A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

Power to the people

The issue of renewable energy in Greece has run into the same set of obstacles that prevent the country from solving old problems and from preparing for the challenges of the future: intractable bureaucracy, government indifference and public suspicion. Greece, with its abundant sun, wind and water power, could be a leader in the use of clean, renewable energy. Instead, it is the most heavily dependant on oil and gas imports of all EU member states. The reasons are many, but perhaps the most decisive one is that people at the grassroots level have not understood the benefits of harnessing their country’s innate energy-producing capabilities for their personal gain.

This indifference does not come cheap. Last Tuesday, the Public Power Corporation announced that despite two tariff hikes and a 13.2 percent increase in sales to 5.82 billion euros in 2008, the company showed a loss of 305.9 million euros last year. This is the result of 53 percent of revenues going toward paying for fuel imports, for energy purchases and for CO2 emissions trading. The country’s biggest company is dependant on oil and gas imports – with their great price fluctuations – or on locally mined lignite, whose use forces PPC to make hugely expensive payments. As PPC President and Managing Director Takis Athanassopoulos noted, if it weren’t for the fuel and energy import prices and the CO2 emissions, the company would have shown a 400-million-euro profit. In addition, PPC shares dropped 7 percent over the past six months and has seen its long-term credit rating drop. None of this is good for taxpayers, who will be called on to foot the bill sooner or later.

And if consumers are unable to see the benefits of the country’s freeing itself from the grip of imported and domestic “fossil fuels,” one would expect government – at the national but also at the local level – to be making every effort to promote the use of renewable energy sources. So far, however, Greece is a long way off from its target of meeting 18 percent of its total energy needs with renewable sources by 2020. The target figure implies that 35 percent of electricity production will come from renewable sources. This figure now stands at 10 percent, most of which is from hydroelectric projects and not from new sources.

A major reason for the slow adoption of renewable sources is the paper chase that investors must embark on to get permits from state departments which are either ignorant or at odds with each other. Then there is the corruption that slips in whenever such confusion of laws and responsibilities stands in the way of investments. Billions of euros in investments planned by local and foreign investors remain untapped, thanks to bureaucracy, lack of interest and corruption.

The government must simplify procedures for investments and educate a public that likes to profess its environmental sensitivities but would rather live with current problems than commit itself to solutions. The production of energy through renewable sources will pick up only when municipal and provincial authorities realize that they can improve their finances and provide for their citizens by taking an active interest in producing energy at the local level. This will lead to wiser waste management (through the use of biomass as fuel, for example), an increase in local government revenues through the production of energy that will go into the national grid, and citizens’ understanding that they have a direct, personal stake in energy production through renewable sources. Only if people understand the direct benefits to their pockets and their quality of life, will they force the change that too few people seem interested in seeing.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009