Environmental issues have become a major headache for the prime minister

When in March 2003 Costas Karamanlis made his bid to rally the New Democracy party ahead of the parliamentary elections that brought him to power, he welcomed Giorgos Souflias back into the ND fold. Souflias certainly could not have imagined then that only a few years later he would be under fire from the rest of his party. With the key portfolio of the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works, and having a close association with the prime minister, Souflias has found himself in the eye of the storm over issues involving the ministry’s environment and public works responsibilities. The destructive wildfires of last summer served as a watershed for the country’s debate on the environment and led the government to declare, in its election campaign last year, that it would set up a separate environment ministry. The fires also focused public attention even more closely on the country’s environmental problems. The public works minister, whether officially or reportedly, sees criticism leveled at him as a personal attack and attributes it to «interest groups» which he does not, however, name. At the same time, he resorts to the help of other «interest groups» which, being aligned with the system of public works contracts, undertake to restore the minister’s public image in view of the presidential election in 2010. Others present Souflias as an interlocutor in possession of an «understanding» with regard to public works or other kinds of economic issues such as the distribution of «pollution credits.» Souflias’s record for the four years he has headed the ministry is characterized by a series of construction projects. Although he himself attacked PASOK over the prevailing system of assigning public works, he delayed abolishing it himself and when he did, it was not in a way that allowed for a redistribution of the benefits. Unionists affiliated to the ruling ND party are asking which firms entered the market and which smaller fish have suddenly grown bigger over the past four years. Public works have admittedly gone ahead, but could prove to be Souflias’s Achilles heel. Since projects to benefit the environment do not have direct, visible effects, the minister has put them on the back burner. The list of failures to implement environmental policy is a long one. They include Greece’s suspension from the Kyoto Protocol over its failures in measuring greenhouse gas emissions, illegal landfills, atmospheric pollution, the lack of waste treatment plants in eastern Attica, water pollution, the destruction of the natural environment and protected areas. There are a total of 40 issues under examination by the European Union. Meanwhile the national zoning plan recently tabled by the ministry in Parliament raises major problems regarding environmental protection and quality of life. Last week Souflias was attacked on two fronts. At a conference on environmental change, President Karolos Papoulias, reflecting public opinion, drew attention to the country’s obligation to fulfill the agreements it had undertaken (such as the Kyoto Protocol) and spoke of the need to «have an autonomous institution for dealing with environmental issues» (i.e. a separate environment ministry). Just a short distance away at the Benaki Museum, an event organized by Kathimerini and SKAI Radio on the national zoning plan had turned into a podium for voices demanding the withdrawal of the plan, which was described as «reeking of concrete.» University faculty members, heads of technical chambers and of the Athens Bar Association as well as opposition representatives criticized the ministry’s rejection of a broad dialogue and claimed that the plan lacked policies to improve the quality of people’s daily lives. A call for improving the plan even came from the head of the parliamentary environment committee, ND deputy Kyriakos Mitsotakis.