The National Competitiveness Council, which includes government, industry, commerce and union representatives, met yesterday under inauspicious circumstances, as the largest daily rise of oil prices (about $2 per barrel) heightened fears of inflationary pressure and an economic slowdown. The government was represented by Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas and his deputies Giorgos Salagoudis and Yiannis Papathanassiou, Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis, Tourism Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos and his deputy Anastassios Liaskos. Sioufas said that Greece faced a competitiveness lag, not only with its old European Union members, but also with most of the 10 newcomers which joined the EU on May 1. He blamed the previous Socialist government, which was deposed in March, for the lagging competitiveness and announced a 16-point program to improve competitiveness. «This is the government’s main challenge for the period 2004-2008,» Sioufas said. The actions around which the effort to improve the economy’s competitiveness will revolve are the following: – A more effective management of EU funds available through the Third Community Support Framework (CSFIII) and a boost to the Public Investment Program. – A drastic reduction in budget deficits and the public debt. – Adapting the education system to modern needs. – Boosting exports. – A simple and transparent legal framework for businesses. – A radically different tax system and a new law providing incentives for investments. – An assessment of all government actions and their effect on competitiveness. – Deregulation of markets. – Incentives for young entrepreneurs. – Encouraging research and development, as well as innovation. – Taking advantage of the country’s relative advantages in transport, especially shipping, and tourism. – Shifting funds into the Operational Program for Competitiveness under CSFIII. – Mapping of all domestic sectors and markets. – Changes in regulations regarding starting businesses and ownership transfer; emphasis on a drastic reduction in required permits and delays in getting them and securing approval. – Promoting entrepreneurship in agriculture. – Making local government partners in entrepreneurship and competitiveness. Alogoskoufis in turn emphasized the need to promote competitiveness and assured all participants that the government is willing to face the challenge and resolve all problems. Alogoskoufis referred to the tax reform he is preparing, saying that it aims at a «stable, simple, transparent and reliable tax system.» He also mentioned the new development law that will provide serious incentives to investors without falling foul of EU regulations, as the previous government’s law, voted early this year, did. Avramopoulos criticized the previous government for not paying enough attention to the tourism sector, which, he said, could become a big weapon in the effort for higher growth and competitiveness. Odysseas Kyriakopoulos, chairman of the Federation of Greek Industries, said the Greek economy had strengths, not just weaknesses, and these should be pointed out in the council’s next annual report. Christos Polyzogopoulos, president of the Greek Confederation of Greek Labor, said he would support the 16 action points mentioned by Sioufas.