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Kyriakos Mitsotakis wearing an earpiece at a press conference
Opposition leaders want to know what prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been listening to. EPA/Valda Kalnina

Greece’s ‘Watergate’ explained: why the European Parliament is investigating over a wiretapping scandal

After Greece and the European Central Bank agreed post-economic-crash bailout terms in 2010, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a 146-page report outlining all the key state problems that were seen as having caused Greece’s fiscal crisis.

One of them was corruption, which has eaten away at accountability in Greek politics since the end of military dictatorship in 1974. Sean Hagan, the former general counsel of the IMF described Greece as a tough case, as corruption appeared to be widespread on all levels of public administration.

On winning the 2019 general election, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged those underlying issues. He promised to be ruthless about the symptoms of corruption and fight off accusations of elitism. Far from achieving these goals, however, Mitsotakis’ government now stands accused of spying on journalists and opposition politicians.

‘Greek Watergate’

Mitsotakis had to admit that the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) had been wiretapping Nikos Androulakis, leader of centre-left opposition party Pasok and a member of the European parliament. However, he claimed not to have known about it and insisted all operations were legal.

This last point is crucial since several journalists have accused the Greek government of putting Predator spyware on their phones – a type of software similar to the notorious Pegasus spyware – which is illegal in the European Union.

The EYP has admitted to monitoring journalist Thanasis Koukakis but denied deploying Predator.

The EYP has refused to provide records of the surveillance to prove that Predator was not used, however. And to the surprise of many, EYP director general Panagiotis Kontoleon suddenly resigned in August 2022 – although again denying Predator was involved in the wiretapping, admitting only that “incorrect actions” had taken place during “legal surveillance”. Grigoris Dimitriadis, the general secretary of the prime minister’s office (and nephew of Mitsotakis) stepped down within an hour of his departure.

Panagiotis Kontoleon  sitting at a desk.
Greek Intelligence Service Director General Panagiotis Kontoleon resigned in the summer. EPA

Meanwhile, Androulakis claims an independent analysis found Predator software on his phone and is taking a case to Greece’s supreme court.

A special inquiry goes nowhere

Mitsotakis promised to shed “significant light” on what had happened in these cases and announced a special parliamentary inquiry. This was a huge risk since he had brought the EYP under his personal control after winning the 2019 general election. It was an unusual move, heavily criticised by opposition parties at the time. Now Mitsotakis was leaving himself vulnerable to personal liability by ordering the inquiry.

Questions about how he could not have known about surveillance were bound to arise, as would questions about what prompted Kontoleon and Dimitriadis to resign if no wrongdoing had taken place. Mitsotakis insisted their departure was not an admission of guilt, but both resignations remain unexplained.

Anyone hoping that answers could be given through the inquiry were sorely disappointed when it wrapped up without the various parties involved agreeing on any findings. According to Mitsotakis’s party, the allegations about phone hacking “collapsed like a house of cards” under scrutiny. According to opposition parties Syriza and Pasok, the government deliberately sped up the inquiry process to cover up wrongdoing.

Nikos Androulakis sitting in the European Parliament.
Androulakis is taking his case to the supreme court. Alamy

Mitsotakis claimed the inquiry proved no wrongdoing had taken place and declared the matter closed.

The fact that key witnesses, including Kontoleon and Dimitriadis, refused to cooperate or answer any questions, citing confidentiality, has only added to the sense of injustice among the other parties. The “significant light” Mitsotakis promised to shed is currently missing. Instead, he blamed “dark forces outside Greece” for destabilising the country – although did not make clear what these dark forces were.

The EU steps in

Nor is this scandal solely an internal matter anymore. The European Union has sent a fact finding delegation to Greece to investigate further. This is part of wider work by the European Parliament to investigate the abuse of spyware among EU governments – a mission that Brussels takes seriously enough to have set up a dedicated committee.

The committee has already expressed concern about evidence that the Polish government was using spyware and has been investigating similar reports about the Hungarian government monitoring the press.

When Mitsotakis came to power in 2018, he pledged to take on populism. Now he is under investigation alongside the populist leaders who have become notorious in the EU for straining democratic norms.

Presenting the findings of its draft report on the use of spyware by European governments the committee called on the Greek government to provide more information to enable the inquiry to draw accurate conclusions.

Regardless of whether his government is guilty of using spyware against journalists and political opponents, Mitsotakis is behaving like a populist leader by making a sham of the inquiry set up to investigate the problem. Such a lack of commitment to accountability is never a welcome sign in a democratic system.

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