Thessaloniki’s bid succumbs to superior powers

PARIS – Thessaloniki’s bid to stage World Expo 2008 sank in the waters of the River Seine on Thursday night. The representatives of 94 member states of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) who met in Paris voted by secret ballot to assign this prestigious event to the Spanish city of Saragossa, whose bid was based on the theme of water and sustainable development. Thessaloniki was eliminated from the first round, coming third with just 12 votes behind Italy’s Trieste, which garnered 35. Despite initial favorable comments after a visit by a BIE examination committee, which found Thessaloniki’s proposal on the attractive theme of «Terra Mater» (Mother Earth) – focusing on farming and nutrition – clearly better prepared than those of its competitors, the Greek city failed to convince. Its pluses of relevant infrastructure and considerable experience in the organization of such events also failed to bolster its case. It seems, as the Greek ministers who attended the BIE session argued afterward, that the criteria that won the delegates over were more related to the interests of the governments they represented. In fact, it does not appear far from the truth to say that the winner was not decided in Paris on Thursday but in the last two to three years in Africa, SE Asia and South America, where the other two competing countries’ diplomats put their influence to effective use. Saragossa came to Paris assured of the support of Spanish-speaking nations and a list of 105 powerful sponsors, where the multinational clothing retailer Zara figured prominently. Additionally, on the eve of the event, King Juan Carlos was said to have appealed to fellow royals to apply their influence in favor of Spain and President Jacques Chirac expressed his support for the Spanish candidacy. Italy also tapped to a maximum its international influence, buttressed by its membership of the G8 and development aid granted to more than 60 BIE member countries to win supporters for the Trieste bid, based on the theme of the transmission of knowledge. PM Silvio Berlusconi promised at least one fashion show to each member country in SE Asia. To be sure, Greece did not hold back either, particularly over the last few months. PM Costas Karamanlis missed no opportunity in his meetings with foreign leaders to argue in favor of the Thessaloniki bid and wrote letters to 72 counterparts. Greek ministers also traveled around the globe arguing the case of a thorough bid. That is not to say that the Saragossa and Trieste bids lagged considerably behind Thessaloniki’s. They were also impressive and adequately argued. But they had immensely more powerful backing.