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Why So Few Expatriates Registered for the European Vote

I have a hypothesis of why so few expatriate Greeks registered to be able to cast a postal vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections from their place of origin. Of the many thousand Greek-Americans eligible only 3,857 did so. A shockingly low number that requires explanation. Surely there are many reasons. But until a government agency or a Greek-American organization undertakes an investigation, I have a hypothesis: the low numbers are due to alienation and distrust of Greek politics and the public sector. Consequently, there is little motivation to shape Greece’s role in the European Union’s legislative process.

Oddly enough this explanation occurred to me as I read reports of events surrounding the transportation of the Olympic flame from Greece to France which is hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer in Paris. The flame, lit at Ancient Olympia as always, was handed over to the French organizing committee at the Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896. There were long lines of spectators patiently waiting to enter the stadium hours before the ceremony was scheduled to start. There were more crowds watching the next day at the port of Piraeus where the flame was taken on to the Belem, a three-masted sailing ship that carried it to the southern French port of Marseille. There, the Belem was met by a huge armada of boats and overflying jets and this was followed by an elaborate ceremony attended by over 150,000 cheering people.

This enthusiasm about the Olympics was not evident among Greek-Americans twenty years ago when their homeland was hosting the 2004 Olympics. At the time I was touring of the United States promoting a book I had written about the significance of the Olympic Games to Greece and its identity. This core theme appeared to contradict what was going on in Athens. The authorities had fallen badly behind in the preparations, both in terms the city’s infrastructure and in the completion of the sporting venues. International humiliation loomed on the horizon. Nonetheless, I gamely argued because the Olympics are important to Greek identity and Greeks tend to do things at the last minute that Athens would be ready in the summer. But I encountered very skeptical Greek-American audiences wherever I went. The tour was wide-ranging and it included presentations in Manhattan and Astoria, Rochester, NY, Brookline, MA, Bethesda MD, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Miami Beach and Ann Arbor. I even got to the West Coast and did presentations in Sacramento, Stanford, San Jose, and Los Angeles. My assertions that Athens would be ready for the Olympics were met with polite disbelief because of the widespread coverage of the delays in the media. Long waits to get things done during visits to the homeland added to doubts that the preparations could possibly be completed in time.

Such misgivings about Greece and its capabilities, which were thankfully proved wrong in 2004, resurface frequently. During the early phase of the recent economic crisis a Greek-American publisher and influencer had asked publicly why AHEPA was not doing more to help Greeks in need. The Fraternity responded that it was working through its chapters in Greece. This may have been an indirect way of saying there was no reliable conduit of philanthropic aid in place guaranteeing that donations from abroad would reach their intended recipients. On another occasion, then-Archbishop Demetrios traveled to Greece in order to hand over in person funds the Archdiocese had collected.

A University of Oxford-based report published in 2019 found there was a great deal of dysfunction in the process of transmitting diaspora philanthropy to Greece during the crisis. It called for a drastic reduction in the government’s direct involvement and the creation of independent agencies and appointees who were not chosen based on political party affiliation. It also found that diaspora-based foundations, despite being aware of the system’s deficiencies, were not demanding changes. It appears they did not believe such changes would be implemented properly. A case of better the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.

Audience members at my book talks back in 2004 recited a litany of encounters with the Greek state which left them convinced the Athens Olympics were unlikely to be an organizational success. These days, one hears about very long delays in the conferring of Greek citizenship to Greek-Americans who choose to apply. Even worse is the Greek state’s inertia in awarding citizenship to all those Greeks who were children in the 1950s and early 1960s and were adopted and brought to the United States. Ironically, those already with citizenship, expatriate Greeks in other words, are likely to have even more regular and excruciating encounters with the Greek state authorities. So why should they feel they have a stake in whom Greece sends to represent it at the European Union?

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