Luncheon Meeting at Arkle Manor on April 2nd 2014
Members gathered at this new venue for our regular luncheon meeting. The occasion was to mark the Greek presidency of the European Union and we were delighted to welcome Nicolaos Argyros, Minister Plenipotentiary and Deputy Head of Mission, and Mrs Georgia Soultanopoulou, Counselor, from the Greek Embassy. Other guests from outside the branch who were welcomed were Petros Fassoulas, chairman of the Movement , and John Bassendine, Chairman of the West Kent branch.
Ian Stewart writes: Mr Argyros, supported by Ms Soultanopoulou, outlined the main issues facing the Greek Presidency, flavoured with remarks about the specific challenges facing Greece itself. Europe is in transition, with lePresidency’s vels of recession, unemployment and austere fiscal policies threatening social cohesion in many countries of the EU and particularly those directly affected by the Eurozone crisis. As a result, the confidence of a substantial number of EU citizens in the ability of EU institutions to make changes for the better had been shaken. The biggest challenges of the EU at this moment are to foster growth, competitiveness and employment, thereby ensuring stability and prosperity for all. For this to succeed, the EU has to reaffirm its mission in the hearts and minds of its citizens. All of this together with further integration of the Economic and Monetary Union comprise the framework of priorities for the Hellenic Presidency, along with ensuring participation to the European Parliament elections.
Three principles underlined the activities:
1) Enhancing civil society’s engagement with the EU, ie policies directly responding to citizens’ everyday problems and concerns, with the goal of ensuring the EU evolved into a community of shared values and common destiny for all its citizens while preserving and strengthening the European social and economic model
2) Deepening the Union and especially the Economic and Monetary Union while respecting the Single Market through a procedure open to non-Eurozone member states
3) Reinforcing EU democratic legitimacy and accountability, improving links between member states and incrementally increasing European democracy and civil rights
From the Presidency perspective, jobs and growth were structurally linked, especially in those countries with high levels of recession and youth unemployment. Boosting job creation was essential to avert the danger of ‘jobless growth’. At the same time, the Presidency had the second objective of fiscal consolidation with a view to increasing cohesion among European societies. A return to sustainable public finances could be achieved through the better implementation of the Compact for Growth and Jobs and improving the access of small and medium enterprises to finance by prioritising the implementation of the European Investment Bank-European Commission Investment Plan. It would be beneficial to focus on those areas of high growth potential and job creation such as transport, shipping and tourism. The interim evaluation of the ‘Europe 2020 Strategy’ which began at the recent spring 2014 European Council offers the context and opportunity for concrete initiatives.
Mr Argyros summarised various technical issues around the further integration of the Eurozone including the promotion of the banking union by the adoption of the Single Resolution Mechanism Regulation which was agreed with the European Parliament one day before the European Council meeting on 20-21 March 2014.
Greece is one of those countries on Europe’s external border which bears a disproportionate burden from increased migration flows while at the same time being heavily affected by recession and unemployment. The Hellenic Presidency was therefore concentrating efforts on highlighting the positive aspects of a comprehensive migration management policy on boosting growth while tackling problems from illegal migration.
In addition to measures tackling growth and jobs, greater integration, and migration described above, the Presidency aimed to build on Greece’s maritime tradition to ensure that the economic potential for the EU of the sea and of marine activities was built across its other priorities. One objective was to redefine and re-launch the EU Maritime Policy building on work done in other Presidencies, especially that of Cyprus which included the Limassol Declaration, and to combine it with a European Maritime Security Strategy with the aim of having a text on Maritime Policies adopted at the June 2014 European Council. This would include both security and growth, energy, and also aspects of environmental protection, planning and coastal management, maritime transport and a specific EU strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian region; this last item was a priority for the Hellenic Presidency and a Stakeholder Conference would be organised to promote it.
Questions (Q) and Answers (A)
Q Given the Eurosceptic press in the UK, and the lack of interest amongst so many voters in engaging with the detail of the EU, what simple message could we give the public that would cause them to think more rationally about the EU?
A ‘ Europe, Our Common Quest’ is the slogan of the Greek Presidency along with its focus on development, job creation and social cohesion. With a single market of 500 million and the strong bargaining position that gave the EU, it made sense for the UK to be a central player in Brussels. Even though not part of the Eurozone, the UK was affected by it and by the Banking Union, for example. Much better to be involved than stand on the sidelines, in order to promote growth and job creation
Q Greece was seen as a ‘difficult case’ in the EU, so what measures were being taken to make things easier?
A Funding for SMEs was crucial and the investment environment in Greece had been improved. Now on 5th year of Greek adjustment programme and to the surprise of many a surplus of 1.3 billion Euros had been registered in 2013. But that didn’t automatically create jobs and unemployment stood at 27% with 57% of youth out of work. Red tape had been reduced to ease the creation of new businesses, and moves were afoot to increase privatisation and regulate professions which might cause an increase in unemployment in the short term but would be ultimately beneficial. The Banking Union also gave confidence to the business community
Q EU is a rational construct but the public is irrational. Where is the personality in the European Union?
A All EU decisions require compromise and those chosen to lead are not necessarily charismatic but rather able to work diplomatically and achieve consensus among national governments. That may be the reason for a lack of excitement but there is hope that new personalities would improve the image
Q In discussing the Marine Strategy there was no mention of fishing. Are there plans to control fishing more carefully?
A Fishing is part of the overall Marine Strategy. The EU Commissioner for Fishing is Greek and she has succeeded in improving the regulation of fishing, having to cope with strong pressure from the fishing industry against further regulation
Comment: People often vote on something they know little about. If there were one message for those otherwise ignorant of the EU it should be that the EU has brought peace to the continent. Mr Argyros agreed and pointed out that the UK’s central position of importance in the financial world required that this country should have a seat where decisions are taken otherwise it would be affected by the result without having influence. In trade agreements, the UK would have more clout in achieving a good deal as part of the EU
Q How will export growth be achieved given the reduction in manufacturing in so many countries including Greece?
A EU-US trade agreement has great potential and experts are working hard to achieve it despite many obstacles including protectionist policies of some US States. The agreement is backed by President Obama and the EU
Q What is the Greek view on the UK’s wish to renegotiate its terms with the EU?
A The UK is not clear about what it wishes to renegotiate, although some options have been cited, e.g. in Justice and Home Affairs. This is a delicate issue, but the EU wants the UK to be central and engaged in the EU. If the UK were to achieve opt-outs in Justice and Home Affairs, these would have to be carefully handled and Greece has offered to facilitate a procedure to ensure no gap between old and new arrangements. But that said, the rest of the EU would not tolerate the UK cherry picking what it wished to renegotiate and what it did not.
Warm thanks expressed to both Nicolaos Argyros and Georgia Soultanopoulou for their time and for their frank, constructive views on the EU from the point of view of this Presidency. On our part, apologies for the background noise which seemed unavoidable.