A logistics hub? Probably not

The notion that Thessaloniki could become a sort of economic capital for the Balkans has long been entertained by politicians eager to placate its jittery inhabitants who always complain, not without reason, that they are being neglected, especially compared to all-devouring Athens. This idea had been resurrected by the fact that the fall of communism opened once again the trade routes to Thessaloniki’s natural hinterland and the fact that all Balkan countries aspire, now that the post-Communist wars have ended, to join the European Union one day. This latter dream may have to be deferred for some, now that a nervous and uncertain EU is thinking twice about further enlargement. In this sense, Bulgaria and Romania are lucky to have got a commitment by the EU to accept them as its 26th and 27th members, although, as yesterday’s European Commission decision indicated, that entry could be delayed one or two years from its original 2007 timetable. As usual, however, companies are far ahead from politicians where European integration is concerned. «To businesspeople, the United States of Europe already exists,» says Stamatis Andrianopoulos, founder and executive director of Planning SA, a company which pioneered consultancy services in the logistics sector over 15 years ago. Logistics is precisely one sector that would be decisive in Thessaloniki’s transformation as the Balkan economic capital. But years of bureaucratic delays have meant that this was just a dream about to vanish. «The Ancient Greeks portrayed Opportunity as a goddess with long, flowing hair which you had to grasp. We are now seeing the tip of those long hairs rushing by,» Andrianopoulos says. «If we had built the infrastructure, the situation would be different. But we have been saying the same things over the past 10 years. We just talk and make plans,» he adds. In a few years’ time, Greece will have finished rebuilding its north-south highway axis and building the northwest-northeast axis, the much-delayed Egnatia Highway. «This,» says Andrianopoulos,«will make it unnecessary for a company active in the Greek market to build a big logistics warehouse in northern Greece» because products can move anywhere in mainland Greece within a few hours’ time. For the many Greek businesses that are active in the Balkans and want to expand into other neighboring markets, as well as for many other European businesses, Romania increasingly emerges as the more attractive option to become the region’s major logistics hub. It is set to become an EU member; it is geographically closer to countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, but also the Ukraine and Russia; it has much lower corporate taxes; and it has plenty of skilled people. In fact, many European firms, Greeks included, are building warehouses in Romania. Andrianopoulos reminds us that we were used to thinking that Turkey would be Greece’s main logistics rival in the region. The notion now seems positively quaint. Much of the delay can be attributed to the successive governments, but even ministers with the best of intentions have been frustrated by the bureaucratic delays. There have also been astonishing lapses in planning. Egnatia Highway, for example, which will link, among others, the Turkish market with Western Europe (with trucks transferring to ships at the highway’s western end, the port of Igoumenitsa, for the short trip to Italy) does not have a single service point along its route, nor is one planned at the time of writing. This way, trucks can cross the country without a halt, unless they must fill up with gasoline. «Unless we put some kind of tolls, we have not devised a single way to get revenue from this important route,» Andrianopoulos says. Greek politicians have also entertained – and are still entertaining – two other notions: one is that Greece will become a sort of «energy hub» with pipelines crisscrossing it and transporting Russian, Azeri, Iranian and other Caspian-region oil and natural gas, to the West. There is indeed an agreement to build a pipeline to Italy and a connection with Turkey is at a more advanced stage of planning. Another project, the Bourgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline that was supposed to bring Russian oil to the west, bypassing the Bosporus, now looks unlikely to be ever completed. «I am not an expert on pipelines, but,as a logistician, I would think that project impractical: we need to avoid fixed costs and the existence of two intermediate port terminals certainly increases those,» says Andrianopoulos. In any case, Bulgaria never really bought into Russia’s and Greece’s idea to bypass Turkey as a transit point. Now a staunch US supporter, it is less than enthusiastic for the project. On the other hand, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, ardently supported by the US, is up and running. The second idea is that Greece will become a hub to transport Chinese goods. Andrianpoulos is also skeptical on this, unless Greece moves quickly. Chinese interest focuses on Piraeus, Thessaloniki ports There are others, however, who believe that the prospects of China choosing a Greek port as its main Mediterranean operations are good. According to Professor Dimitrios Tsamboulas, the Chinese would prefer Greece over, for example, Italy, «because of the higher level of skills found here and the relatively higher availability of English speakers.» He agrees, though, that «simplifying bureaucratic procedures» is a must for the agreements to go through. The Chinese are mostly interested in the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, especially the latter, which is closest to the Balkan markets. Greek authorities have also been proposing alternatives, but those ports, one on the island of Crete and one in western Greece, lack road connections. Tsamboulas will be one of the keynote speakers in a congress on transport that will be held on Friday and Saturday in Thessaloniki, concurrently with the Second Transport and Logistics exhibition, a four-day event which starts on Friday. «I hope that in this congress we will re-examine Greece’s strategic position,» he says. For his part, Andrianopoulos hopes that the exhibition and the congress will serve as «a final warning bell» for authorities to finally implement the necessary logistics infrastructures. He would also like to see greater participation by Balkan countries. The exhibition and congress take place at the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF) grounds. Opening hours for the public are 2-9 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday through Monday.