Greece can ride out the war clouds growing on the horizon and at the same time sustain strong growth by improving its competitiveness and productivity, Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos said yesterday. Calling it the heart of the problem, he said there was an urgent need to boost Greek competitiveness and productivity across the board and with the backing of both consumers and businesses. Greece’s lagging competitiveness has long constituted a major problem which has impeded exports and kept the country’s current account deficit at a high level. A World Economic Forum competitiveness survey last year gave Greece a ranking of 38th, behind most EU countries and even potential EU members such as Estonia, Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania. Tsochadzopoulos said the task is made all the more difficult in view of the increasing probability of US-led military action against Iraq and below-par global growth. Speculation is growing that the US could launch an attack on Iraq once UN nuclear inspectors submit their report at the end of the month. Also, North Korea’s decision to expel UN arms inspectors has added to the tension. While Greece expects 3.8 percent growth this year, the US and the EU are projected to grow by just 2.6 percent and 1.8 percent respectively. To counter these challenges and to secure strong growth in the coming years, Greece needs to mobilize all the production forces in the country to maximize the benefits of EU funds and investments related to the 2004 Olympic Games, Tsochadzopoulos stressed. «We need to be more competitive and productive in manufacturing, services, public services and society. They are key to prosperity and growth,» he said. Consumers could play a crucial role in realizing this goal by being more discriminating in their choices. The government is planning to table legislation in Parliament which will lay the foundation for a strong consumer movement. Tsochadzopoulos said the six-month Greek presidency, which kicked off on Wednesday, will seek to boost competitiveness in four sectors: small and medium-sized enterprises, trade, tourism and technology. It will also focus on opening up markets, in particular the energy and financial services sectors, in line with the EU’s goal of creating a single market for the region. Proposals to deregulate the two sectors have been stalled in the meantime by disagreement between the conflicting interests of national governments. Market deregulation, however, will go hand in hand with consumer protection, Tsochadzopoulos stressed. «Greece’s national goals and the EU’s goals are the same, that is to boost competitiveness, improve markets and at the same time protect consumers,» he said.