Covid sheds light on harmful arrogance of political leaders

Greece Letter: Athens has figures like Hogan and Cummings, happy to defy safety norms

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis: In the same way as Phil Hogan, his attitude underlines the dangers of arrogance in national and international politics. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis: In the same way as Phil Hogan, his attitude underlines the dangers of arrogance in national and international politics. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki

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“Golfgate” has not only exposed the fact that some public figures think they can ignore the rules observed by the rest of us, but has also created a hole in the fabric of the EU that seriously affects Greece.

Phil Hogan, as trade commissioner, was vital to protecting and promoting Greece’s interests in relation to the US, China and post-Brexit Britain. People in Greece are left wondering “How could such a crucial figure have been so inept as to jeopardise his own professional future and thus abandon the international work at which he excelled?”

The answer, as we all know, is arrogance – the same arrogance that allowed Britain’s Dominic Cummings to defy public opinion. The notion “They can’t touch me, I’m too important” that beguiles politicians and other public figures seems to have met its match in the insistence that no one should be above the moral law in a time of crisis.

Hogan’s misbehaviour has lesser echoes in Greece. The governor of the province of Central Macedonia was holidaying on the island of Paxos and appears to have defied the midnight curfew on restaurants. This minor infringement was most likely an unintended oversight but, in a country consumed with anxiety about coronavirus, even the most trivial incident by a figure of authority encourages the idea “If he can do it, why can’t we?”

Death rate

Greece has been particularly rigorous in controlling the spread of Covid transmissions, with prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis showing a decisive example in leadership. Nevertheless, since the opening of the Greek borders on July 1st, deaths have risen from 200 (in the whole March-June period) to 278 by early September.

The rate of infections has risen dramatically from a daily average in low double figures to as many as 285, with serious concern about the rate of communal transmission and the accelerating death rate. Allowing tourism was imperative, even at the anticipated risk of an exponential rise in infections and deaths, yet even so income from tourism this year will amount to only 20 per cent of its annual average.

The government enjoys an overall majority, giving Mitsotakis a sense of security, but encouraging over-confidence and another kind of arrogance. Decisiveness in leadership can mean deafness to argument and public opinion.

In July, Mitsotakis personally launched a project to build a luxury resort on a pristine headland in Corfu. Despite massive local opposition, he belittled, as time-wasting, the legal challenges to the development – which went to Greece’s supreme court – and pointed to the need to develop such unproductive areas.

“It might catch fire,” he said, no doubt jokingly. (Forest fires are a major hazard in summer.) A month later, arsonists lit five fires on this site, destroying 200 acres of virgin forest and seriously endangering lives.

Public opinion

No one would suggest that anyone associated with Mitsotakis or the development company actually lit these fires, which of course facilitate site clearance for the resort. But the notion that public opinion can be ignored in favour of projects which are harmful to the ecosystem and even public health, is prevalent and widely supported by the Greek press. It’s a case of “We know best. Don’t stand in our way.”

Hogan’s and Mitsotakis’s attitudes, in their different ways, underline the dangers of arrogance in national and international politics. Those dangers were never so obvious as in the case of Turkey’s Reccip Tayyip Erdogan, who has declared that Istanbul’s church of Aghia Sophia – arguably the heart of Orthodox Christendom – should become a mosque.

Designed (successfully) to provoke international outrage and to hurt Greeks emotionally and spiritually, the gesture has to be seen in the context of his equally provocative, and far more dangerous, naval manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish vessels, ostensibly exploring for oil and gas reserves in what Erdogan unilaterally declares to be Turkish waters, have attempted to provoke retaliation by Greek and French navies patrolling the area.

In a virtual world, Erdogan knows that the threatened EU sanctions are virtually meaningless. War is unthinkable but is on everyone’s minds. Its impossibility allows Erdogan to indulge in two-finger gestures of bravado and piracy because his personal arrogance exceeds anything that diplomacy can throw at him.

Hogan, Cummings, Mitsotakis, Erdogan: each arrogant according to his own sense of importance, which gives him the latitude to defy behavioural norms and endanger other people’s health and safety.

It’s been said that Hogan’s behaviour was “emblematic of an Ireland that no longer exists”. Greece also has its Hogans and its Cummingses, and they too are “emblematic” of a Greece which we might wish to be dead and gone, but is not even threatened with extinction. The “Boys’ Club” still rules okay. Greece still has its “golfgate”. Yet despite this, it is, like Ireland, a country full of aspiration, endeavour, intelligence, and – to adapt Yeats – “indomitable Greekness”.

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