Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mrs Viviane Reding's message to Greece, in Thessaloniki.

On the 22nd of March, the EU Commission's Vice President Mrs Viviane Reding visited Thessaloniki, Greece to speak to its citizens. 

Mrs Reding is a very capable speaker and really engaged in her job and the European project. And I think it was about time that a high ranked EU official reached out to Greece and its people and converse with them directly. 

After all the citizens are going through to stabilize Greece's and Europe's economy and single currency, they surely need to have their voices heard and their questions answered. And a little encouragement and praise for all their sacrifices can go a long way.

This initiative is part of the European Year of Citizens. During this year, Commissioners and other EU officials will be meeting and talking to citizens across Europe. "There are many discussions in Europe about Greece. There are many discussions in Greece about other European countries. There must be more discussions with the Greek people – and not about them. In Europe, we should talk with each other – not about each other," stated Mrs Reding opening her speech.

And how true is that. Our media love to pretend to be experts on knowing what is happening in other countries. Competition to break a story, plus the love of drama and human misery are used just to sell a story. But somewhere in all this effort, our media forget to see the problem objectively and see where a certain country is coming from, understanding the historic and cultural elements that influence the situation.

Also our governments love to underline the problems and failures of other countries, to turn the spot-light away from the national issues their governments fail to deal. Thus using the situation in another country, to sooth the public opinion or turn their anger towards another country or the EU itself. How can we built a European society with these practices? 

Mrs Reding explained though that structural reform is unavoidable in Greece and also in a number of other countries. "The results of structural reforms take time, reforms are indispensable but they cannot produce miracles overnight," she continued. 

These structural reforms, like product and service market liberalization to business environment reforms and the fight against tax evasion, have to overcome bureaucratic delays, vested interests and longstanding policy taboos. "The reforms are for businesses and for the citizens," she stated.

I totally agree with her, reforms were long overdue in Greece and most of Europe. The problem is, that what dominates the Greek media is an absolute cacophony of opinions and ideas, that disorient the Greek public opinion. That is understandable of course. Those who will lose out of the changes, will use all means to make these reforms look unpopular to the public. 

But shouldn't the Greek Government use all democratic means, perhaps just what Mrs Reding is using, to give their people to understand what is happening, why and for how long? A dialogue and a debate is all it takes. Instead of that, we have a blame game between the Greek political elite, but also among the European one. The only victim from this situation is the confidence of the public in the euro and the EU itself.

Mrs Reding claimed that "European countries showed unprecedented solidarity with Greece. Mechanisms of support were set up in record time." She brought the example of countries like Estonia or Slovakia, that even that their minimum wages are around € 300 per month which is substantially lower than in Greece, they also participate in the solidarity effort. "This is solidarity in action," she stated.

Well the support does not come unconditionally. There is an interest on the loans that Greece will receive by its European partners, so in other words everyone will benefit from the Greek crisis. The lenders will receive their money back but with interest, so I do not see why this is used as an argument of "solidarity." The European countries had no choice but to help Greece and other countries in need, as if their economies failed, they would drag every other state with them.
  
And here Mrs Reding explained that Europe is built on mutual trust and agreements must be respected and complied with. "Solidarity and commitment to reform go together." In other words, the hard pressure that Europe applies on Greece, is to push for reforms that the past Greek governments failed to pass. I totally agree but why must be the people who pay a huge price and not just that, but also be humiliated and used as a scapegoat for Europe's woes? 

It was the business, political and economic elites of Greece that blocked all progress in the country, yet they are getting away from all consequences. And the European elites were doing business with them, so they have also contributed in many circumstances in Greece's difficulties. But the ordinary people are called to pay instead. I will agree with Mrs Reding that populism and shallow nationalism are not the solution to Greece’s problem. 

"The position of Greece as a member of the euro area has been confirmed and reinforced thanks to determination at national and European level," the Commissioner continued.  Doomsayers were proven wrong and those who have bet against Greece have lost. "Greece is and remains an integral part of the euro area family."

I wish I could see the same confidence and excitement that the Commissioner showed, among the ordinary citizens. Most of the people I speak with in Greece and Ireland, are either fed up with the euro or indifferent. Only the business class is still strongly for the euro. And it is not just those two countries. Portugal, Spain, Italy and now Cyprus are witnessing a rising skepticism on the euro. If the crisis continues and most likely it will, as Slovenia is duped to be the next Cyprus, how much longer can we keep the euro enthusiasm?  

"The EU did not cause the crisis," the Commissioner stated. Decades of trade deficits, loss of competitiveness, unsustainable public deficits, debts and instabilities within the financial system were ignored for too long in the Member States before the crisis. The EU provides collective strength to address them together. "The EU is part of the solution.," Mrs Reding said. 

It is absolutely true that the EU, or the euro did not created the crisis. Our national governments did, so they are part of the problem. But now they got to be part of the solution. How can we get to a solution while Europe is being governed by intergovernmentalism, meaning that our governments are the ones who in the end, agree between them the future of our continent. The same governments who allowed all the terrible mistakes to happen and neglected to see the problems.

Mrs Reding claimed that growth and employment will come through reforms. A vast program of structural reform is under way and Greece is making progress, but further progress is required. Deep changes have to occur in a short period of time."I am aware that it is a painful process. The courageous efforts of today will create the growth and jobs of tomorrow," she stated.

The reforms will make citizens’ and companies' lives easier. Drastic reforms in the business environment and how businesses are run or set up in the country. The promotion of mediation as part of the judicial reforms needed by Greece will help parties to settle their dispute without clogging up the court system. 

Part of this is the reform of the judiciary and of the tax system and making sure that it is fair, transparent and efficient and that people pay their taxes. In this context, the completion of the land registry, to which the European Commission gives support, is essential to allow fair tax collection. 

The EU helps Greece to deploy the Structural Funds: Regional policy is an investment policy. EU funds are currently Greece’s main instrument for public investment. Cohesion policy and other EU instruments should be used to unlock SME financing: jobs and growth will be created by the Greek private sector, in particular by innovative SMEs.

Europe is making every effort to ensure that Greece can deploy its Structural Funds quickly and effectively where the have the best impact. EU cohesion funding for 2007-2013 is € 20 billion. The Commission has drawn a list of 181 strategic priority projects with the Greek authorities totalling € 11,5 billion in key areas, from energy pipelines to restoring monuments.

The EU is helping to address youth unemployment: 60% of young Greeks are out of work. The EU is contributing by more than € 500 million to the action plan of the Greek government to strengthen youth employment and entrepreneurship. 

The EU is helping people to get primary health care services: EU funds will co-finance free access to doctors, medical examinations, pharmaceutical treatment and hospital treatment for unemployed and uninsured citizens. This will include free vaccinations for children.

Efforts are bearing first fruits: Greece is now at a turning point. Recovery is expected in the course of 2014. Foreign investors from Europe and outside Europe start to show interest in Greece. But reforms need to continue. Today the EU Commission released a statement saying the Greece will return to growth in 2014. Has Greece made it through the storm and what does the future hold for the country and the EU?

I really look forward to see all the above work come into fruition, but for the moment every time I speak with friends and family in Greece, they are totally unaware of these reforms taking place. The Greek Government and media are just happy to divide the Greek public opinion, in order to be easier for them to proceed with the harsh austerity that Europe is imposing on Greece. 

That is not the way to proceed with reforms. I believe that if the Greek public was made aware of all that Mrs Reding mentioned in her speech, they would have more patience and courage to go through this painful period. But all they witness are more scandals and corruption, inequality and injustice. Plus all the slander coming from other European nations. How can anyone expect them to accept everything that their government is making them go through? 

"Greece and the Greek people have enormous qualities: a cultural richness which is the envy of the world, a capacity for dynamism and creativity that has been demonstrated through the ages, the most beautiful country in Europe. The Greek people have to be confident about their future and work hard collectively to ensure a good future for the future generations," Mrs Reding concluded. 

You may read the full report on Mrs. Reding's speech here: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-254_en.htm#PR_metaPressRelease_bottom

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