Exports: Old mentality serves as a brake

For centuries, tequila was a humble Mexican drink. Then the Americans took it, made the cocktail Margarita and launched the spirit on its polyethnic career, making some hundreds of millions of export dollars in the process. If some genius were to do the same with ouzo, Greece’s traditional drink would also be making many millions in exports. The example was offered by an expert on Greece’s export prospects, who believes that a dash of corporate inventiveness could improve them. Until then, Greece will be counting the serious economic and social problems that leave the country in last place among European Union member states. The chairman of the Bank of Greece, Nikos Garganas, recently predicted a reduction in exports this year in excess of the 12-percent drop recorded in 2002 compared to 2001. According to National Statistics Service (NSS) data, exports reached $11.5 billion in the golden year of 1996, but were unable to exceed $11 billion in any year after that. In the same period, the imports continued their steady, upward course, reaching $30 billion in 2001. As a result, the prospect of filling up with an army of unemployed – if imports dominate the domestic market – is a distinct possibility. Entry into the eurozone exposed Greece to competition with the powerful, advanced European economy. Moreover, easing trade restrictions with the former eastern bloc has brought into the Western market skilled workers and cheap labor, making for products competitive with Greek ones. At the same time, swift technological advances in the EU have highlighted Greece’s technological backwardness. Greek products are now much more expensive in relation to proffered quality. In this environment, both the State and entrepreneurs show themselves reluctant to part with old attitudes. In a display of unswerving unreliability, the Greek State has never forged an exports policy. Exporters themselves live in the past – when times get difficult, they revert to the role of middleman and import from China. The lack of a national strategy, unused European funds, disorganization, few specialized personnel in state institutions and the absence of economic diplomacy are the basic causes, on the State’s side, for the continuing devaluation of Greek products abroad. The president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Drakoulis Fountoukakos, said that «there is no national strategy, a plan for long-term action which would be the fruit of cooperation between the public and private sector. The result is a multiplicity of laws and formidable procedures for investments abroad.» Ministerial services hardly help matters. A typical example is that of virgin olive oil, Greek agriculture’s leading export. Vassileios Zabounis, publisher of the magazine Elia kai Elaiolado (Olives and Olive Oil) noted: «In 1991, the ministry failed to explain to producers the usefulness of appellations of origin, that it was a marketing mechanism with which a product acquires identity and a brand. Farmers thought it meant high-quality oil.» The result was that small villages with low output that prohibited commercial success «rushed to establish an appellation of origin, while oil-producing areas, well-known in Greece and abroad, were not established as such. Apellations of origin, that is, were applied to a number of unknown villages on Crete but not to Crete itself. «The trade name of Mani,» he added, «was not established by local producers but by a private Austrian standardizer.» While the ministry has set up an office with the aim of the swift, flexible promotion of agricultural products abroad, it supplied them with «a purely cosmetic board and two workers who get by on a shoestring.» Currently, the Third Community Support Framework (CSFIII) is a great opportunity. But the president of both the Panhellenic Exporters Association (PSE) and the Organization for Securing Export Credits (OAEP), Christina Sakellaridi, complained that «announcements of programs are never made. The money is there. But we need to move fast, because time limits are not that elastic.» In theory, the Olympic Games are also a major chance to boost exports. But, as Sakellaridi points out, «if you look at the labels on Olympic products, they say made in China or Taiwan. The counter-argument is that if they were made in Greece, they would cost 10 units as opposed to five. But an agreement could have been reached for part of the work to have been carried out here.» The lack of economic diplomacy is another issue. Trade attaches, who should represent Greece’s economic interests abroad, are under-functioning. By contrast, France has 48 commercial attaches scattered in Greek cities who regularly inform Paris of developments in the Greek market. The Foreign Ministry has tabled a bill that would make them part of the diplomatic corps, but never thought to consult with entrepreneurs of many years’ standing, nor to inform PSE. On the other hand, President of the Hellenic External Trade Organization (OPE) Dimitris Mardas feels opportunities exist for reversing the negative export climate. In today’s market, «technology is cheap and accessible for small businesses.» Greek products «have a comparative advantage with respect to quality and not to price. But we don’t have the corresponding political promotion and sales.» The State alone, he added, cannot «support export efforts. In other states, promotion is carried out by the chambers of commerce, together with prefectural and local administration. The state gives money, if there is any. You know, I’ve always met this mentality. We provide a lot of information on foreign markets and services, at great cost. But the classic question is if we will give money…»