Greece risks being sidelined on European network funds

BRUSSELS – Greece appears in direct danger of being left on the sidelines of major inter-European transport and energy networks projected to begin in the next few years; the list of projects released by the European Commission yesterday includes none of Greek interest that is not already in a phase of construction or completion. Inter-European networks – a broad plan that mainly includes projects for railway and port facilities, links for power and natural gas grids, and programs for developing advanced technology – currently comprise the most ambitious European development plan. A short list of the most important projects, for which the various preparations have either been already completed are projected to be completed within three years at most, are expected to receive the final green light by the leaders of the 15 member states in the European summit here on December 12-13. The goal is for their construction to begin by 2007, with joint financing from national and Community resources, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the private sector, the participation of which is estimated to reach 40 percent of each project. The list released yesterday includes 56 projects which, besides their maturity in terms of preparations, also fulfill three other criteria: They have an important cross-border dimension, connecting countries and broader regions; important favorable effects on the environment, and a substantial contribution to economic development overall. The Commission estimates the total cost at 62 billion euros. In the transport sector, the list essentially includes just two projects of interest to Greece. One is the highway linking the city of Patras in the Peloponnese with Greece’s northern border via Athens and Thessaloniki (PATHE); this project is already at an advanced construction stage and does not lend itself to additional financing. Missing the train? The other is the ambitious so-called Ionian railway line linking the northwestern port of Igoumenitsa with Ioannina in Epirus and Kalamata in the Peloponnese. From the list, it becomes apparent that the project has just been announced and that no part of it is envisaged to reach construction stage within the timetable for lack of preparations. Indeed, it is expressly stated that the EIB’s involvement «is not envisaged for the time being» and there is no reference to any other Community financing. The list also includes two energy projects of Greek interest: the linking of the Greek and Italian power grids and the pipeline for the transportation of natural gas from Turkey to Italy, which so far exists only on paper. Community officials privately expressed the view that the Greek government had better mobilize its agencies in the period remaining before next month’s summit so that Prime Minister Costas Simitis can provide categorical assurance that the country will be fully ready to commence construction of the Ionian railway by 2007, when the list will be finalized with approved funding. They argue that this may be difficult but not impossible to achieve: France and Italy, they point out, found a preliminary list to be wanting last month and ensured that yesterday’s included their major projects of interest.