The EU commissioner and the minister

The recent clash between Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias (photo left) and European Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas (right), as well as the way the minister handled their differences, is a reflection of the mentality of Souflias himself as well his ministry’s general attitude toward environmental issues. «Every time Mr Dimas visits Greece, he does whatever he can to draw attention to himself and boost his own image by criticizing the work of the ministry and the government,» was Souflias’s surprising statement on January 22. This was seen not only as a criticism of Dimas himself but of his official role. Souflias’s words were reported in Northern Europe, where his name is largely unknown, unlike Dimas, who is generally regarded favorably. ‘Patriotic duty’ The incident was an example of the way the ministry perceives observations made by any Greek who is appointed to an official position in the European Union. The ministry’s view is that a Greek commissioner should protect the Greek environment minister so that any issues that might be awkward for Greece are quietly swept under the rug. No attention is given to the substance of environmental problems – those who raise such issues are reminded of their «patriotic» duty or are reminded of party discipline. Unqualified Environmental issues are seen as being the sole concern of the ministry, whose staff over the past 20 years has not exactly been recruited on the basis of their CVs. As a result, the officials making decisions on important environmental issues are often unqualified to do so, or do not speak foreign languages. They are often just there to carry out orders. The Greek ministry appears to be distancing itself more and more from the mood in Europe, where the environment is becoming an increasingly important concern. It is no coincidence that the two longest-serving ministers in the post – Souflias and PASOK’s Costas Laliotis – systematically avoided going to EU headquarters in Brussels. In response to an observation by the EU commissioner that the Greek minister was the only one of his EU counterparts who did not consult the Commission, Souflias said: «Apart from a visit he made three years ago, (Dimas) has never asked to consult with the ministry leadership even though he often visits Greece. Moreover, on the two or three occasions that I have asked for his help, he ignored me. And I wasn’t intending to ask him for a favor.» Souflias believes it is the commissioner’s duty to visit each of the EU’s 27 ministers on their own turf and also to do them favors – legally, of course. The Greek environment minister, whether Laliotis, Vasso Papandreou or Souflias, does not seek advice and the only person from whom they will accept criticism is the prime minister. Discussion is for the lower ranks. Nor do they want debate, which means inviting representatives of organizations to join a committee, removing annoying people, and then asking for opinions even though they themselves have already made the final decisions. Contractor’s mentality Nor do they want any differing opinions; that is why they react to them with real annoyance, even when these come from the experts. They feel that anyone who criticizes the ministry must have personal motives and goals; there can be no other explanation. Souflias is a very experienced politician, having served in vital sectors such as the economy and political planning. What he can’t get over, despite the efforts of his public relations team, is the mentality of the public works contractor. He will effectively solve the problem of the highway along the Maliakos Gulf because he knows how to. That is also the approach he has taken to the waste treatment plant at Psyttaleia. However, the prevailing attitude to environmental issues is changing. People want something more – not just something more than the political fiestas of the past but more than the outdated political obsessions of the present. This article appeared in the February issue of Kathimerini supplement Eco.