Businesspeople want gov’t to embrace EU reform plan

Local businesspeople, commenting on the plan unveiled earlier this week by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, warned that Greece could fall even further behind its EU partners in terms of competitiveness, efficiency and employment. The Commission’s president’s willingness to launch his term with an ambitious plan has nonetheless created a sense of optimism in business and hope that the government will be forced to make bolder reforms. This optimism, however, is tempered by concerns over the consequences of Greece’s once again missing the boat. Barroso’s priorities on competitiveness and employment make it even more urgent to disengage the state from economic activity and to change its interventionist stance which discourages business initiative and investments. At the same time, this means that the state should make education reform its top priority, encourage research and development in the private sector and help take advantage of technology to create a highly skilled work force that can produce innovative products and services that would have greater demand abroad. To the Commission president and those European leaders that agree with his objectives, these reforms are the only way for Europe to withstand the fierce competition from the United States and several Asian countries, retain investments that will otherwise be diverted to other countries and, therefore, maintain jobs and even reverse their declining trend. We do not yet know the Greek government’s position on the Barroso proposals – at least, it is not yet apparent – though, according to sources, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis had been informed in advance of Barroso’s recommendations and wholeheartedly endorses them. As for Greek businesspeople, they believe that structural reforms, such as the deregulation of the labor market, are more urgent than ever. Soon Greece will feel the impact of competition from EU newcomers the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and others and, in a few years’ time, from its own Balkan neighbors, first Bulgaria and Romania, which are expected to join the EU in 2007, then Croatia, which will likely join in 2009. Tentative steps During the past week, the government made some tentative steps toward facing certain structural problems in the economy, though businesspeople say it is still too hesitant and unsure of its footing. First of all, it reopened the issue of banks’ pension fund deficits in order to find a common acceptable solution. Still, no one can predict the outcome, given the differences among banks. Second, it made an effort to begin a discussion on labor market issues and settle the problem of overtime cost and promote flexible work schedules in certain sectors. Third, it is trying to extend opening hours for stores and make them uniform throughout the country in order to boost retail commerce. Next week, according to sources, Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias will announce specific timetables on public/private partnerships in public projects. This should mobilize the slumbering construction sector. We also await the law on developing Olympics installations.

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