The obvious victory amidst this pandemic is to count as less deaths as possible. At the same time, though, European governments are expected to not sacrifice their democratic and liberal values at the altar of this primordial goal. This means that the measures not only need to be effective, but also to comply with the fundamental value of proportionality – i.e. the measures must be necessary to achieve the aim (providing that there cannot be any less onerous way of doing it), as well as reasonable, considering the competing interests of different groups at hand.
Measures implemented in other countries (e.g. death sentences or corporal punishment for those violating quarantine, extremely enhanced executive powers to react as fast as possible, etc.), which might have been more successful in containing the virus, would have no luck in the European context prima facie. The problem is that nowadays, the proponents of those measures have a very strong asset in their defence: the logic of ‘the end justifies the means’, where the end is something as noble and sacred as human life.
That is why the European commitment to the ideals of democracy, liberalism and proportionality is now being challenged: it is obliged to compete against other value systems, which can no longer be dismissed as too simplistic or superficial, since they exhibit the unique potential of offering an (almost) airtight protection of human life. And while it would be quite inappropriate to argue that a pandemic that has caused more than a hundred thousand deaths and the lockdown of almost one third of the world population could prove to be some sort of ‘opportunity’ or a ‘blessing in disguise’, we can acknowledge that some positive change could take place in terms of governance. In this spirit, a re-affirmation of the European ideals amidst these difficult times would be more significant than ever – after all, ‘words are easy, like the wind’, as the Bard says.
Such a re-affirmation could stem from the central governance of the EU, but also from each member state individually – and Greece is no exception. The precedent of Greece on governance and efficiency might have inclined one to think that the country was doomed to mourn hundreds, and, fail to implement well-calculated and weighted measures. For years, Greece was treated as a troubled, long-suffering country, which had been looked down on as the ‘black sheep’ of Europe by its EU partners on multiple grounds – the sinking economy, the bureaucratic governance, the polarised politics, the mismanagement of the refugee and migration crisis. In addition, the Greek public health system was strained and the hopes of the Greek public, stereotypically described as rebellious, complying with the measures, were not high.
Nevertheless, Greece did manage to flatten the curve and did so without endangering its commitment to the European ideals.
Greece seems to be at the right side of history, for the government’s policies reflect the logic that the crisis should not be used as an excuse for state overreach, while potential emergency powers shall serve the government directly in their fight against the pandemic, rather than strengthen their power over their citizens. To ensure this, constitutional order and fundamental rights shall be held in a rule of, rather than by, law.
In that spirit, the Greek PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, along with 12 of his counterparts in the European People’s Party (EPP), have written to the EPP’s president, Donald Tusk, calling for the ejection of the Hungarian governing party, Fidesz, from the group. The appeal came after the Hungarian Parliament allowed the government to extend the state of emergency (initially implemented vis-à-vis the pandemic) indefinitely, and as such, enabling Orban, Hungary’s PM and leader of the party, to rule indefinitely by decree. Mitsotakis himself stressed the importance of parliamentary democracy.
In practice, effective government action, coupled with wise constitutional design, seems to have overcome those problems. Firstly, Article 5 of the Constitution was invoked, which provides for an exception to the right of free movement, allowing ‘the imposition of measures necessary for the protection of public health or the health of sick persons, as specified by law’. Secondly, the government has used the so-called ‘acts of legislative content’, in line with Article 44 of the Greek Constitution, which made speedy government reaction possible and delegated to ministers the power to take additional measures, if necessary. Those mechanisms are not in themselves legitimate, for the criterion of proportionality needs to be fulfilled, as provisioned in Article 25 paragraph 1 of the Constitution. Due to the strict regulatory framework accompanying those measures, which are neither indefinite nor generally designed enabling arbitrary discretion, said criterion is satisfied. Therefore, Greece seems to have managed to flatten the virus carve without neither infringing fundamental rights nor cultivating uncontrolled executive action.
Indicative of the acceptance of the constitutionality and legitimacy of the measures is the wide political consensus regarding the relevant ‘acts of legislative content’ (they were ratified by a majority larger than that of the government MPs and were voted down only by the Greek Communist Party), while the main opposition party, Syriza, has reacted with composure – a very different picture to the bitter infighting that has emerged in Spain, for instance.
The success might not come as a surprise for those following Greek affairs, but it is undoubtedly a hopeful development, confirming the ‘new paradigm’ rhetoric. Symbolically, the death knell of the old era could be heard tolling on the 8th of July of 2019, upon the appointment of the new centre-right government, after winning an absolute majority. On that very same day, the first victory was noted down – the preamble to a new paradigm – for we saw the demise of the far-right neo-Nazi party ‘Golden Dawn’, which during the previous parliamentary session (2015-2019) occupied 18 out of the 300 of the seats of the Greek Parliament. Along with the restoration of mainstream politics, economic battles were won, bringing Greece closer to fulfilling the expectations of its European partners. After the Eurozone and bailout odyssey, Greece seemed to have finally found its Ithaca, with investors flocking in search of opportunities, making the Athens stock exchange the best-performing in the world last year. And as the climax of this progress, just a month ago, the entire leadership of the European Union (the Presidents of the European Council, the Commission and the European Parliament) visited the Greek border to examine the Turkish ‘asymmetric threat’, marking this as the first time the three European leaders have made a joint visit.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for Greece to show that it was progressing in its European bildungsroman. In addition to emerging as a well-esteemed player and a crucial partner on the geostrategic front – the ‘shield’ of Europe, as Ursula von der Leyen stated – Greece is also emerging as a truly European power in terms of governance, a shield of constitutionalism and liberal democracy.