I'm Maria Aretoulaki , Pirate Party UK MEP Candidate for the North West region.
I first came to Manchester from Greece back in 1991 as a postgraduate student of Computational Linguistics and an ex-Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. After a 9-year break working in Germany at Universities, Research Institutes and start-ups, I came back in 2005 to work for a big American IT company here in Manchester. Since 2008, I've been running successfully my own IT Consultancy, DialogCONNECTION Ltd., based in the Manchester City Centre and serving clients all over the world (US, Asia, and Europe, including the European Commission in the past 6 months). So, having lived and worked here for a total of 14 years, Manchester is my chosen home!
In that time, apart from being active in the professional world of IT Business, I have channelled my love for electronic music by supporting the associated music scene of the North West and becoming a (Drum'n'Bass and Dubstep) DJ, podcaster, and promoter myself, playing and organising gigs all over England, broadcasting online radio shows and supporting young producers in making a name for themselves.
Having always been interested in local, European, and World affairs (since my teens), I have always been aware of the big issues, the fine interdependencies, and the common illusions. On the local level, I have always just tried to improve things around me, even if it just meant filling in a feedback form, or taking the time to email the Council or a service provider about a failing.
At the same time, I have been online since 1991, when most people were not (the advantage of being an Academic in the UK at the time), and I was enthusiastic about the advent of email, chat, forums, and cloud-based services, which I started using profusely early on. The internet gave me my Post-Doc position in Germany (I found the ad in an online newsgroup and applied and got interviewed online), funded by the EU's "Human Capital Mobility" programme, which encourages EU citizens to go and live and work in another EU country which they had perhaps never intended to go and live in or even visit before, or whose language they don't even speak a word of (My German vocabulary when I arrived in Germany consisted of just 60 words). So I was actually sponsored to emigrate from the UK to Germany! The internet gave me my first job in industry in Berlin (My later boss found my University profile online). The internet got me a job back in Manchester (yet another Newsgroup), and it's through the internet that I get all my client work for my company (Tip: LinkedIn is your friend!).
Needless to say, the internet has also educated me (I am an avid Coursera serial student, having taken and completed more than 10 online courses from EU Law, English Common Law and International Criminal Law to US Foreign Policy, Digital Democracy, Networks, Philosophy, and Astrobiology). And of course, like the case is with most people, the internet also helped me find and connect with people all over the planet who share something with me (from a biographical detail to a personal and professional interest). It has helped me meet wonderful people in real life, even though it started mostly anonymously, virtually and on the ether.
When in the last few years, things started taking a nasty turn, with requests to block access to websites coming not just from the Government but also from Charities and NGOs, and at the same time we suddenly relinquished complete transparency of our own private lives and personal data with the advent of the geolocated, tagged, and personalised smartphones and apps, such as Facebook and Foursquare, I became really worried. It seemed to me that suddenly a modern version of the Dark Ages was dawning: blocking websites on the basis of keywords mentioned on them is to me dangerously similar to the book burning of scientific books by the Church in the Middle Ages. Blindly censoring webpages on the basis of keywords, whose choice is questionable in itself, can literally block half of the internet, with the catastrophic consequences that this can bring (lack of information, education, and emotional support). When at the same time, normal citizens are supposed to freely give out data on themselves and their private lives (for better targeted personalised ad campaigns), not complain when this data is passed on to third parties without any consent or other legal or moral control (in the name of research they say, but mainly in the name of business plans and profit), and even having the original collector of the data benefit financially in some cases from the fact, is grossly unfair and completely contradictory.
It was concerns such as these that motivated me to join the UK Pirate Party back in 2012 and to even stand in the local elections that year in the Manchester City Centre Ward. As a new Party, this campaign was rather a success, given that I personally got 3.1% of the (admittedly very few) votes (just 13.65% of the people in the City Centre came out to vote) and the Party Leader, Loz Kaye, 5.2% even, both of us beating Parties, such as UKIP and the LibDems. The local elections gave me the chance to talk to people I wouldn't normally have the chance to talk to. And I already know people from all kinds of social and professional backgrounds. It also showed me how the Pirate Party is different to anything that has ever been around in Politics, as the motivation is the Common Good and not "Our Good". We are concerned citizens and professionals (Academics, Entrepreneurs, Social Workers, Musicians) who are sufficiently up-to-date with modern technology to know its benefits, its shortcomings and the threats towards it, sufficiently aware of the current political demagogy surrounding technology and the internet, and worried about having our personal and citizen's rights surreptitiously stripped by not allowing transparency in Government, Business, or the Internet, and yet demanding and exploiting our transparency provided by the same technologies that they damn.
This year's European Parliamentary Elections were the natural next step for me. Even as a 15-year-old in Greece I was excited about the concept of the "United States of Europe" (with the emphasis on "United" rather than on "States"), that Greece had joined 3 years before. I was thrilled by the idea of being able to live and work wherever you wanted, following similar laws and regulations, and not having to have a particular nationality to do certain things. In fact, my entry (on a postcard!) to a then European Community competition on "What the European Community means to you" later won me a free trip to Portugal! I was the lucky recipient of a European Union Human Capital Mobility Post-Doctoral Fellowship when I moved to Germany in 1996 from the UK, and in 2013 my company was the lucky recipient of European Commission funding as part of a large 3-year Research & Development project with partners from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Greece. And I have just been engaged by the EC as an external Expert on Research proposal evaluation.
It has all come round. Born and raised in Greece, having attended Universities in Greece, the UK, and Germany, and having worked and paid taxes in all 3 countries, I think I am the quintessential European; that's what the EU Founders had in mind when they were coming up with the vision. Or that's what I like to think.
The funny thing with having lived in 3 countries is that you learn to love and defend all three, even when you see the failings and negatives in each one of them. Things become less black-and-white and you start seeing things from many different perspectives, because even just speaking a language fluently lets you in the mindset and the psyche of that nation. As a result, you can actually "communicate" with them; a very underrated skill nowadays, when the focus is more on marketing, promotion, PR, and appearances. And I'm lucky to be fluent in 4 EU languages, English, German, French, and my mother tongue, Greek.
I want to get elected as an MEP, because I can contribute to the European Parliament the unique perspective of someone with practically 3 national identities (or dare I say, a single "merged" European identity), with experience in both the idealistic, detail-oriented world of Academia and the fast-moving and relentless world of Business; with technical expertise that makes me understand what the issues are and how to address them; with a good understanding of the English, European, and International Laws and issues, and with communication skills and interests that help me relate equally to a 15-year-old skater, a 45-year-old CEO, and an 85-year-old pensioner.
Undoubtedly, there is a lot that urgently needs to change with the EU. The European Parliament, as the direct voice of all EU citizens, should be given more powers in introducing but also vetoing laws and regulations. Negotiations and lobbying should never take place behind closed doors, and decision-making should be made more transparent, democratic, and evidence-based. Each EU country should have more flexibility in the timeframe available to implement EU-wide regulations. The EU gives guidance centrally, but the UK implements locally and taking the local context into account. For example, when I was working for a UK company a few years ago, I was "encouraged" to sign the EU Opt-out clause doing away with my right to claim overtime. The motivation was apparently less red tape and admin in keeping detailed timesheets and another reason given to me was that "Everybody else here has already signed the Opt-out form". (Yes, it is possible, despite the EU Directive on the matter). And given that many people in the UK want the freedom and their democratic right to hold a referendum on the UK's membership in the EU, the UK Pirate Party and myself fully support a referendum on the EU.
However, just abandoning the EU is no solution for the UK. In fact, if the UK left the EU, that would be catastrophic for the UK Industry, Economy, and Diplomacy and the UK's position as a World Power. The EU is not just prescribing which type of cheese should be allowed the name "feta cheese"; it also does away with long and complicated export procedures and forms and having to pay export duties each time a product or service enters a different EU country. The associated cost for UK Businesses would be prohibitive and would considerably shrink UK exports. But unfortunately, the current political rhetoric on the subject of EU membership focuses on "immigration" and "foreigners coming here and stealing our jobs". Nobody is talking about all the "foreigners" who come here and pay taxes which fund UK schools and UK hospitals, nor of the "foreigners" who set up businesses here and give Brits jobs (as well as contribute to the growth of the UK Economy). And of course nobody is talking about all the Brits who emigrate and thrive in other EU countries. Even less do we speak of all the "Bloody EU Regulations, coming to this country and giving us rights!" to adapt the Tweet shown here. We all need to rethink our relationship with the EU, as well as demand its democratic reform. What we need is Family therapy. It would be wrong to go straight for Divorce.
The first step is of course to go out and vote in the European Parliamentary Elections! And vote for candidates who stand for democracy and civil and human rights. The fewer people go out and vote, the less representative of our will, beliefs, and needs the appointed MEPs are going to be. This is what brings fascists into power: apathy and scapegoats.
You can contact me by email at [email protected] or add a comment to this post.