After the recent tragedy in Lampedusa, we have heard a number of politicians and commentators saying that what Italy needs to face the current refugee crisis is more support from the European Union. What does this really mean? First, there is a frequent misconception concerning actual volumes of EU financial assistance. This in turn raises two further issues. What is the current state of affairs in terms of funds received by Italy compared to other Member States? How much can the EU realistically provide in support for a national migration system? In other words, to what extent can the EU substitute for a functioning national migration system? Secondly, there is, as always in EU affairs, questions of power and sovereignty. I will address each of these points in turn. Continue reading

The UK government is committed to leading the world in openness. As part of the push to transparency, all English local councils have been asked to publish all their spending over £500 online on a monthly basis. These ‘swift and simple changes’ could ‘revolutionise local government’ and ‘unleash an army of armchair auditors’, with citizens analysing the data and holding their local councils to account.

For the last year I’ve been researching the impact of the publication, using a combination of surveys, FOI requests and interviews. I’m asking whether making this new financial information available has had an impact: are members of the public using the new information to make local government more accountable? Do they to participate more in local politics? Do they understand more about their local council?

The evidence to date shows a limited number of people are looking at the information. A mixture of journalists, local activists and a few citizens are using the data to hold councils to account and there have been some stories in the local press and the national press. There are a few armchair auditors appearing around the country such as here and here (especially, as Eric Pickles pointed out, inBarnet) but it takes time, resources and interest –something not many of us have.

There are obstacles. The data itself isn’t as informative as it could be, and it can’t yet be compared with other councils or give a full picture of what is being spent and how (see your own local council site-mine is here). Some councils are not convinced that the public will spend their time looking through spread sheets. When you contact your council it’s generally for amenities or services-bins or planning-rather than spending.

To make it more complicated the spending data is also very political: it isn’t clear exactly what the government wants to see and they are sending out ‘mixed messages’. Some feel the information, at a time of severe cuts, is intended to make councils look like reckless spenders or wasters.

The lack of use and obstacles does not mean the reform has failed. Far from it. Councils can see the benefits of all this information for both citizens and for themselves. It is very early days and the real changes will arrive when new applications such as Openly Local orapp.gov (still in development) allow you to quickly search the data, compare spending with other councils and join it up with other ‘local’ information. In the future, local councils could have applications that combine their spending data with local information in the style ofTheyWorkForYou or the Open Data Communities hub.

This post originally appeared on the ODI website. You can see here my written and oral evidence on Open Data to the Public Administration Select Committee.

If you are interested or would like to help with my research please contact me on b.worthy@bbk.ac.uk

 

Pavlos Fyssas was no ordinary rapper. Born and raised in the working class district of Amfiali near Piraeus, one of several unemployment- and poverty-hit parts of the Greek capital, the 34-year old man had distinguished himself both through his art (as Killah P, he was part of the low bap music scene, alongside bands such as Active Member) and actions of solidarity, the two often combined. A well-known anti-fascist activist, he was murdered by a thug of the Golden Dawn neo-nazi party on 18th September 2013. This act of political violence has led to a major political defeat of the conservative-led Greek government. This is so for several reasons.

First, the Greek government’s long overdue reaction proves decisively that existing domestic legislation (specifically the penal code and anti-terror laws) offers powerful tools that ought to be used in the fight against the neo-nazis of Golden Dawn. Since, unlike in other European countries, a political party cannot be banned in Greece on historically-defined constitutional grounds, in the wake of Pavlos Fyssas’ murder, the conservative-led government asked the country’s top public prosecutors to investigate no less than 32 documented cases of attacks that had taken place across Greece and were thought to be linked to Golden Dawn. The idea is powerfully simple: on the basis of existing evidence, could – the government asked – a case be made that Golden Dawn is, in fact, an organised criminal group? An equally important implication on the operational level is the direct involvement of the state’s counter-terrorism and intelligence service apparatus in key parts of the investigation. It is as a result of this initial investigation that the country’s top prosecutors issued arrest warrants for more than 30 individuals including not only its leader (who reportedly had no license for the three fire arms that were found at his residence at the time of his arrest) and five other Golden Dawn MPs but also serving police officers. Aided by whistleblowers, the top prosecutors’ initial report refers, inter alia, to several cases of murder or attempted murder. These are charges that, if proven, carry lengthy jail sentences and, crucially, in these cases MPs cannot hide behind parliamentary immunity. Where there is a will, there is a way.

This begs the question of why the conservative-led government did not act earlier; why did the relevant minister not do anything more than merely stating that he is ‘worried’? Why did we have to get to Pavlos Fyssas’ murder for the government to act? Incompetence is certainly a factor (as it was in the case of the closure of the public broadcaster) but there are more sinister causes at play here. Indeed, one idea behind the government’s initial inaction was that many of those who voted for the Golden Dawn (or declared their support for it in opinion polls) were working class voters who could – in the absence of this option – have voted for parties of the Left, especially SYRIZA, the main opposition party. This demonstrates the strategic importance of the Golden Dawn’s significant presence in working class constituencies like the one where Pavlos Fyssas was murdered.

In addition, at the level of political narratives, the conservative-led government systematically used Golden Dawn’s presence and actions to propagate its own so-called ‘theory of the two extremes’. According to that theory, SYRIZA too could be considered to be an extremist party, or at least one that harboured some sympathies for (left-wing) extremism. Implicit here is the idea that SYRIZA is not a legitimate option, especially for the ‘law-abiding citizens’ that traditionally vote for the two ruling parties but deserted them in the wake of the crisis. This kind of argument was propagated not only by the government’s official spokesman but also conservative MPs such as Chrysanthos Lazarides, a senior aide to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, both of whom come from the nationalist wing of the ruling Nea Dimokratia. Even by their standards, relying on this rhetoric after Pavlos Fyssas’ murder and the revelations that followed about Golden Dawn’s criminal activity, would be far fetched. Both they and PASOK, the other ruling party, are in desperate need of an alternative strategy and narrative. Arguably the same applies to SYRIZA. Its rates in opinion polls have been stagnating since the last election possibly because it has not yet established itself as a party with a single voice on key issues and, more importantly, it has not yet completed its long overdue turn to pragmatism.

Pavlos Fyssas’ murder has also been a long overdue wake-up call for the government in terms of the implications of the support that Golden Dawn enjoys amongst Greek police and armed forces. In democracies citizens are free to choose which party they vote for and we know for sure that the election results in the Athenian polling stations where most Greek police voted in 2012 showed a much higher degree of support for Golden Dawn than the country’s average. However, taxpayers pay police and soldiers’ salaries in order to be kept safe rather than see them tolerate, turn a blind eye to, help prepare or even contribute to criminal acts such as those that Golden Dawn is alleged to have perpetrated. This is not a problem that can be kept under the carpet for long, especially in a crisis-hit country like Greece. In that sense, the policing minister’s decision to move, replace or effectively sack several senior police officers, including at least one senior official involved in the investigation on Golden Dawn, and the charges brought against police across the country who had links with Golden Dawn are steps in the right direction.

Finally, Pavlos Fyssas’ murder ought to be a wake-up call for ordinary Greeks who have voted for, declared their support for (even in opinion polls), or turned a blind eye to the Golden Dawn’s hate-filled activity and rhetoric. After his murder, they can no longer claim that they did not know what the Golden Dawn is really about. The era of innocence, if it ever started, is well and truly over.

Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. This post was previously published on openDemocracy.