President Biden began his Summit for Democracy Thursday morning—carried live on the State Department’s public website.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speech warned on Thursday of the need to tackle the persistent threats posed by politics of authoritarianism and populism.
“In recent years, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, experienced first hand the divisive politics, failed promises and empty rhetoric of both far-left and far-right populism – and has rejected both,” he told the Summit for Democracy, held online on December 9-10 at the initiative of US President Joe Biden.
Mitsotakis, one of 111 global state leaders invited to address the summit, underlined the need to tackle the persistent threats posed by politics of authoritarianism and populism.
After a decade of the financial crisis, “Greeks understood the need for true change, backing a reform agenda that was patriotic rather than nationalistic.”
Mitsotakis said that investments, new jobs and growth must be prioritized, along with improving the efficiency of the public sector by combating bureaucracy.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis speech
We are all gathered here today because of our belief that at its core democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people, and as President Biden said we must not take democracy for granted, after all, the threats we face from tyrants and autocrats are not new.
Allow me, dear Ursula, as I am indeed speaking from the birthplace of democracy, a very quick historical reference. Democratic Athens also faced threats. Not just external threats from aggressive autocratic states but also internal threats from populist leaders who sought to overthrow the people’s government in favour of other forms of government.
The autocrat was a tyrant, or “τύρρανος” in Greek, but the pandering populist politician who offered too easy solutions to hard problems was a demagogue, or “δημαγωγός”.
And Athenians quickly recognised and rejected those with a taste for tyranny and demagoguery primarily because they were well educated as citizens -choosing their leaders, holding them into account, serving as jurors, and actively engaging in political discourse.
And they set the two main institutional pillars of every functioning democracy: equality before the law, what we call “ισονομία”, and equal right to public speech, what we call in Greek “ισηγορία”; the equivalent today being the rule of law and freedom of speech.
Then as now, the answer to those twin threats was found in robust public institutions, the promotion and protection of strong social norms, and the building of resources capable of ensuring the delivery of sustainable material welfare for every citizen.
And then, as now, leaders were institutionally and socially accountable. They were subject to strict legal review; they were punished if they erred; and they were expected to exemplify in their personal conduct the democratic ideals of liberty, equality but also self-control.
So, the lessons from antiquity is that democracy can be resilient even when threatened and capable of self-correcting when necessary. And a thriving democracy requires institutions that are well-designed, flexible and robust.
But it also necessitates that our social norms are strengthened through education and the good use of technology as an instrument for promoting civic dialogue and tolerance. Not as a tool that reinforces prejudices, promotes disinformation and appeals to the darkest instincts of human nature.
Our government in Greece has created a website gov.gr which in my mind is a great example of how technology can make the interaction between the state, businesses and citizens seamless, thus eliminating bureaucracy and tackling corruption in the process.
But, at the end of the day, dear Ursula, the most important intangible asset of any democracy is trust. Trust in leaders to work for the good of the people and deliver real results: good jobs, good public services, an environment that fights discrimination and fosters inclusiveness.
Democratic governments need to be present when they are most required. That is exactly what Europe did when we set up the Recovery and Resilience Fund to address the consequences of a devastating pandemic.
We need to trust our institutions to hold the power of elected officials in check and to ensure that they actually leave office when they lose elections. After all, this is the most basic litmus test of a well-functioning democracy.
And, most importantly, we need to trust each other to understand that we can all be better off if, at least some times, we prioritize the common good over our narrow self-interest. And it is this balance between rights and responsibilities that is at the heart of all thriving democracies.
After all, and let me conclude by the words of Pericles, he was right when he said that “even if a private man does well, he will be ruined if his country comes to ruin. Whereas if he faces bad luck in a flourishing commonwealth, he shall much more easily be preserved.”