ATHENS – The 8th Regional Growth Conference 2020 (RGC) that was held in Patras July 2-4 and was attended by high ranking regional and national public and private sector officials was the first post-COVID-19 lockdown event of its kind in Greece.
Among the common themes were that COVID-19 has reinforced the all-but-forgotten notion that who governs and what governments do, matter, illustrated by the excellent start of the Mitsotakis government and its pandemic response and the struggles of the United States.
The participants, in person or via live streaming or video included, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, EU Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, Minister of Development and Investment Adonis Georgiadis, Minister, Regional Governor of Western Greece Nektarios Farmakis, Minister of Culture and Sports, Lina Mendoni, Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Konstantinos Karamanlis, Minister of Education and Religion Niki Kerameus, Minister of Tourism Haris Theoharis, and Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy Ioannis Plakiotakis.
Among the issues examined were the healthcare system, the energy sector, education, digitalization, the environment, agriculture, including the wine industry, ports and shipping, infrastructure, and sports.
PM Mitsotakis presented a video welcome and stressed the importance of initiatives like the conference so that “the issues of the regions are harmoniously integrated in the overall strategic development planning of the country.”
Media representatives and officials were also eager to hear Georgiadis. In addition to touching on the status and progress of the Hellenikon project foreign investors are closely monitoring, Georgiadis spoke about infrastructure investments in other regions and efforts by the government to support SMEs.
U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt participated by video on the panel titled Digital Transformation of Regional Businesses and praised Greece's progress in that domain.
The opening session on July 2 titled European Funding: The Big Moment, set the tone for many of the panels which followed, especially regarding the €32 billion Greece is slated to receive from the EU's proposed €750 billion recovery package.
Alekos Kritikos of ELIAMEP spoke of the urgency of its passage at what he calls “historic moment” for change in the EU and the world.
Deputy Minister for European Affairs Miltiades Varvitsiotes provided an overview of the package and its status. He cautioned, “we are far from an agreement” but echoed Kritikos, stating “this is the European moment” regarding hopes for realizing the European unity dream.
MP Evripides Stylianides pointed out challenges and opportunities in many areas, and that it can and should restore its pharmaceutical and medical supply industries now that Europe grasps the danger of outsourcing to China. Varvitsiotis also said Greece must not miss the opportunity develop sectors other than tourism, including manufacturing, in the context of the emerging Green and Digital economy.
ND Eurodeputy Anna Michelle Asimakopoulou emphasized the importance of constitutional changes that would facilitate regional development.
Theodoros Papatheodorou, professor at the University of the Peloponnese and past MP, illuminated the paradoxical legacy of Coronavirus which both gives and takes away. “It robbed us of the luxury of time” he said but it also gives the gift of urgency. The EU – which seems to have been jump- started by a new Franco-German partnership in response to COVID-19, and Greece, have no more time to lose he said. For the latter, decades of ideological, partisan, and personal foot dragging by leaders must be redressed and the conference sometimes evoked a sense that either a New Greece will now be built or that the country will become a ruin. In that context Papatheodorou urged and foresees a return to `the responsible state'.
Also participating were economics professors Spyridon Blavoukos and Fivi Koutouri.
At an Education panel, Kerameus spoke about the 2020 education reform agenda and noted that in September 24 new prototype and 12 experimental schools will open.
SCHINAS' PERSPECTIVE ON GREECE, EU FUTURE
The opening panel was followed by a special interview of Schinas by journalist Maria Nikoloutsou. The former urged Greece not to lose another golden opportunity, warning about bureaucratic obstacles and corruption hindering the best use of the 32 billion, which must be directed to investment not consumption in order to increase employment in general, and especially for young Greeks.
“We owe future generations for dreams and opportunities and more prosperity,” he said.
In an exclusive statement to The National Herald Schinas emphasized, “this generation of brain drain must be the last generation of Greeks that leaves our country. We are now building the pre-requisites necessary for them to return – economic recovery, a new state, etc.”
He told Nikoloutsou there is a chance “to build a new Western Greece, which is important for the economic development of Greece,” and praised Patras, with its port and productive environs, as Greece's gateway to Europe.
Providing an overview of the recovery package, he responded to a question about pushback from Northern Europe by saying a key part of the argument of countries like Greece is noting that the North benefits disproportionately from the European Single Market, and will thus gain much from supporting economic development in the south. He illustrated his point by saying the EU is like a game of `the prisoners' dilemma' – member nations can either cooperate and share the benefits with or abandon the others and also suffer.
Regarding Turkey's recent provocations, he said the EU is angry Erdogan's attempts to weaponize refugees and has burned bridges with his Aghia Sophia declarations. Schinas suggests the EU has a greater appreciation of Greece as the ramparts of European stability in an unstable region.
THE NEW GREECE BEGINS IN 2021?
Yianna Angelopoulou-Daskalaki on live streaming spoke of the great role Western Greece will play in Greek bicentennial celebrations in 2021 and is excited about reprising the success of the 2004 Olympics volunteer program, noting “6000 have signed up from all over Greece.”
The RGC – the Region of Western Greece was co-organizer in 2020 – was founded by Theodoros Louloudis, publisher of the newspaper Peloponnesos. He told TNH – appreciating its own history and 1915 establishment – that “in five days our newspaper completes 134 years of continuous daily publication.” He said – again echoing the ethos of TNH – “we believe the role of our newspaper, in addition to reporting news, is to contribute in every way to the progress and development of the community and the region.” He said that because the central government often ignores the regions, the purpose of the RGC is to give voice to their neglected needs and great potential.
The event, well organized by professional and friendly staff and volunteers, was held at the picturesque Achaia Claus winery outside of Patras, which features a 19th century villa graced with spectacular views of surrounding valleys and the Gulf of Patras supplemented by modern conference facilities.
The RGC was organized with social distancing considerations. The gala dinner, receptions, and other events were held outdoors. People in the conference halls were separated by empty seats, and there were disinfectant dispensers throughout the facilities.