"A direct blow to democracy": the switch-off of Greece's state broadcaster

After the closure of ERT, the country's political future hangs in the balance, writes Yiannis Baboulias.

In a move that left the country speechless, the Greek government announced the closing of the state television and radio network ERT (the Greek equivalent of the BBC) yesterday. With an "emergency law" that hadn't previously been discussed or announced, and in a fashion that suits dictatorial regimes more than it does democratic states, the closure was announced for midnight last night.

ERT is to pass under the direct control of the Finance Ministry and its 2,500 employees are to be fired in an effort to "reform" the state broadcaster. The government has labelled the station a "money-wasting and overstaffed mess", and promises to reopen it in September with reduced staff and a different philosophy in its management. But who trusts the current government, given its poor track-record when it comes to press freedom, and its notoriously nepotistic practices?

Riot police were dispatched to take down the transmitters and switch off all possible links to the outside world from the ERT building in the Athens suburbs, after staff announced they would occupy it and continue broadcasting. Thousands of people gathered outside in support, but no clashes took place with the police that had soon surrounded the building. One by one, transmitters were shut down in a dramatic countdown broadcast through the station's web TV, the last gateway of communication (still running at the moment). "This is a direct blow to democracy," the presenters announced. "We're not going anywhere."

ERT, financed by a licence fee Greeks pay through their electricity bills, is home to an invaluable digital archive that is now to be sold off, broadcasts investigative journalism shows unlikely to be carried by Greece's infamously biased private stations and plays host to the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle and RIK among others.

The station has been running a surplus budget for the past four years. So it comes as a surprise when the government's spokesman Simos Kedikoglou (already sued for libel by the opposition SYRIZA MP N Diamantopoulos for altering a video to make him appear in support of terrorists) declares the station "a haven of waste". He said: "ERT is a typical example of unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today."

So what is the government hoping to achieve with an authoritarian move that has brought scrutiny from major European media organisations, as well as the European Commision?

ERT has long been used by government ministers and MPs as a way to take care of their own. Most recently, the case of Anthi Salagkoudi made it to the pages of the German news magazine Der Speigel as a striking case of nepotism, in which the daughter of the former minister George Salagkoudis was hired as a presenter with a salary of €3,500, only for the channel to find out she wasn’t suitable for the position. Despite that "disadvantage", Salagkoudi was moved around the channel until a suitable job was found for her.

That is unfortunately a low-level entry in the list. Consultants and managers costing several thousand euros a month have found places at ERT, influencing the station's voice in favour of the government - the case of the fired presenters Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Kasimi particularly sticking out. After criticising the government, their show was cut by the New Democracy-appointed manager Emilios Litasos (more on the case here). Why would anyone trust the very people that created the mess in the first place to "reform" ERT?

The most likely answer lies elsewhere. Recent government spin has claimed that Greece has seen off the worst of the economic crisis, but after a series of failed deals to privatise state assets, the Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras is desperate to show resolve and fire public employees to meet the austerity conditions imposed by the Troika. His latest move threatens to unravel, however, since it has brought his party, New Democracy, into direct conflict with its junior coalition partners PASOK and Dimar, with PASOK threatening to walk away if the government doesn't back down, and a DIMAR MP tweeting a cryptic: "I think we're close to the end".

Insiders have been circulating rumours for months, suggesting Samaras is not happy with the status quo as his nominally centre-left partners stop him from moving the agenda even further to the right. The DIMAR Justice Minister P Roupakiotis, for instance, often clashes with New Democracy Citizen Protection minister N Dendias over proposed bills he deems "unacceptable". Samaras is said to have approached the far-right party LAOS (participants in the 2012 Papadimos coalition government) and members of the Independent Greeks, possibly in a move to unite a grand coalition of the right. If his partnership with PASOK and DIMAR breaks, he might look even further to his right. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was the only other elected party to support the bill, which raises fears as to where this coupling is headed.

If the government fails this test - and it looks likely to - Greece may be heading to the polls soon. That prospect will certainly find the country's European partners in disarray. A SYRIZA surge under the current conditions would put an end to the positive spin, sending a bad message to German voters who will be heading to the polls this September. But it is imperative we talk about why Europe still puts up with a government that has clearly lost its marbles when it comes to freedom of speech. ERT's rich history means ordinary people won't give it up easily, and its staff, finally liberated after receiving the final blow from a government that's been gunning for them every step of the way, are broadcasting vitriolic comments against New Democracy, naming names and scandals that previously they had been afraid to.

The next few weeks look likely to prove crucial for Greece's future.

Follow Yiannis on twitter @yiannisbab

A man walks past wall art showing a television test pattern and reading "no signal" in central Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.