A no-win situation

Isn’t it high time we stopped kidding ourselves? Isn’t it time we decided whether we want investors in this country or not? Somehow, everyone appears in favor of investment in a vague, generalized manner but never of any specific kind. Whenever someone tries to begin some kind of investment somewhere, someone else argues against it because the place is of «exceptional beauty» or has some archaeological significance. Other than that, for every investment plan there are arguments against it that cite particularities in the area where the investment is to take place; everyone seems to want the short-term benefits of investment without having to deal with the potential long-term effects. Greece’s record of foreign direct investment is dismal. In fact, the World Bank in 2009 ranked Greece No 109 as an investment destination, behind Ethiopia. The process of just setting up a business involves 15 different procedures and 169 days. We put this delay down to that nebulous concept of the «system,» blame everything on bureaucracy and then wash our hands of the problem. There are two factors that present obstacles to investment. One is the bureaucracy we have inherited from past administrations, a series of protocols and processes that once had reason to exist but now simply remain to justify certain positions of employment. The legal framework, meanwhile, is a minefield that can blow any potential investment to pieces and the mines normally go off when the system is not being appropriately greased. The second set of obstacles to investment come from society itself. Sometimes these hurdles are sound (such as demands for environmental impact studies to be carried out before any major construction project), while others are simply ideological and have no reasonable premise. For example, a few days ago, Parliament’s environmental committee published a series of suggestions for the renovation of the so-called historic center of Athens. Among these proposals is one to transform a number of large abandoned buildings into student housing. The committee president, Costas Kartalis, argued that they were looking for a way to use these buildings without turning them into commercial real estate. First off, this statement shows how out of touch the committee is with reality. The state will have to sell something eventually if it wants to raise some cash to pay its employees’ wages. Selling off some of the state’s sprawl of property to private investors is one way to go. Secondly, what is the problem with real estate? In theory, student housing is a good idea but when was the last time any of the members of the committee visited a residence hall and witnessed its sorry state? Private initiative in the center of Athens would provide the city with a breath of fresh air; after all, we have seen what happens when it is left in the hands of the state. The lack of investment in Greece is a profoundly ideological problem. We may sing its praises but deep down we don’t want it and will use any excuse to justify our aversion. What good can yet another piece of legislation on streamlining investment procedures be when investments with permits that have already been issued (albeit with the usual Greek delay) have become backlogged because of the environmental or revolutionary sensibilities of local residents, certain populist politicians or even certain members of the press? Even if the process were to be made faster, you can bet that the first reaction would be that it no longer allows enough time to assess the long-term impact of any investment project.

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