By Nick Malkoutzis
A group of foreign parliamentarians of Greek descent wants to help Greece recover from its debt crisis by creating an annual event to bring together leading businessmen and thinkers, similar to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
More than 200 MPs from around the world are members of the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association (WHIA), which concluded its general assembly in Athens on Saturday.
The group, which adopted a motion calling on “the forces of Hellenism all over the world to unite in this time of need and demonstrate solidarity with Greece” and on Greeks abroad to “help and support Greece to improve its economy” will now begin efforts to initiate a Davos-style event in Greece.
The World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos has become a key moment on the global political and economic calendar, drawing dozens of leaders in their fields. WHIA President John Pandazopoulos, an MP for the state of Victoria in Australia, believes that something similar would be of great benefit to Greece.
“It’s a lot of work to go and bring some of the Greek thinkers, try to find sponsors and benefactors, not asking the Greek state for any support, but if you can do this on an annual basis, I think it will have a very valuable outcome,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.
“Greece learned a lot from other cultures in the ancient world,” said Pandazopoulos, a former minister for employment and tourism. “They took what was there and improved on it, perfected it. But now, there’s a sense that Greece is closed, certainly in respect to its officialdom, to ideas from outside.”
WHIA has members in 26 countries and its president accepts that Greeks abroad have not always adopted a constructive approach to helping Greece deal with its economic crisis.
“We have had a tendency to think we know best because we can throw the dollars about, but we need to move on from that. Let’s try and be part of the change process.”
Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German MEP who has been very active in recent months in trying to ensure there is a balanced debate in Germany about the Greek crisis, told Kathimerini English Edition that the Diaspora needs to help Greece make the most of what it has to offer.
“Greece has a potential abroad that it does not realize sometimes,” he said. We don’t see anyone in Greece trying to make something of this dynamic. We have taken a decision to help through our network of politicians and intellectuals of Greek origin. We want to create something like the Greek Davos.
“We plan to bring together businessmen, experts, intellectuals and politicians of Greek origins as well as friends of Greece to discuss the issues.”
Pandazopoulos and Chatzimarkakis feel the time is right for opening up this channel of communication not only because Greece needs help but also because they were encouraged by the positive response from Greek MPs to this year’s four-day WHIA general assembly. Both pointed out that in the past Greek politicians had a rather dismissive attitude to the organization’s meetings.
“This is the 8th WHIA meeting and we have never had so many Greek MPs show a genuine willingness to take part,” said Chatzimarkakis. “This time, we had an open and honest discussion, which was something new.
“Despite the fact that we were open and systematic in our criticism, the MPs responded. This suggests that Greek politicians are willing to accept a way of thinking that is beyond what they’re used to. This is significant.”
Some 70 Greek lawmakers took part in the workshops that WHIA organized last week, ranging from topics such as foreign policy to the economy.
“The view from our members was that this was the first time that they genuinely felt that politicians from the Greek side were interested in engaging in ideas,” said Pandazopoulos. “There is openness and we want to encourage more of it.”
Pandazopoulos said the group also decided to embark on campaigns to get the Diaspora, estimated to number between 3 and 7 million people, to support Greece’s economy by promoting travel to Greece and by buying Greek products.
“Greek food importers, Greek media, Greek restaurateurs and coffee shop owners, and the Greek community all need to change their culture to increase the amount of products of Greek origin that are available.”
However, the Australian MP points out that producers in Greece also need to adopt a different approach and the structure of the economy needs to be transformed if the campaign is going to succeed.
“Greece needs to develop an export-based culture,” he said. “That helps move small manufacturing and small agricultural production to a larger base. These can be strengths for Greece but they haven’t been structured to support large-scale international trade with places where there are large Greek communities.
“Look at China: their diasporas open up markets for Chinese goods but in many parts of the world where there are Greeks, it’s hard to get Greek products.
“It’s partly to do with the way the economy is structured here: you have inefficient agricultural cooperatives, people don’t speak foreign languages, they don’t understand the concept of a market. They expect the government to help but producers have to work out how to create economies of scale and find markets they can supply,” said Pandazopoulos.
With a recent survey indicating that seven out of 10 young Greeks are considering leaving the country, Pandazopoulos believes that short-term emigration could actually benefit Greece by creating new markets for local products.
“I don’t think that migration from Greece is a bad thing,” he said “In Australia, when we had our big recession 20 years ago, everyone thought the brain drain was disastrous. But we all started realizing after a while was that these guys are our eyes and ears in the global market.”
Whether it is exporting a greater amount of goods, drawing in more tourists, tapping into the resources of the Diaspora or opening up new channels of communication, the WHIA president is adamant that Greece needs to seize the opportunity that has been created by its debt crisis to transform its fortunes. His message for his parents’ homeland is “Reduce the mourning process, be determined, explain the story and try to build trust.”
“It’s hard to do but you don’t start building some broad consensus until you start doing these things. In a crisis, tap into the goodwill, not the pain.”