Monday, June 2, 2014

Paving Paradise: Austerity, Pristine Beaches and the Greek Fire Sale

by Nomad

Critics to proposed Greek legislation opening up beach development worry that in an effort to abide by harsh austerity measure, the Mediterranean nation will be selling off its greatest treasure, its untouched coasts. 

Teacher and chemist Irini Chassiotou, writing for a European environmental news portal, GreenFudge, describes how the Greek economic crisis has been used an pretext to undermine environmental protections and to open up areas to commercial exploitation.. 

The target? The country’s unspoiled beaches and 13,676 kilometres (8,498 mi) of coastline. On the surface, legislation proposed by the government was aimed at reducing bureaucracy and increasing investments. 

However, critics- and there are many- say the proposed  coastal development law  will "destroy the natural coastal environment, discourage investors and eventually sending away tourists."
The prospective legislation was put to public consultation and prompted a strong reaction from the Greek people. Opposition comes from those who are simply afraid of their country being sold out to foreigners and losing their right to enjoy the sea without paying, to the scientific community who sees the whole situation from its own perspective and understands the problems that would arise if the private sector were allowed to act uncontrolled. Over 131,000 people have so far signed an online petition in a campaign started by Avaaz.
The Greek parliament has already voted for the concession of beach and shore use and rights, the use and exploitation of port projects or the expansion of port facilities in Article 14 of the Memorandum. The concession is for a period of up to 50 years, according to a joint decision of the Ministers of Economy and Regional Development, Competitiveness and Shipping.

On 13.05.2014, the Ministry of Finance announced the completion of the public consultation on the legislation entitled “Definition, management and protection of shores and beaches”, prompting violent reactions to erupt inside and outside of Greece as the government tries to clarify the basic objectives of the law and reassure those concerned.
The Ministry of Finance has tried its best to put a good spin on the legislation assuring the public that the laws would simplify lengthy and bureaucratic procedures while at the same time, allow more effective business development of Greece's natural asset.

Observant critics note that the introductory part of the public consultation reveals the primary motive:
“The economic importance of the coastal zone is huge and is needed to release the great potential for economic growth which it provides.”
Protecting and Free Access
The opponents to the law listed the various ways the law would endanger pristine Greek coastlines and lakes:
  • Removes the limits on the area for concessions and beach and shore use and allows the total control of beaches by business holdings. 
  • Legitimizes business use and abuse without consideration or significant environmental impact assessment. 
  • Removes the communal nature of the shore and gives the right to “decide the shared portion of the property occupied by the beach zone” to the discretion of the property owner. 
  • Leaves the riparian zone and many large lakes, which are characterized as “small” and most of which are valuable ecological resources, outside of legislative protection. 
  • Makes optional the dredging of beaches, which leads to the serious degradation of the demarcation of zone protection and detection of irregularities and abuses. 
  • Ignores the recent national law on biodiversity, which requires the designation and protection of “critical coastal zones”.
They also point out that this legislation states that within the licensed area archaeological sites, monuments, historical sites or environmentally protected areas, landscapes of outstanding natural beauty or fragile ecosystems may be included in the development scheme.

The only requirement, according to the critics, is the consent of the ministry. Apparently the local governments and the district authorities, (indeed the various communities which would be directly affected by the changes), are not involved anywhere in the process of concession.

Another objection to the legislation which particularly has Greeks fuming is the law's failure to guarantee access to the shore. The law..
... attempts to privatize by law the part of the beach in front of each hotel, without ensuring the protection of the marine and coastal environment. Depending on the discretion of the Secretary General of the Decentralized Administration, the right to establish permanent structures is granted to individuals. Everyone who has the means can build on the beach and exclude free access to the public.
Blocking public access has been illegal until now.The very idea of that someday, they might be expected to pay to the privilege of swimming at a beach is unthinkable in Greece.  
Free access to the sea and to the beach is, to every Greek, firmly a part of the culture going back several millennium.
The sea and the shore, they say, belong to all. It is the government's job to protect it, not to sell it to the highest bidder. 
*   *   *
To Greeks, the legislation smacks of a massive sell-out of the nation to special interests in Europe and abroad. The Greek government which, they note, is supposed to be in charge of protecting natural resources for the public good is basically auctioning them off for the sake of paying off its debts.  

The subject was so controversial (meaning politically damaging) that the debate over the bill was postponed, until after the European elections which were held on May 25. One source reports:
Interior Minister Dimitris Stamatis said “the Prime Minister wants the debate to be exhaustive and meaningful, in order to cover all aspects of the issue. He also requested that the government be informed of the result and conclusions of the public consultation, after the European elections, so that it can shape its final position.
 Greeks have more than enough reason not to trust their politicians.

The Great Austerity Fire Sale
Back in March 2010, when Greece was facing its most difficult days of austerity,  two right-wing German politicians suggested in an interview that Greece needed to consider a national fire sale.

Josef Schlarmann, a senior member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, and Frank Schaeffler, a finance policy expert in the Free Democrats, created a storm of outrage in Greece by advising the sale of uninhabited islands under state ownership,  and also historic public buildings like The Acropolis and the Parthenon and art works, such as ancient sculptures.
“The Greek state must sell stakes in companies and also assets such as, for example, unpopulated islands.”
When the interview reached the ears of the locals, the reaction was both swift and predictably incensed. The Greek government publicly did not think much of the idea. Greece's deputy foreign minister, Dimitris Droutsas told reporters:
"Suggestions like this are not appropriate at this time."
He made it perfectly clear. He told German TV station ARD TV that the government wouldn’t consider such a suggestion. Another spokesperson said:
The far-fetched suggestion that Greece would consider selling off islands “driven by the inability of the state to develop basic infrastructure, or police most of its islands” is both incorrect and offensive.
The public was understandably enraged and threatened a boycott of German-made products.  Comparisons to the Nazi occupation of Greece during the World War were commonplace. 
One elderly man who marched in protest to the news told an interviewer,
"The pressure the Germans are putting us under is outrageous....When we were carving beautiful statues like the Venus de Milos they were living in caves and growling like dogs."
If however the Greeks felt that the German suggestion was "null and void" they were in for a rude shock.

High Stakes
With unemployment exceeding 27 percent overall (and 65 percent — for people younger than 25) the economy is in a bottomless pit. 
Its debt burden remains unsustainable, as all European creditors agree. 

Climbing out is going to require some tough decisions. 

In 2012, only two years after the insensitive German remarks, the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaris made a surprise announcement in a French journal. He was ready to consider the idea of selling off islands, after all. 
The national Greek tourism organisation states that there are 6,000 islands and islets in the Greek archipelago. Of these, only 227 are inhabited which means that the rest are potentially up for grabs.
That abrupt turn-around shouldn't have surprised cynical Greeks who have learned to be extremely pragmatic since the economic meltdown began.
In this case, the stakes are simply too high for anybody to trust any politician's promises.

The privatization scheme of public assets- one of the key austerity measures- has not been the success that officials had hoped for. Only last August, the chairman of the government privatization agency, Stelios Stavridis, was forced to step down. It was revealed that he had hitched a jet ride with a Greek oil magnate who was also involved in the bidding for the one of the prime assets to be sold. 

The main left-wing opposition party, Syriza called the privatization scheme “the biggest sell-off of state wealth that Europe has seen since the era of East Germany.”

For proud Greeks the whole idea of subjecting the beaches to commercial exploitation is repulsive.  Without its natural resources, without his history and culture, they say, what does a nation have left? 

The loss of the treasures of Greece, historical and natural, goes beyond questions of national debt. It raises the question of the definition of national sovereignty in the European Union. 
Some in Greece are asking whether the nation is really ready to  forfeit its very soul in the name of European membership?