IBNA/Interview: Spirtzis: Infrastructure for the reconstruction of Greece and meeting social needs is a government priority

IBNA/Interview: Spirtzis: Infrastructure for the reconstruction of Greece and meeting social needs is a government priority

“Our priority is infrastructure that serves the productive reconstruction of the country and social needs,” said Christos Spirtzis, Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, in his exclusive interview with the Independent Balkan News Agency.

The Greek minister attacked the previous governments over their infrastructure and transport policy, and expands on the government’s plans to integrate combined transport infrastructures, as rail and freight centers are the key not only for transport but also for attracting and servicing production units.

Minister, is the assumption of the OASTH management by the State a hostile message to investors on behalf of the government? Will the OASTH management remain with the State or do you have other plans?

I think that if investors knew about the contract and the status of the private OASTH they would run away from the country for many reasons.

The first reason is that phenomena such as OASTH are only met in countries where international treaties do not apply, neither do basic rules of commercial law, justice and corporate law and there are no basic control mechanisms. That is, countries countries with totalitarian regimes where some friends of the regime are handed contracts that have nothing to do with foreign or European good practice, just so they can fulfill other purposes.

Allow me to reverse your question. Would you invest in a country where you knew that in the second largest urban center there is a monopolistic private activity, the profits of the shareholders are secured, the shareholders’ profits cost the company, the money invested by the shareholders derives from a state subsidy, the state subsidy is 20 times larger than the investment, the subsidy is also larger than another organization in the same country with a fleet of vehicles three times as large, and its corporate form is not an SA, OE or EPE but an entity that owed money to the entire market, employees, social security funds, the tax office and banks.

If you were an investor would all the above prove to you that this country had clear rules, rule of law, healthy competition and equality? Or would you get the message that this is a “Banana Republic” where some private individuals are not investors or producers or businessmen but they live off the State and are chosen by the political system?

OASTH was the definition of an organization that put out a negative message and damaged the name of the healthy private sector.

This is one of our great differences with ND and Kyriakos Mitsotakis: we are opponents of a state-owned, bloated, monopolistic or oligopolistic private sector and its branches in the political world. This private sector is defended and represented by Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the old political establishment.

We represent the private sector that produces, fights in favor of competition and extroversion, investing and demanding equal rules for all, and seeking peace in the work place.

Ask the most extreme neo-liberal if he would risk investing in a country where he saw situations such as the one at OASTH prevailing.

You ask me if we have a different plan or will OASTH be run by the State. Urban transport is a social service, it’s part of social policy and I don’t anything being public will shock anyone as it is standard practice internationally, especially in urban metropolitan areas.

The completion of the Ionian Avenue and the Aegean Motorway together with Egnatia Avenue form a modern road network that can support the upgrading of the port of Piraeus and help develop transport within Greece. However, border-crossing links remain in poor condition. What are the government’s plans in this area?

Unfortunately, the design of roads was lacking. Both the border interconnections and the connections with large urban centers, ports, industrial and tourist areas were not planned. Our plan provides for the completion of road infrastructures, the completion of the vertical axes of Egnatia in Evros and Xanthi, the road section of Giannena – Kakavia, the connection between Preveza and Agrinio, the connection of Egnatia with the harbor of Thessaloniki and Kavala. Additional road projects that are part of our immediate plans include the expansion of Olympia Avenue (Patras – Pyrgos – Tsakona – Kalo Nero), the VOAK, the road bypassing Chalkida and of course the completion of the whole E65.

In March 2016, at the Greek-Turkish Supreme Cooperation Council, the development of the road and rail link between Ankara, Istanbul, Igoumenitsa, was agreed. At what point are we in the development of this plan?

Transnational agreements state the political will of two countries to further develop economic and productive relations.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, there have been events that have prevented the neighboring country from working more closely with us to implement the agreement.

I believe that in the near future there will be progress in implementing such important projects that really contribute to stabilizing the region and building stable and meaningful relations.

We, for our part, are proceeding either by maturing or by implementing large sections of the railway network in Greece.

The concession of 14 regional airports to Fraport will obviously upgrade the quality of the services provided and support the significant tourist growth. However, what is observed is the “isolation” of Greece from major destinations via direct flights throughout the year, such as Beijing, New York, etc. What does the Ministry intend to remedy this “air blockade”?

“Obviously” is not self-evident. Fraport must immediately upgrade the airports that it desperately wanted and which previous governments committed the country to hand over to the company. At the moment, we have daily complaints from the public about the services provided at these airports and conditions are much worse than before.

While the government has managed to increase tourist activity in our country, it is important that individuals who earn significant profits from Greek tourism respond to needs and provide quality services.

As for the second question, unfortunately this issue is the result of the criminal mistake of selling off the national carrier, Olympic Airlines, but also of a misguided European policy that has landed many European firms in great trouble too. It is now proven that even major European airlines cannot compete with third-party companies. The same applies to major European airports. In summary, we could say that a dogmatic neo-liberal policy, with the alibi of state aid, has led dozens of national air carriers to close or shrink.

The few major European airlines left currently have to compete with companies from third countries that are either directly or indirectly subsidized. The same applies to airports.

We therefore see that the airport of Istanbul is a hub that bypasses the major European airports. I believe that some are falling today in the pit that they themselves dug up and dropped European companies into, and this should be an example for Europe’s general economic policy.

As a country, we will tackle the issue by upgrading our international airports, transforming them from destination airports to transport hubs. Already El. Venizelos, after many years, has been upgraded and acquired such a function and infrastructure which allows airlines to have already started flights through Athens with America as the final destination.

Our policy is to attract investors to our international airports that will in turn attract airlines to use our country either as a base or as a stopover for transatlantic flights.

In any case, as long as the previous dogmatic policy continues, Europe will still be bypassed.

Beyond the Athens – Thessaloniki line, the railway network is fairly downgraded. Will the privatization of TRAINOSE contribute to the creation of a modern railway network in the long run and when do you think this can be achieved?

The privatization of TRAINOSE is not related to the rail network. Not upgrading the rail network was a political choice of previous governments. It is unacceptable that after decades the Patras – Athens – Thessaloniki network has not been completed when complex financing was simpler, while integrated works on signage and automation have been left not functioning, depreciating and being subject to vandalism.

Works to create a complete rail network are a national goal and is amongst our top priorities. We are completing the PATHE railway after decades. What we found in railway projects was stuck projects, abandoned works. No tenders, no funding, no mature studies, no plans and no vision.

When we started talking about the EGNATIA railway we were mocked. Today, large sections have mature studies, some have been auctioned, and the plans for Thessaloniki-Toxotes is progressing.

The agreement with Bulgaria on a joint project linking the Danube with the two ports of the Black Sea, Varna and Burgas, and the three ports of Northern Greece Alexandria, Kavala and Thassos by rail constitutes a large step towards securing financing and implementing the project. This is a project of great importance that changes the map of combined transport and upgrades the two countries.

Moreover, the project of linking Thessaloniki with Bulgaria, which is part of the trans-European networks, as well as the upgrading of the railway link with Serbia, are also under way.

The country’s freight centers are being implemented in a hierarchical and fast-paced manner. At Thriasio, the tender procedure was completed when it had been pending for 15 years and its construction is starting shortly. The tender process for the Thessaloniki Freight Center has begun. Those for Alexandroupoli, Kavala, Volos and Patras and inland hubs that will serve the needs of our own production facilities, such as Larissa, will follow.

I believe that by 2019 PATHE will have been completed, the connection with the port of Patras will have been auctioned and most of the Egnatia railway will be in the final auction phase.

In a few days, Thessaloniki will become the center of politics with the Prime Minister revealing his plan for the future of government policy. Will the strengthening of infrastructure and transport be among government priorities and in which direction?

As I told you previously, it is obvious. I would, however, like to outline the priorities, our direction and objectives.

We have demonstrated that the government’s priority is infrastructure. What infrastructure, though? With what hierarchy? With what funding and with what plan?

The answers to these questions also show the direction of our policy.

Our priority is infrastructure that serves the productive reconstruction of the country and social needs.

Therefore, the completion of combined transport infrastructure, railways and freight centers is key not only for the realization of the transport project, but also for the attraction and servicing of production units. We place in this same context the upgrading of airports and ports of the country and the completion of the main roads, all of which are projects that are necessary in order to support the tourist activity of the country.

Irrigation and geothermal networks can be the competitive advantage of both primary and other activities.

The fixed-track works such as the Metro, Suburban Railway and the Tram Lines are works that improve our quality of life and our urban environment.

And obviously the anti-flooding and land reclamation works are put to tender on a daily basis in order to stop the destruction of our fellow citizens’ efforts and the loss of human lives.

Unfortunately, we do not have the financial resources available that others had. Our efforts focus on implementing the projects that are sustainable in cooperation with the private sector, and the social infrastructure projects using national resources and those of European programs. We are currently in the process of negotiating and approving funding from the European Investment Bank and we are seeing a strong response from the private sector.

If we had the financial resources we had a few years ago, we would not be talking about unemployment or growth. We solve financing issues creatively and we continue.

Alexis Tsipras has a vision, goals and priorities and is monitoring the implementation of these actions on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, for decades the country did not have a national strategic infrastructure plan. It did not even have structures to design and monitor the situation.

Following the major institutional reform adopted in August 2016 for public works and public procurement, there are three major achievements.

The establishment of Strategic Planning Structures; the institutional shielding and implementation of central electronic licensing and control systems; and the drafting of the National Strategic Infrastructure Plan with the widest possible convergence, mainly in society and in the political world.

Our country is emerging from the crisis. Infrastructures make an important contribution to this. The Prime Minister’s vision for fair growth is now on a steady track of implementation./IBNA