ATHENS – A minority stake purchase in the port of Hamburg bought by the Chinese management company COSCO raised some backfire from critics, but the German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) pointed to its operation of Piraeus.
COSCO in 2016 signed a deal to acquire two-thirds of Greece’s major port and despite some fierce resistance from local businesses against revised plans to add shopping areas it has revitalized the once-dormant site.
There’s still some reluctance to letting a Chinese company have so much control of a major Greek asset, which China wanted to use to create a doorway to the rest of the European Union, but the New Democracy government is satisfied so far.
“The Chinese investment in Piraeus is beneficial for both countries’” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in February 2021, at China’s first summit meeting with the 17 Central and Eastern European countries.
China’s President Xi Jinping, described COSCO’s investment in Piraeus as an “exemplary project,” and visited the port in 2019, calling it “an important hub for China’s fast land-sea link with Europe, and for connectivity between Asia and Europe.”
There’s been worry in the European Union about China having too much financial influence over strategic businesses but the rush for money has overriden objections and China wants to expand to get more assets.
The initial sale of a smaller stake came as part of privatization of state enterprises under terms of what turned into three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($324.87 billion) that saw private company takeovers.
Under COSCO, Piraeus is now the largest port in the eastern Mediterranean, and the seventh largest in Europe, adding jobs and building its presence although the the site said inspections are rarely carried out.
And it added that unions in Piraeus have repeatedly complained about working conditions there, and are pushing for better safety measures after a dock worker died in an accident on a container pier last year but DW said inspectors are essentially looking the other way because of its importance.
Costas Chlomoudis, a Professor of Maritime Studies at the University of Piraeus told DW that the model of private sector involvement in ports that is seen elsewhere in Europe bears no relationship to the one in Greece.
Most EU countries, he said, will allocate a pier to a private company for a certain number of years, and several competing companies will often share one container terminal. The way it was done in Greece was concerning, he said.
Cosco controls all the piers, and all the terminals. “In the way it was carried out, the sale of the port of Piraeus to Cosco was a tragic mistake,” he said, adding that unlike Hamburg, Piraeus is now directly dependent on China.
The key port of Alexandroupolis in northern Greece is also about to be privatized with American firms looking to control it, the site key for shipping military hardware and will have some US forces there.
“We need a common European policy,” Chlomoudis saids. “The Commission should treat the problem being discussed in Germany right now as an opportunity to establish common guidelines, to protect European interests with regard to third countries.”