I was recently reading about a foreign diplomat who got to know the late Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou very well when he came to Greece for the first time in 1961. The two men were discussing Greece’s economic outlook and the sectors of the economy that offered the best prospects at the time. They focused on the need to extend Greece’s tourism season and attract foreign pensioners to settle in the country. They also talked about local olive oil and, more specifically, about the fact that Greece had been exporting in bulk tons of the product to Italian companies which standardized and repackaged it before selling it in foreign markets at much higher prices.
Fifty-six years later, we are still talking about the same things. I’ve heard at least three candidate prime ministers discuss the Greek olive oil paradox. And I have met with serious investors with plans to lure European pensioners to spend their retirement years in the Greek countryside – but their ambitions are always thwarted by excessive red tape.
Greece’s foot-dragging cannot be justified anymore. We went bankrupt, we were hit by an unprecedented crisis and – at least in theory – we managed to cure many of the weaknesses of the Greek state apparatus. There is plenty of untapped talent and skill out there. Creative Greeks have nothing to envy of their Italian counterparts in terms of marketing or layout. The new generation of producers and hoteliers combine gusto with professionalism – a truly rare blend.
So what’s missing? A basic disadvantage is our apparent allergy to teamwork. You meet three producers or winemakers working in the same area and chances are there is some sort of dispute between them, or they are simply reluctant to enter a business alliance.
The problem is that most Greek businesses are too small to survive on their own out there – and this is a handicap that can only be overcome through synergies. And, of course, professionalism is often put on the back burner for the sake of quick and easy profit. A large part of the private sector would prefer to sell bulk olive oil or wine, operating in a non-transparent gray area.
But 56 years is too long to keep going over the same old issues. Greeks are not naive – in fact, they are very far from it. But they have wasted too much time discussing politics and arguing about nonsense.
Our objective, at the end of the day, should not be to get a slice of an already small cake, but to make that cake bigger.