Conversation #16: Yannis Karamitsios

Yannis Karamitsios was born in 1970, in Thessaloniki, Greece. He attended the German High School of Thessaloniki. He studied Law at the Aristoteleion University of Thessaloniki and then European Law at the Europa Institut of Saarbrucken, Germany.
He worked for several years as election observer and human rights officer for the missions of OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Armenia, FYROM, Moldova and Tajikistan.
Since 2006 he has lived in Brussels, Belgium. He works for the European Commission as Legal Officer at Directorate General SANTE (Health and Food Safety).

I became friends via Facebook with Yannis when he asked if he might add me to the group Federalist Connection. As a European Federalist myself, I was delighted to join and share the discussion. I was also curious to find out more about Yannis and his thoughts on Europe and the EU, beyond those mentioned in the Facebook group.

It’s also fantastic to get a Greek perspective on Europe, from someone at the heart of Brussels, who has experienced studying in Germany and observing elections and human rights missions in the former Yugoslavia. Brussels bureaucrats (especially the European Commission), Greece and Yugoslavia all came up in criticisms of the EU during the referendum campaign, so it is good to talk to someone who understands these areas, and to someone who looks beyond the borders of the EU when he thinks of Europe.

I feel very lucky to have been able to interview Yannis. Here are his thoughts:

1. Please tell me where you are from, where you currently live and work, and what you do.

I am from Thessaloniki, Greece. I have lived in Brussels since 2006. I work at the European Commission, as legal officer in Directorate-General SANTE (Health and Food Safety).

It might be useful to clarify from the beginning that I will indicate in this interview my personal views only, and that I do not represent, by any means, the European Commission or its positions.

2. Which European languages can you speak?

Greek (native), English, German and a little French

3. Would you describe yourself as European? Is this important to you? Is your national identity more important?

My national identity remains very strong. It has to do with my language, memories and way of thinking. At the same I would definitely describe myself as European too, which is one of my most important identities.

4. When you think of the European Union, what is the first thing you think of?

I first think of freedom. It is not only about the four classic EU freedoms of movement of people, goods, services and capital. It is also about freedom of expression, consciousness and development of one’s personality. That full sense of freedom, in combination with security and prosperity, is unparalleled on the planet and in world history.

5. Do you feel that living and working in the EU has made a difference to your professional career? How?

My professional career is actually the EU itself, as I work for the European Commission. My current job would simply not exist without the EU.

6. Do you feel as though the European Union is beneficial to area you work in? Can you support your answer with examples?

I work in the area of health and food safety. The EU has set very high standards – perhaps the highest in the world- for the protection of human health and food quality in Europe. You only have to think about the strict rules against dioxins, beef hormones or dangerous pesticides.

7. Does Europe inspire you professionally or personally? If so, how?

Europe, both as an idea as well as in the form of the European Union, represents all notions that constitute my political thinking: democratic governance, federalism, liberalism, ecological development, human rights and freedoms, secularism, separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, the social contract, the social state, solidarity, the idea of progress, the idea of pacificm. All those notions are very European and also very inspirational for the entire world.

8. What do you think of the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK?

It was a disaster both for the UK and the EU, the real magnitude of which has yet to be felt. On the other hand, we should also see it through a positive angle. It has helped Europeans to concentrate their minds, and to reject populist leaders in the ensuing Austrian, French and Dutch elections. It has accelerated the talks about further integration in Europe. It has alarmed European leaderships about the need to closer listen to people and better realise their frustrations and feelings of exclusion.

9. Do you think the EU helps maintain peace?

The EU has definitely maintained peace in Europe, with the exception of the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s. However the EU failed to ensure regional peace: we only have to think about all those conflicts in the Middle East and in the post Soviet republics. The problem lies with Europe’s lacking of a strong security mandate, political determination and own militaty forces. If these were available, the EU might have been more successful in preventing some disasters, like the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the Yugoslavian wars or some of the Middle East conflicts.

10. Do you feel as though you have a lot in common with people from European countries other than your own? Can you give examples?

One of the things we all share in Europe is a certain degree of sarcasm and irony in our humour. I think this is a trait not so commonly found among Asian people, for instance.

11. Are you involved in any campaigning activity related to the UK referendum result? If so, please tell me more about it. What would success look like for your campaign?

No, I am not part of any such campaigning activity, because I am not a UK citizen nor I live there. However I support the online groups campaigning against Brexit and I am trying to communicate further their positions. And what could success look like? The repetition of the referendum, for sure!

12. How would you feel about ‘ever closer union’ or a ‘United States of Europe’?

I am absolutely for it. I support the formation of a federal European Republic, as a single sovereign state that would replace and succeed the EU and all of its member states. This must happen as soon as possible. This is necessary to face the challenges and demands of the new globalised world.

13. Do you have a favorite place in Europe? If so, where is it and why do you love it?

I will be subjective here: my favorite European place remains Thessaloniki, my hometown. It is a historic port city, with a vibrant life developed along the sea front. It combines the excitements of a big town with the humane size of a small city (1 million people). It has a very rich history and amazing monuments from three different empires: the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman one. Great beaches and mountains are within the reach of 90-minutes drive only. An ideal place for fans of history, nature, food and party life.

14. Which European national stereotypes are true, in your experience?

The different way of thinking between the north/west and south/east nations. The stereotype of the well organised, professional and individualistic northern or western European, versus the more relaxed, improvising and communitarian south or east European, has been confirmed many times in my life. Having spent a lot of my time between the two worlds, I truly enjoy both kinds of attitudes, of course under the right proportions. I also think that these two rough categorisations offer a great balance within the big European picture. What I can tell for sure, is that there is no stereotypical “European” person.

15. Where is the best place in Europe to drink coffee? What would you order?

I have enjoyed very much drinking coffee in Bosnia, and especially in Sarajevo and Mostar. I am talking about the classic Turkish coffee (they call it “Bosnian”) in beautiful traditional places. But I am also talking about espresso. I don’t know why, but espresso tastes particularly good in many Bosnian cafes, much better than in other European places. A mystery…

16. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Europe today?

If I should mention only one challenge, this would be our demographic stagnation. Global population is projected to climb from 7,5 billion to 9 billion by 2050, while EU population will remain within the range of 500 and 530 million. Compared to the rest of the world, we are going to be fewer and older. This means also fewer workers, fewer ambitious people, fewer talents. Demographic stagnation could lead us to the margins of global affairs, without even realising it. EU and its member states must address the demographic issue as a top priority. We have to make bold policy choices and put our hands deep in the pockets for this purpose. We must accordingly adapt out social, immigration, health and education policies, to ensure that many more people are born and grown in the EU.

17. Name a place in Europe you have not visited, but would like to. Why?

I would like to visit Belarus. It is one of the least visited European countries and it appeals to me as something mysterious and genuine. I have heard very positive comments about the cities of Minsk and Gomel, and also about people in the countryside.

18. What do you think is the most significant moment in European history? Why?

I think that World War I was the most defining event of European history. It caused the collapse of four empires and the birth or re-birth of many national states. It shaped to a large extent the European borders as we know them today. It also produced two new political trends that undermined our democratic traditions: communism and fascism. At the end of that war, Europe was removed from the centre of global stage for the first time after many centuries, and two new protagonists appeared: the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a world-changing event, and a profound shock for Europe from which it has yet to recover fully.

19. Do you think the UK will leave the EU in 2019?

I am afraid so. But I also think that it will come back again at a later stage, perhaps sooner than we think. Things might need to get worse before they get better.

20. Are you hopeful for the future of Europe?

I am hopeful about Europe’s unification. The individual EU member states will be too weak to compete with the existing or emerging giants of the planet. I thus think that the evolution of the EU into a more federal structure is going to be a matter of time. I am however worried about the demographic issue that I mentioned above. I am also worried about Europe being left behind in the areas of digitalisation, automation, artificial intelligence, life sciences, research and higher education. East Asia and North America seem to be far ahead of us in these areas, and these are the areas that will define the winners and losers of the 21st century.

Follow Yannis on Twitter: @YKaramitsios

Federalist Connection: public Facebook group

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