Greece’s pursuit of “sustainable growth” cannot be achieved by one political leader, so all democratic political forces should set aside their ideological differences and form an alliance, Konstantinos Michalos, President of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
“The main political parties, excluding the far-right Golden Dawn which has no political respect, should find ways to align and cooperate on major issues such as economy, national health, education and foreign policy,” Michalos said.
Michalos, who is also Deputy President of the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Eurochambres), said Greek political parties should have a programme so that the next four years won’t be interrupted by calls “almost on an everyday basis” for early elections, and implement reforms that will help the country enhance true growth.
The political atmosphere in Greece is highly polarised ahead of the EU and local elections in May. Syriza wants to form a “progressive” coalition government together with left-wing forces while New Democracy claims it seeks an absolute majority but also eyes allies in the centre-left camp.
The centre-left parties, the socialist Movement of Change and Potami, seem divided over the stance they will take before and after the election.
Referring to the Thessaloniki International Fair, a landmark annual international exhibition where political leaders present their priorities, he said this year it was the first time that he noticed a kind of convergence between leftist Syriza (GUE-NGL) and right-wing New Democracy party (EPP).
“Both Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke on the reduction of the business taxation, the reduction of the property tax and the social insurance contributions,” he said.
“They should get together and form a government alliance for the good of the country and then following the return to sustainable growth we have plenty of time for ideological differences and electoral battles,” Michalos said, adding it’s almost sure that this will be the scenario at the end of the day.
Michalos insisted that the collaboration should take place now and not after the next election. If in the next national election no majority government is formed, then another vote should be held with a new analogical electoral system in place, which could result in 8-9 parties entering the parliament.
“Then, we will need spirit of coalition and the decision will be made under stress. Today they have the luxury to be able to reach such a solution,” Michalos said.
‘Current New Democracy leadership expelled me’
Michalos used to be a member of the political body of New Democracy party, something that is provided by the statute of the party for the President of the Central Union of Chambers.
But last June, current leader Mitsotakis expelled him due to his positive statements on the Eurogroup debt deal reached by the current leftist government as well as his calls for political stability in the country.
Michalos said back then the decision was undemocratic. “The one who is affected is Mr Mitsotakis himself, who apparently thinks that anyone who expresses different opinions from him is his enemy.”
“My expulsion came from the current leadership. This in no way affects my identity as a social-liberal person and it does not affect my feelings toward the general movement of New Democracy as well as the people and the members of the parliamentary group,” Michalos told EURACTIV.
New Democracy leadership was also disturbed by the positive statement made by Michalos on the name deal change recently reached between Athens and Skopje. Mitsotakis opposes the deal and vows to block it in the Greek parliament.
“The issue that has been hanging over for 24 years and the non-solution has resulted in 140 countries calling the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the Republic of Macedonia […] we need to find a solution provided that we rule out territorial claims as well as the national identity that history itself dictates is safeguarded,” Michalos said.
“It’s an in-between solution that provides incentives for both sides. It will show that Greece is the main power in the Balkan region and the business community in Greece will have tremendous opportunities in enlarging the business opportunities not only in FYROM but in the wider area,” he added.
Michalos acknowledged that there are strong nationalistic voices but urged for realism.
“We have to realise that we are not re-naming a country that does not have a name today. They have had it for years and it has been exactly the one Greeks or most Greeks did not want.”
EU elections: Artists, footballers…
Regarding the next EU elections he said they posed a “tremendous challenge” because of the strengthening of the populist and nationalistic vote as a result of the crisis.
“We risk electing people who are not part of the European vision, of the socialist or liberal area.”
He said the EU elections were considered as “lax” procedures and not always the right people become MEPs.
“In Greece, because of the recognisability of candidates, you only have journalists, artists, athletes, footballers entering into the political field and you are expecting from these people to be able to represent the interests of your country. It’s very difficult if not impossible.”
He, therefore, defended the lists, meaning that candidates should be pre-selected by the leadership of the party and be put in a priority list.
“We need people who know how to move in the heavily bureaucratic systems of Brussels but still achieve results.”
The Greek economy
Referring to the economic situation, the Greek business chief said the government took some first steps in the right direction following the official exit from the “austerity plan” last August.
He particularly named the government’s decision to gradually reduce business taxation, property tax and national insurance payments.
“The property tax has affected low-income property owners. We hope the economy will perform in a growth manner and in 2019 will allow the government to make further reductions for the other income classes in Greece.”
Regarding the national insurance payments, he said they have always been a major problem for the Greek economy, which has second highest ones in the EU after Estonia.
“This will alleviate weight for a number of professional classes,” he said.
The opposition parties said these measures were “political favors” ahead of the elections next year.
“I would not classify them as political favors because 2019 will be an election year. On the contrary, these are measures and policies that enhance growth. They are not political favors as other political parties in Greece are saying.”
The banking sector
Michalos insisted, though, that more reforms are needed especially when it comes to the acceleration of privatization programme and emphasised the “serious problems” of the banking sector.
“What raises serious questions is that we have had three re-capitalisations of the banking system over the last 4-5 years and one could not have thought that the banking system would be as fragile as it is today.”
The reason for that, according to Michalos, are the non-performing loans (NPLs), 41% of which are not attainable.
He said this was a major obstacle for banks to be able to operate on a day-to-day basis and be able to supply the necessary liquidity the business community requires.
“Even international banking officials point out that it’s an impossible task. What would be possible would be around 20-22% of the NPLs. The Greek financial system needs a central bad bank.”
“This bank obviously is not permissible under the EU law, but we need to find bypasses and still be able to create such an institution to pass all these non-performing loans so that the banks that have been re-capitalised to be able to operate,” he noted.
He said Greece had technically delivered its obligations under the bailout but healthy SMEs cannot raise the necessary financing in order to be able to perform direct and indirect investments in the country.
“This is something that should concern Eurozone as a whole, considering that we have time bombs, Italy for instance.”
He said that if Italy’s case does not have a happy end, then the pressure on the euro and interest rates would enlarge even further Greece’s spread.
“I do hope there’ll be a solution in the next 2 months, I’m convinced that Mr Draghi fully comprehends the situation and a solution must be found as soon as possible.”