Prime Minister Costas Simitis placed emphasis on what the government has done for Greece’s regions outside Athens in his speech to Thessaloniki businessmen on Saturday night. Simitis was speaking to a rather skeptical audience, given that the prevailing mood in Greece’s second largest city is that it is an «also ran» compared to Athens. «At this moment, projects with a total budget of 3.82 billion euros are being implemented in Thessaloniki,» Simitis said, mentioning, among other things: roadwork such as the Egnatia Highway, the eastern Thessaloniki ring road; the upgrading of Macedonia Airport; the project that will bring fresh water from the Aliakmon River; the upgrading of Thessaloniki’s port; as well as the Thessaloniki metro, a project tendered in 1993, in which the contract signed with the winning bidder was only recently voided. Simitis added that winning the EXPO 2008 international exhibition «is among the government’s top priorities.» Many people in Thessaloniki view the staging of the international exhibition as an opportunity to complete projects that would be delayed for years, much like the preparation for the 2004 Olympics sped up projects in Athens. Achievements These announcements and promises, however, took a backseat to Simitis’s speech at the opening of the Thessaloniki International Fair on Friday evening, during which he outlined his government’s priorities for the period 2004-2008. That period, Simitis said, will be one during which Greece will strive to converge with the economies of its EU partners. Not that it will achieve full convergence by 2008, but «success will depend on the efforts made» during this period. Simitis recited the achievements of his policy, which, according to him, were, «a resumption of high growth,» much higher than the average European growth. Simitis mentioned especially that farmers’ income grew 14 percent between 1999 and 2002. «We managed to preserve subsidies to farmers, to continue the Common Agricultural Policy until 2013 and exempt 90 percent of producers from changes in the subsidy system,» Simitis said. Farmers are one of the groups specifically targeted for aid in the package of measures announced by the government last week. Simitis placed special emphasis on helping the poorest in his speech, citing examples from initiatives in health and social security. He also mentioned the many infrastructure projects going ahead, or already completed. Simitis insisted that Greeks’ income has risen substantially during his tenure. «According to Eurostat data, Greece is in 10th place in disposable income, ahead of countries such as Ireland and Spain… The increase in prosperity is a reality for all Greeks. spreading prosperity to all and continually increasing peoples’ buying power are inseparable from the idea of development,» Simitis said. It was clear that the speech was an appeal to voters, especially lower-income ones, to support the government in the coming elections. It was also a reply to those who have said the government has not done enough to increase prosperity. The mention of Ireland, often offered by Simitis’s critics as an example of what Greece ought to do in the field of economic policy, was telling. «For us, social protection – pensions, health, education, the fight against unemployment, social policy – are not merely redistribution mechanisms but also a means of achieving growth,» Simitis said, responding to his left-wing critics. Convergence Charter Simitis mentioned a «Real Convergence Charter,» which he will present «in a few days’ time» and which will «reveal sources of added growth for the next few years.» He rebutted the assumption that growth would decline after the Olympics and the end of the EU’s Community Support Framework Program in 2006. The charter would show the way to greater competitiveness, higher growth, job creation, the rise in research and development and greater concern for the environment, Simitis said.