Method vs impulsive efficiency

Born and raised in northern Greece, where he has represented the border district of Pella for the last 15 years, Giorgos Paschalidis, one would say, has found himself in rather unfamiliar waters as merchant marine minister, a post he assumed last July. He has been nicknamed the ruling PASOK party’s «Suslov» – after the Soviet theoretician of the Cold War era. Not surprisingly, in this interview he stresses that nothing is done properly without the coupling of theory and practice. What can a minister do in the few months remaining before the general elections? One has to be realistic. We are in the midst of a shipping policy program for the 2000-2004 period and, while dealing with the current multiplicity of issues, I have to monitor the results and propose the steps for the next four years. All that the Greek EU presidency put forward in the first half of the year for a viable, safe and qualitative merchant shipping policy must acquire clear characteristics in an era of increasing deregulation, in a global economy more demanding and competitive. What Greek shipping needs is a holistic system, with indices of quality, safety, consistency, competitiveness, employment, training and environmental protection. You have a reputation as a «theoretician» but are in charge of a ministry that is «practical» par excellence. What needs to change – if anything? The method. We need both theory and practice, in other words, a new method. Let me note that there is no useful practice without solid theory. Unfortunately, since the founding of modern Greece, we have developed a mythology of impulsive efficiency. Usually, we first produce the results and then attempt a plan on what has been achieved. We certainly lack an overall plan on the character of the country’s development and each sector separately. In merchant shipping, we need a new systematic approach that will take into account international developments and integrate them into our national planning. What we have achieved so far has been the result of initiatives by daring people who turned Greek shipping into an international business. We have one of the world’s strongest fleets, certainly the biggest in Europe. But attracting vessels to the Greek flag has an economic dimension besides the sentimental. We must realize that we are a global shipping power and that our shipping currency earnings will exceed 9 billion euros in 2003. We need to maintain this leading role and plan a method for the permanent modernization of our shipping industry. To this end, we are seeking the cooperation of shipowners and seamen in the National Shipping Policy Council. It is certain that your predecessors arrived at this post with the best of intentions but did not get much further. What are your priorities? By year-end, we shall have completed the dialogue with employers and unions, as well as with the European Union and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The new institutional requirements for quality, safety and environmental protection also prescribe our obligations for adaptation with specific timetables. The new international commercial ship and port safety code (ISPS) is due to come into effect on July 1, 2004, and the one for passenger vessels a year later. In the last EU transport ministers’ council, we worked out a more flexible arrangement for passenger ships, based on relative risk, whereby safety measures will be introduced gradually until July 1, 2007. On issues of environmental protection, I set out Greece’s permanent position that shipping needs international rules that are currently adequately described in the MARPOL and UNCLOS treaties, which must be respected by Community legislation. I put it to both EU Commission Vice President Loyola de Palacio and the new IMO General Secretary Efthymios Mitropoulos that stricter measures for environmental protection must not assume the character of an unchecked penalization. This would have an adverse effect on our efforts to upgrade the industry and profession and attract more young people to it. As regards the January 1, 2004 deadline for deregulation of coastal shipping, we are introducing presidential decrees on operational improvements for harmonization of the legal framework with EU Regulation 3577. In recent years, your ministry has seemed to develop into one for coastal shipping alone. Have you considered the matter? It is true that coastal shipping and the ports that serve it produce news that frequently monopolizes public interest in the industry. We need a balanced view of the industry as a whole. While acknowledging the contribution of coastal shipping to the country’s communication and economic cohesion, we cannot fail to note the leading role of Greek ocean-going shipping, taking into account all the basic parameters (legal and operational frameworks, taxation, competitiveness, insurance, shipping register, inspections, repairs, training and so on). For all these, the Merchant Marine Ministry is preparing a master plan that will be ready before year-end and will lead to a comprehensive proposal for the industry for the next four years (2004-2008). We are seeking the mobilization of all forces concerned toward a national plan for a modern and strong shipping industry. You have already been acquainted with the problems of the industry. Can you now speak of solutions? My predecessors made many important steps but life produces new problems all the time. The dialogue we have held at the ministry over the last few months has given a balanced airing to the demands of all sides. The merchant marine industry needs shipowners, officers and seamen in complementary roles. Competitiveness acquires content when combined with entrepreneurship, training, employment, quality, safety and environmental protection. For this reason, the government’s proposals are holistic and synthetic. Liberalization is taking place in an orderly manner, taking into account the country’s fragmented island geography and safeguarding public interest. The Greek flag on vessels must maintain an increasingly strong economic base. We need more and better trained officers and seamen on our ships. The students at merchant shipping colleges must stop being the children of a lesser god. We need more resources in the country’s 1,000 big and small ports. In the last 20 years, we have given more attention to the large projects on the mainland. However, Greece is a maritime country and its ports are the nuclei of development for 70 percent of it. The life of hundreds of islands depends on their ports and we must pay greater attention to this from now on. Greek shipping must be gradually supported and articulated in the most distinct and clear manner by political parties and the media. Today, you only look for positive references to it in the small print but find it in the headlines when an accident happens. It is part of our national strategy; it is diplomacy carried out by thousands of ships, shipowners, officers and seamen. It brings us into contact with the entire world, it gives the country authority and confidence. You have asked to meet and confer with your «shadow» opposition counterpart. This is rather usual these days. In the 100 days or so I have been in the post, I have become aware of the need for national consensus in a sector in which Greece is a world leader. Even though different party approaches are necessary, I am targeting the formulation of a national shipping policy. I have asked to meet with the representatives of other political parties in order to brief them on European and international developments on major issues. The responses so far have been positive. In a globalized sector par excellence, we must agree on the stand «think globally, act nationally.» All this may sound rather utopian in the present pre-election juncture but I will still support it as a realistic proposal.