Fostering Greek-German cooperation on a local level
By Yiannis Palaiologos
Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, Germany’s federal deputy labor minister who has been appointed by Chancellor Angela Merkel as a special envoy to promote Greek-German cooperation on a local administration level, is not your usual politician. He won’t grab your upper arm as he shakes your hand or stare into your eyes to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world at that moment. Quite the opposite. During an interview last week -- which came after a meeting between Fuchtel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras along with Interior Minister Evripidis Stylianidis -- the German envoy dispensed with the niceties and was ready to get straight down to the nuts and bolts.
The first thing Fuchtel did was introduce his team -- specialists in tourism, health services, waste management etc -- before going into detail regarding the actions being planned, mainly by the Germans, in the context of the Greek-German Network of Municipalities and Regions.
Fuchtel was by no means handpicked by Merkel for the job of providing know-how to local authorities in Greece on the merit of his rhetorical skills. He was selected because he is methodical and focused on his mission, and can succinctly present the different areas of possible Greek-German cooperation, as well as the tools that are available to make these initiatives happen.
On the subject of the meeting with Samaras and Stylianidis -- his main contact from the Greek side -- Fuchtel said, “The prime minister appeared enthusiastic about the response at the local authority level.”
One of the main areas of cooperation between the German experts and Greek local authorities is tourism, starting with a successful three-day conference organized by the network in Kavala, northern Greece, in May to present “The New Face of Tourism.”
“We expected 120 people to turn up in Kavala but ended up with 280,” Fuchtel said. “I saw a lot of people with the inclination and motivation to turn to innovative tourism services.”
One example of tangible progress at the conference was a meeting between the mayor of Paranesti in Rhodope, northern Greece, and a representative from a German national park, who informed the former on strategies for the sustainable management of the Paranesti forest and attracting more tourism.
Fuchtel also mentioned new targeted research being carried out by a German university specialized in tourism, based in Schleswig-Holstein, in cooperation with the Advanced School of Tourism Professions in Rhodes and the University of the Aegean on the expectations that German tourists have of Greece.
“The data to be collected will record the stance of German tourists. This will give local authorities evidence of new alternative tourism products with long-term growth potential,” Fuchtel said.
One of the factors that weighs heavily on Greek tourism, and on the quality of life in Greece overall, is the authorities’ inability to modernize their waste-management systems. In fact a recent study by the European Commission ranks Greece last among the EU’s 27 nations in terms of effective waste disposal.
Fuchtel is well aware of the problem and cited as one of many examples the “mountain of trash” that has built up on the Cycladic island of Naxos. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic.
“The exchange of know-how can be especially useful in this area,” Fuchtel said. “In Germany, we have been experimenting with different [waste disposal] methods for the past 30 years. With the experienced we have amassed, we can help others avoid making the same mistakes we did and directly adopt the latest technologies. Waste in Greece today costs a lot of money, butgh in Germany we have found ways to make money out of it. That could happen here too.”
Greece, according to Fuchtel, also needs a new energy model based on energy-saving strategies and Renewable Energy Sources (RES), which would have both cost-saving and environmental benefits. Energy is another of the key areas in which the Greek-German network of local authorities are cooperating closely, even though there has been a lot of resistance to the establishment of wind parks.
“We had the same experience in Germany,” Fuchtel explained. “Many regional authorities were initially against the idea, but later they realized that they had to change their way of thinking.”
However, Fuchtel stressed that detailed studies need to be carried out before any such project gets off the ground so that the gains made by such an investment remain in the area. One way to achieve this, according to the German envoy, is forming a consortium of many local investors to bankroll the project rather than having one large company undertake the entire project and reap all the gains.
When asked what the biggest obstacles to realizing investments on a local and regional level in Greece are, Fuchtel was cagey about answering, obviously not wanting to provide ammunition to critics who say that he is interfering in the country’s domestic affairs.
However, he did say that he has “seen municipalities that have good management, both in terms of finances and in their potential for investments. I have also seen municipalities that have a lot of ground to cover before they can realize any investment programs. In these cases there are always excuses to justify the delays.”
Fuchtel was also upbeat about the Kallikratis scheme, which saw the merger of hundreds of municipalities around the country into bigger units and a more centralized regional management.
“With this reform, and by limiting the number of municipalities, a more specific and specialized job can be done, and the decision-making process can also be sped up,” he said.
Fuchtel’s appointment as a special envoy to Greece was immediately seen by Greek opposition parties as a German provocation. Every one of his visits to the country is accompanied by criticism from certain politicians that Germany is trampling on Greek sovereignty etc. Given also the reluctance of other high-ranking German politicians to visit the country, Fuchtel often finds himself the target of general public displeasure at the cuts and reforms being imposed by Athens’s foreign creditors.
How does he deal with the backlash?
“I try to prove my point through my actions,” Fuchtel said. “I believe that, ultimately, even my harshest critics will recognize that the path I have chosen is the wisest one.”
The German official also said that he has only met with open animosity twice during his many visits to Greece. The first time was on Crete last July, when a small protests was “overblown by the media,” and the second was on the day of our interview, when police and other security personnel held a large rally in central Athens.
As far as the barbs fired at him by politicians are concerned, Fuchtel said that he sees them as part of the political game. “It is one thing for deputies to express their misgivings toward me from the podium in Parliament, but it would be a lot more honest if they expressed these misgivings in a face-to-face meeting.”
Kathimerini also asked Fuchtel whether he had a hard time convincing German officials to help Greece and whether Germans in general were tired of dealing with the debt-wracked Southern European country, citing a recent report in the Financial Times suggesting that just one in four Germans believes that Greece should remain in the eurozone.
“I never expected to find so much willingness and such an inclination toward cooperation,” Fuchtel said, adding: “Greek-German relations date far back and have a strong foundation. Don’t forget that 2 million Germans visit Greece every year, 300,000 Greeks live in Germany and 35,000 Germans live permanently in Greece. The bonds are very strong. Greece belongs in the eurozone, just as Germany does. The duty of a friend is to help their weaker friends in a crisis.”