Plan for the north

Each year at this time, the government of the time feels the need to address the inhabitants of Greece’s north, to make assurances about its concern for the region, praise its strategic importance and refer to the city of Thessaloniki as the center of the Balkan peninsula. Every premier has stuck to the practice over the previous years but what could make a difference this time is that Costas Karamanlis, the leader of the incumbent conservative administration, did in fact start out his political career in Thessaloniki. Notably, the country’s northern provinces backed him constantly during his time in the opposition. Karamanlis has shown personal interest in the region and as a consequence there is hope that empty slogans could finally give way to more meaningful political initiatives for this vital part of Greece whose role should not be reduced to hosting a weeklong international trade fair once a year. Until the collapse of the socialist governments in the Balkans, northern Greece constituted the West’s final frontier against the communist world. Now the region is a key transit route for economic migrants seeking their way into the EU. Until 1989, a wall obstructed free trade and business activity with our northern neighbors. Now it is a basis for penetrating the markets of the Balkans. The vital economic region of northern Greece does not stop at the border but extends into the Balkans and all the way to the EU. In theory, that is, for in truth, despite pledges made over the past 15 years, successive governments either could not or did not want to inject political momentum into the north that would render the area a decisive factor in developments in the broader area. Naturally, faced with everyday problems, governments in Greece have rarely found any time for mapping out a comprehensive regional strategy – save what is mandated by EU membership. And if a government happens to announce some long-term plan, this is rarely followed by the necessary implementation. Given the failures of the central administration, the much-needed political momentum can only come about by upgrading the Macedonia-Thrace Ministry. This largely neglected institution must be elevated from its prefectural status into a center for the study and promotion of developmental policies for the region. It is unacceptable that the Egnatia Highway is still unfinished when the Attiki Odos was delivered in such a short period of time. Aside from the economic dimension, the government must take steps to safeguard the cultural riches of the region. The University of Thessaloniki is often referred to by the name of the philosopher Aristotle, yet the city hosts no center for studies on Aristotle. Nor are the Vergina treasures any good unless we manage to build a center of Hellenistic studies. Finally, we must not neglect the Byzantine tradition of the region – the umbilical cord for all people of Orthodox faith, regardless of nationality. Northern Greece is mired in inertia, which is not the responsibility of the government alone. Karamanlis has real interest in the region and now he has the power to promote Greece’s north on the political, economic and cultural levels. Otherwise the region will degenerate into a host area for economic migrants, a vast restaurant for Athenian visitors and, once a year, a podium for announcing the policies of the Athens-based economy planners.

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