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Stand with Greece Policy Summit U.S. lawmakers explore ways to support...

Stand with Greece Policy Summit U.S. lawmakers explore ways to support a long-time friend By George Bistis

Hellenic News
Hellenic News
The copyrights for these articles are owned by HNA. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of HNA and its representatives.

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The economic and migratory crises faced by Greece today were the focus of a two-day Stand with Greece Policy Summit held in early October on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC at the initiative of Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues. This Caucus is a bipartisan group of more than 130 concerned Members of Congress “working to foster and improve relations between the United States and our important allies Greece and Cyprus.” The Caucus co-chairs, realizing that the effects of the current Greek crises are likely to persist into the foreseeable future, convened a consortium of some bright minds in U.S. and Greek academia, diplomacy, business and government circles to discuss the challenges faced by Greece today and to explore ways of how American policies can be best utilized to provide technical and security support to long-time friend, Greece.


Representatives Bilirakis and Maloney speaking at a reception in honor of the Policy Summit participants, event sponsors, and other distinguished guests, stressed that the idea of this event, consistent with the work of their Caucus, is to cultivate stronger relations between Greece and the United States and to help Greece as it climbs its way out of economically difficult times. They also expressed strong support for Greece’s ongoing efforts to restore fiscal stability, implement structural reforms, recover competitiveness and restart growth.

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Welcoming remarks were also made by Congressmen Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Dina Titus (D-NV), Steve Chabot (R-OH),Tim Ryan (D-OH) and his Eminence Metropolitan Gabriel of Nea Ionia and Philadelphia. Congressman Dan Donovan (R-NY) and former Congressman Zack Space (D-OH) were among the VIPs in attendance. Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) along with Congresswoman Maloney introduced the first of the next day’s panels while Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked questions at another panel. Maria Theodorou, DCM, Embassy of Greece, representing Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos who was in New York for the visit of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, thanked the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues for the initiative to hold the Policy Summit.


The first of three policy panels evaluated the challenges for Greek businesses and prospects for administrative reform. One of the featured speakers, Dr. Thanos Catsambas, who until July 2015 served as Alternate Executive Director at the IMF Board of Directors and was also Representative of Greece at the International Monetary Fund, pointed out that the stabilization aspects of the first two adjustment programs (2010-2014) “were broadly successful and by end-2014 had set the stage for return of the Greek economy to growth beginning 2015.” Dr. Catsambas also noted that the political uncertainty and prolonged negotiations of Greece with its international lenders in the first seven months of 2015 “have delayed the return to growth and the Greek economy is now projected to be in recession throughout 2015.”


Of particular interest to the Policy Summit participants were his views on what the new SYRIZA-led government needs to do now to get Greece back on the road to economic recovery. Dr. Catsambas said Greece needs to secure “a more realistic timetable”, so that it will be able to deliver when it needs to. In his view, Greece also needs “technical assistance” to implement structural reforms but most importantly Greece needs to “prioritize” the reforms. He cited two specific pillars of the third bailout MOU that are critical for Greece, the section on Growth, Competitiveness and Investment and the section on Modern State and Public Administration. Structural reforms in these two sections would affect issues ranging from labor market, product market, business environment and privatizations to public administration, justice and corruption. According to Dr. Catsambas, “under these two headings and sub-headings, there are a lot of specific actions and policies that must be implemented by the Greek authorities to continue to be financed by the European Stability Mechanism.”


Another panelist who spoke extensively at the Administrative and Business Reform Discussion was Pavlos Geroulanos, former Greek Minister of Culture and Tourism who currently represents a new NGO established to help Greece go through the changes necessary for business development. He compared the two models of economic recovery that were in competition with each other at the recent negotiation of Greece with its European partners. The first is what has become known as the German Model that calls for tightening the belt of those who live in a country with major debt problems, by reducing their salaries, slashing their public spending and raising their taxes until they repay the debt that is owed. But according to Mr. Geroulanos the problem with this model is that it does not stimulate growth. On the opposite side, we find the Greek Model which calls for “flooding the market with cash” to create jobs and opportunities for growth. As the prominent panelist noted, Greeks feel comfortable with this model because they are used to have their market flooded with cash, but the problem is that this cash has always been borrowed from other countries. In Mr. Geroulanos’ view the fact that Greece is not generating enough income to sustain its own economic growth makes this Greek Model unsustainable.

The former minister of tourism suggests that the best way for Greece to generate more revenue is by using the rich Hellenic culture to increase its tourism to levels in excess of 50% of the country’s GDP. He believes this can be accomplished by promoting more cities that offer a great history like Sparta, which has been discovered by Hollywood as the birthplace of Leonidas, the Spartan Warrior; Olympia, where the ancient Olympics were held; Marathon, which has the potential to become the “Mecca” of all marathon runners in the world; and Katerini at the foot of Mt. Olympus on which the Gods of Greek mythology lived. Mt. Olympus attracts 30,000 visitors per year, mostly Greeks. If this number of tourists double, many of Katerini’s economic problems would be solved.

Addressing the other issues in discussion Mr. Geroulanos suggested that the Greek public administration mechanism needs to be reformed in order to become more responsive and efficient. For example, he said sometimes it takes ten years for the Greek judiciary to process one case, with the courts suggesting that they need time “to be fair to the weak”, but in effect they are “killing the weak” with the long waiting and the high court costs, which often force those who seek justice to give up their cases. In his view, another major problem is that “civil servants have no guidance and no inspiration.” Various laws pass from Parliament but frequently there is no guidance for their implementation at the level of the state employees who deal with the public. Sometimes you have to show them the section of the law you are referring to, so they can ask for guidance from a political appointee on how to interpret it. The former minister also recommends an urgent reform of the process for obtaining permits and other government documents that require the citizen to appear in person to collect too many signatures from too many different locations. As for the effort to attract new foreign investments in Greece Mr. Geroulanos thinks that the bulk of such investments should be expected after the Greek economy becomes more stable and more dependable. In his words, “no billionaires will bring their money to Greece, if they see us taking it out!” However, he was optimistic that with appropriate reforms in the areas he outlined Greece could become a magnet for new investors who would help it regain its economic vitality.

Many of these points were also echoed by panelist Ted Diamantis, a successful entrepreneur who navigates the business world in both Greece and the United States and who agreed to share some practical experiences. Mr. Diamantis, an importer of Greek wines and other Greek products to the U.S., attributed his success to the work ethic of those involved in his company and his Greek business associates, their emphasis on high quality and their determination to excel without government help. He and other highly motivated individuals create business opportunities for themselves because, as Mr.Diamantis observed, the state support for businesses is down, there is a lack of vision, a lack of national strategy, and no stable aim for the economy to grow. On top of that, entrepreneurs have to face a slow moving bureaucracy. Mr. Diamantis spent a year and a half to obtain the required licenses for a new perfumed soap factory he wanted to open in Greece and when the licenses were obtained an issue with a local partner developed which put a hold on the business. Five years later the case is still in the courts. In the meantime, his soap company closed and his entire investment in it has been lost.

Mr. Diamantis then refocused on his wine import business which is thriving and he expects it to do even better for as long as the Greek wines he has chosen for the American market maintain their high quality and some cultural aspects are tied in. His recommendations for improving the business environment in Greece include judicial reform, a stable tax system and an efficient bureaucracy. His advice to anyone wanting to get into the export business is do a market research, not through the internet but through experts located in the market of the product destination, ensure that the market is appropriate for your product and that your long-term sales strategy is applicable in that market, learn who your competitors are, determine what advantages you have over them and then, if no red flags appear in the process, carefully select your partners. He also recommended that Greek exporters entering a new market should start with a small project before tackling anything too big, concentrate on artisan food products and create a solid vision for their company.

Moderator of the first panel was Professor Ismini Lamb, Director of and Lecturer at Georgetown University’s Modern Greek Studies Program, in Washington DC.

The second panel of the Policy Summit, A view from the ground, featured Ambassador Eleni Tsakoloulos-Kounalakis and New York State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, both Greek-Americans who shared unique perspectives of their recent visits to Greece, and His Eminence, Metropolitan Gabriel of Nea Ionia and Philadelphia, who discussed the role of the Church in handling the migrant and refugee crisis. Assemblywoman Malliotakis said she could attest that media reporting of problems faced by tourists in Greece this past summer were grossly exaggerated. She was in Greece at that time and her visit was safe and most enjoyable. Metropolitan Gabriel emphasized that the Church treats with love, compassion and kindness refugees, as well as suffering Greek people who seek its help, and does whatever it can to help them. Ambassador Kounalakis commended the Church for its work but at the same time she pointed out that Greece urgently needs external help to deal with the waves of refugees that arrive to its shores every single day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 400.000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe so far in 2015, which is almost double the number in all of 2014, with Syrians being the largest group by nationality. All three panelists expressed concerned that the landing on Greek islands of boats with thousands of Syrian and other refugees from Turkey creates an overwhelming humanitarian challenge for Greece at the same time the country is handling a major debt crisis.

Congressman Bilirakis and Congresswoman Maloney took immediate action at the outset of the Policy Summit by writing a letter, signed by them and other Caucus members, to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security asking for the Department to formulate and provide practical recommendations and technical assistance to share with Greece and its respective border control agencies. As stated in the letter“ the surge of refugees in Greece has been overwhelming and we recognize that DHS’s expertise in border control and management can assist Greece in accelerating the speed and efficiency of intake procedures with little cost to our own resources.”

The third and final panel of the Stand with Greece Policy Summit dealt with issues of Regional Security. Panelists included Robert D. Kaplan, from the Center for a New American Security, Jeff Rathke from the Center of Strategic and International Studies, Eva Kaili, Member of the European Parliament and Nikolas Katsimpras from the Hellenic American Leadership Council and delegate to the Atlantic Council. The discussion was moderated by John Sitilides, Principle at Trilogy Advisors, which specializes in government affairs and strategic communications.

Robert Kaplan noted that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, euphoria spread among countries in east and central Europe which, freed from the fear of Russian challenges, started building their new future on an eventual membership in the European Union, but now that the Russians have decided to raise their profile again by annexing Crimea, flexing their muscle in Ukraine and conducting air raids on selected targets in Syria, some of these European countries, like Poland and Romania, are not certain how long that euphoria would last. Jeff Rathke said Greece’s geographical position and its proximity to the Middle East make it central to the challenges the U.S. and Europe are facing in the area. The geopolitical importance of Greece to NATO and the West were also stressed by Eva Kaili and Nikolas Katsimpras. In Robert Kaplan’s assessment, if Greece stays in the West then the West will continue to be the dominant player in this strategic region, but if Greece tilts to the East then the regional dominance will be shifted to the East. The panelists agreed that stability and growth in Europe are important to U.S. interests and this is one of the reasons Washington worked behind the scenes to help Athens and its European lenders reach a new financing agreement and stop the fracturing of EU from within. The group also touched upon the migrant crisis. They don’t expect it to ease anytime soon because “totalitarian regimes (in nearby countries) have collapsed and people are now free to move to nicer places.”

The Hellenic American Leadership Council, led by Nikos Mouyiaris and its Executive Director Endy Zemenides, in addition to being instrumental in helping to organize the Capitol Hill event, engaged in a fundraising effort through which $250.000 were collected for the SOS Children’s Villages in Greece. A representative of this non-profit organization thanked the Greek-American community for the generous contribution and informed conference participants of its activities in Greece, which have increased due to the financial crisis. SOS currently provides material and emotional support to over 4.200 Greek people, of which 2.200 are children, through seven family strengthening programs, two youth programs and four villages. Children who cannot be with their families of birth can find a new home in the SOS Children’s Villages, located in Thrace (Alexandroupolis), Crete, Plagiari (Thessaloniki) and Vari (near Athens.)

The reception and the luncheon of the Policy Summit were made possible by donations from the Hellenic American Leadership Council and the Tsakoloulos-Kounalakis families, known for having established Chairs for Greek Studies at two prestigious American institutions of higher learning, Georgetown University and Stanford University.

The Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues considers establishing the Stand with Greece Policy Summit as an annual event.

This report was presented by its author at the 26th General Assembly of the Hellenic American National Council on October 10, 2015 at the Capital Hilton Hotel, Washington DC, at the invitation of Paul Kotrotsios, HANC’s 3rd President.

George Bistis is an award-winning journalist and political analyst. He has served                                      as chief of the Greek Radio and TV Service of the Voice of America for 30 years.

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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