on US firms selling parts to a Chinese technology company which had been found guilty of busting US sanctions on Iran. Think of his clear attempt to bring pressure on the independent US Post Service to damage the commercial interests of The Washington Post and Amazon-owner Jeff Bezos.

Yes, there have been no Greek-style prosecutions of officials, no jailings of dissidents. But it’s quite wrong – and utterly complacent – to claim that this kind of behaviour is harmless. Such assaults delegitimise independent public institutions. They intimidate officials. They erode the fabric of our liberal democracy.

Why are some nations prosperous and yet others remain poor and dysfunctional? Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson make a persuasive argument that the secret lies not in great leaders, not in investment, not in education, not in natural resources, not in hard work, but in pluralistic and democratic institutions: the rule of law, an impartial civil service, a free media, a culture of respect for norms of behaviour among politicians and the broader population.

These are the invisible framework that permits trust to flourish, which in turn allows business to invest with confidence and enable entrepreneurs to operate with security.

Many people mistakenly equate democracy with voting. But voting without strong institutions does not make for a true democracy; it is, instead, a system prone to instability and capture by populist demagogues. No doubt that’s why the populist demagogues of our day miss no opportunity to trash them.

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