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Greece’s Forgotten Recovery

Piraeus Port, Greece. By Jeffrey @flickr

Piraeus Port, Greece. By Jeffrey @flickr

After what seemed like never ending negotiations between the Greek government and the Troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—to settle Greece’s financial lifeline, the ordeal finally came to an end last August, and the gaze of the world drifted away from Athens.

Instead, all media pundits were fixed on the beaches of Lesbos and the human tide washing up on its shore, and on Syria, the source of so much of the misery from which the boatloads of refugees had fled.

But those with a vested interest in the successful implementation of the €86 billion bailout package agreed between Athens and its creditors, not least of all the Greek people, couldn’t afford to take their eyes off Greece. And in December, as Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza-led government finally passed the budget for 2016 and signed the first privatization deals required to access the bailout funds, some of the attention slowly began shifting back to the fortunes of this debt-laden economic basket case. And unfortunately, not many are happy with what they see six months since the signing of the deal meant to bring Athens out of the worst political conundrum the European Union has ever seen.

To begin with, let’s look at the relatively successful (and relatively painless) privatization of Greece’s airports, a key condition for the nation’s international creditors. In mid December negotiations concluded between the Greek government and a consortium consisting of Fraport, a German transport company, and Copelouzos, a Greek energy company, to lease and manage 14 airports.

Negotiations to lease the airports began under the previous government, but the deal looked to be dead in the water following Syriza’s rise to power on an anti-austerity platform. But now, having been force-fed a strong dose of economic realism, the radical leftists finally signed off on an agreement which will bring in €23 million in annual rental payments and over €300 million in investment in the airports´ facilities.

All in all, the deal is worth €1.4 billion over the 40 year length of the lease. Its final signing also marks a welcome sign that the Syriza government has woken up to the realization that if Greece is ever to extricate itself from its economic woes, it needs to make friends rather than enemies of parties who are willing to invest in its future.

But the privatization of Greece’s airports is only one side of the coin, as the debate over the future of the nation’s seaports still remains unresolved. The Greek shipping industry is the largest in the world, a major provider of employment, and is considered to be the very identity of the country; one of the few remaining symbols of national pride. But if Greece is to maintain its preeminent position as a world leader in shipping, then its ports and associated infrastructure will need continued investment and support.

However, given the country’s finances, the Greek government is clearly in no position to meet those needs using its own resources. Even Syriza has already come to this conclusion, and has agreed as part of the latest bailout program to sell a 51% stake in the port of Piraeus, the country’s largest. At least that was what investors were led to believe would happen, and while reports have emerged that the privatization would indeed go through, the road thus far has been far from smooth, leaving investors jittery about the government’s next steps.

After being postponed three times, bids were finally accepted on December 22 for the majority stake in the port. Maersk Group’s APM Terminals, and Philippines-based International Container Terminal Services have expressed interest in the offer, but China’s Cosco is thought to be the lead contender to seal the deal. That Cosco has continued in its pursuit of the share purchase despite the obstacles thrown in its way by the Greek government is testament to the value of the proposition on offer.

As well as the postponements, the whole process has been stymied by the announcement of the intention to bring all of Greece’s shipyards under a central public body (in other words: nationalization) as well as plans to increase taxes on local shipping operators. All these factors taken together paint an unsettling picture of a government that seems hell bent on scaring away foreign investors ,while at the same time removing existing ones from the country.

Exactly what the government hopes to achieve by exasperating the operators in an industry that is so vital to Greece’s recovery is anyone’s guess, but potential foreign investors will likely remain on their feet until Athens sends a strong signal that it is serious about privatization to dig its economy out of a manmade hole.

But what could really be the undoing of this government and push Greece right back to the precipice is the slow pace of reform of the pension system. The terms of the bailout require a reduction in pension payments, but the government, fearing the political backlash this would cause, claims that there have already been 12 cuts to pension payments since the beginning of the crisis and the system is already streamlined to the bone.

Instead of cuts, the government wants to set higher contributions from existing workers and employers. However, the fact so many people already pay and receive wages under the table in order to avoid paying any contributions in the first place will render such an approach unfeasible until the government cracks down on tax avoidance.

Whereas Syriza once stood against austerity and attracted the support of the majority of Greek people who also opposed it, the fact of the matter now is that whether they like it or not the Syriza-led government is an austerity government. The Greek people are all out of alternatives.

Apart from the Golden Dawn,or from Syriza’s point of view, the best way forward would be to leave the foot dragging and recalcitrance behind, be upfront with the public, and convince them that despite the tough road that lies ahead they are the best party to lead them on the path of economic recovery. Syriza must take a hard and clear stance with its population about the necessary reforms. If Greece wants to remain a member of the Eurozone, this is the road that must be travelled, regardless of the party in government.



James Nadeau

Originally from Maryland, James Nadeau is a European affairs advisor and foreign policy analyst currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His writings have been featured in The Kyiv Post, The Hill and RealClearWorld.