ΑΤΗΕΝS – Successive Greek goverments have lauded the sell of of controlling stakes in the major port of Piraeus to the Chinese management company COSCO – which has dramatically improved it – but a lot of locals aren’t happy about it.
“They sold this place to China and Russia,” declares graffiti on the road to the port that’s about a 20-minute drive from Athens, bitterness remaining despite the takeover beginning in 2008 with franchise rights to two terminals.
Then came a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis, the sell-off of state enterprises and COSCO in 2016 effectively taking majority control of the port, to the chagrin of critics despite upgrades making one of Europe’s best.
In a feature, Nikkei Asia noted that the 40-square kilometer (15.44 square mile) complex that includes container termainsl, repair docks and berths for even major cruise ships now has a history going back 2,500 years.
Greece saw Piraeus as a bargaining chip for revenue. China saw it as a gateway into the European Union through one of its southernmost points, although it still requires fixing rail links to the northern border.
Piraeus is a key to China’s Belt and Road, or New Silk Road into the EU although some member states are wary of China having too much influence and the United States warning Greece that’s the case there.
That worry is reflected among some locals in the port that has long been gritty, grimy and even seedy in spots and the New Democracy government, while lauding the port’s privatization, anxious it may have gone too far.
COSCO got a 51 percent stake in 2016 and this October, during the lingering pandemic, increased that to 67 percent, effectively owning an historic Greek port that Greece had let decay before looking for a rescuer.
China’s take is that it has restored glory to the port and that the locals are grateful, happy and content, but many aren’t, the report said, despite its ranking rising sharply in the world in container volume and turning a profit.
COSCO officials said the firm directly employs more than 2,000 people at the port and creates about 10,000 jobs overall. The company pays 3.5 percent of the port’s revenue to local governments.
THE SLICK ROAD
Piraeus shows that the Belt and Road is “not a slogan or tale, but a successful practice and brilliant reality,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said while visiting the port in 2019, the report noted.
But while China created jobs they weren’t good ones, complained Giorgos Gogos, leader of a dockworkers union at Piraeus, who told the news site that some operations use day laborers employed through contractors.
He said they have little or no safety training, with a 24-hour strike called in October after one was fatally struck by a container while working at the port. “COSCO has not lifted the local economy as much as the community hoped,” Gogos said.
Most of the equipment and materials used in COSCO-led construction at terminals 2 and 3 apparently were brought in from China but plans to invest another 294 million euros ($332 million) in 2021 fell short at 100 million euros ($113.16 million.)
A new hotel, mall and other facilities also stalled in the face of opposition from local businesses who didn’t want any competition although those would have drawn more people to the area.
COSCO blames Greece’s notoriously slow and inefficient bureaucracy that every government said it would fix but hasn’t, and the company’s environmental studies haven’t been approved by authorities, another obstacle. Nearby residents have also sought injunctions against more work.
Now Greece is making it more difficult for the Chinese investors it had eagerly sought, blocking from bidding on a power distribution project because of their foreign ownership.
The port sale “was done in a different time when very few countries were interested in investing in Greece,” Adonis Georgiadis, the development and investment minister, told Nikkei in a written statement.
“As the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, underlined recently, we want and we have good relations with China, but they are also strategic competitors,” Georgiadis also said.