I Do Not Fear the Greeks Bearing Gifts

It would be something of an understatement to say that the recent elections in Greece have changed the political landscape for Europe. But alongside the wider implications, there are also some that touch on matters discussed in this blog. Here, for example, is how the giant TTIP trade agreement might be affected:

Georgios Katrougkalos, now deputy minister for administrative reform, confirmed what he had told EurActiv Greece ahead of his Syriza party's victory last week: that his parliament would not ratify the trade deal.

"I can ensure you that a Parliament where Syriza holds the majority will never ratify the deal. And this will be a big gift not only to the Greek people but to all the European people," EurActiv reported Monday.

That's a possibility, because TTIP is a "mixed agreement, which will require both the European Parliament and national parliaments to ratify it. If even one of the latter rejects it - as Syriza has now confirmed it will do - then TTIP will die just as ACTA did in 2012.

Of course, that ratification vote is a long way off - there's no way that TTIP will be finished before 2016. Much can happen before then in the messy world of politics. But alongside big gestures of this kind, the Syriza government may also start some quieter revolutions, this time in the world of open source:

The Greek region of Attica, encompassing Athens, is considering a switch to free and open source solutions. Representatives of the regional authority discussed the move with the Greek Free/Open Source Software society. GFOSS has offered to help modernise Attica’s ICT policies.

According to GFOSS’ community manager Vassilis Chryssos, the newly elected Syriza government could be a strong advocate of public administration’s use of free and open source solutions. “There seems to be political support for such a switch”, Chryssos says.

That makes a lot of sense. Greece needs to find cost-effective solutions, and replacing closed-source proprietary code that requires constant licence payments to foreign companies is an obvious way to do that. But this isn't purely about saving money. Implementing open source on a large scale would require people to install and maintain systems. That could help promote the creation of local businesses offering support. That, in its turn, would encourage more people to learn about free software, and thus help to invigorate the Greek software industry. This has the big advantage of not requiring huge capital investments - something that will be difficult for the cash-strapped Syriza government.

Free software is particularly well-suited to Greece because it is a small market compared to those for the anglophone or francophone worlds, say. That means software is unlikely to be produced in regional versions as a priority. Open source, of course, can be modified by anyone, allowing localised versions of existing free software to be produced easily. All of these considerations apply elsewhere, especially among smaller countries, and it has always been something of a mystery to me why they don't embrace open source more readily.

Ironically, the UK has suffered from speaking the same language as America (well, more or less.) This has meant that US software can be used immediately in the UK (if you don't mind the mis-spellings), and has also generally seen US companies setting up subsidiaries in the UK before anywhere else. That, in its turn, has made it easy for them to sell their products to UK companies and government. As a result of this digital colonisation, open source has struggled - and is still struggling - to establish itself, not least because of network effects and the reluctance of users to learn anything new.

Countries like Greece therefore have a unique opportunity to show us how it is done, and to lead the way when it comes to implementing a thoroughgoing national open source strategy. If Syriza could achieve that, going even further than the welcome but limited moves in Attica, then that truly would be "a big gift not only to the Greek people but to all the European people" - and beyond.

Update: a new article looks at ways in which Syriza has declared its support for other forms of openness, such as open data, open standards and open government.

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