If you read the West European newspapers, you might get the impression that in recent years Greece has become the black sheep of the European Union.
Not entirely without justification, I should add, having in mind the somewhat eccentric methods of creative accounting that in consequence brought the Greek economy to its knees. But from a Bulgarian standpoint, Greece looks quite different from it does from London, Brussels and Berlin.
First of all, it is a neighbour – and will always remain one. Then it is the preferred destination for tens of thousands of Bulgarians seeking seasonal or permanent work. Then it is top of the list of holiday, especially maritime, getaways. Bulgarians flock to Greece in their thousands whenever there is one of those longer timeoff spells that the Bulgarian government likes to grant, and as a matter of fact an increasing number say they much prefer Chalkidiki and the Olympian Riviera to Sozopol and Sunny Beach.
In the early 1990s, when Bulgaria reeled in the dire reality of Post-Communism, Greek businesses saw opportunities – and were quick to seize them. They invested heavily in anything from telecommunications and supermarkets, to banking and the media. As we ramble the grounds of the splendid Greek Embassy in Central Sofia with Greece's ambassador to Bulgaria, Demosthenis Stoidis – who came here after a serious diplomatic career in Italy, France, Belgium and Serbia – I cannot help but recollect those salad days when Greece, which is entirely south of Bulgaria, was West; and Bulgaria, which is north of Greece, was East. Is Bulgaria still a good place for Greek investors? What are the negatives and what are the positives?
Greek companies have contributed to the creation of approximately 50,000 direct jobs and to the overall development of the Bulgarian economy. Despite the crisis, Greece maintained in 2013 the third position in the overall rankings with total investments close to 2.8 billion euros. Regarding bilateral trade relations, it is noteworthy that despite the international economic downturn the Greek-Bulgarian trade volume continued to increase in 2013, by 0.6 percent. It is impressive that in 2009-2012 the bilateral trade volume increased by almost 43 percent, from 2.0 billion to 2.9 billion euros. For Bulgaria, Greece is the sixth most important trade partner, while at the same time Bulgaria is the fourth biggest importer of Greek goods worldwide and the 10th biggest exporter to Greece.
The stable political and market environment, the prudent fiscal policy, the strong banking system where 25 percent of all banks are Greek and the skilled workforce are some of the positive factors for entrepreneurs to choose to invest in Bulgaria. Additionally, the authorities work hard to reduce problems that can discourage future investors such as bureaucracy and backlogs in the judicial system that hamper the swift administration of justice.
We have seen a rise of euroscepticism in Greece and a similar trend in Bulgaria. Are there any common causes and what are the consequences?
It is true that euroscepticism has risen as a phenomenon principally during the past few years, mainly as a result of the financial crisis that affected most of the European countries. It doesn’t concern only Bulgaria and Greece which during the past four-five years has been through an unprecedented economic crisis.
One of the main reasons for the upsurge of euroscepticism in European societies is the lack of immediate and effective handling by the relevant institutions of important problems. These are some of the problems that the Greek Presidency of the EU put forward as its main priorities, based on its own experience: unemployment, policies for boosting growth, banking monitoring, union and fiscal coordination, immigration and so on. These are problems that cannot be addressed on a national level but demand common decisions, new institutions, cooperation and solidarity. The stake of the forthcoming elections is how we can work together for a better and more effective Europe and not to be entrenched to our national boundaries through counterproductive euroscepticism.
Is Greece prepared for the 2014 tourism season? What should visitors to Greece know before setting out?
Tourism is the heavy industry of our country. It is one of the main sources of state revenue.
In fact, 2013 proved to be a record year for the Greek tourism, with a double-digit rate of increase both in arrivals reaching about 17.9 million, and revenues, which exceeded 12 billion euros. Forecasts by the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises show that as many as 18.5 million tourists are expected to visit Greece in 2014, estimating the revenues at 13 billion euros.
This year, too, Greece will welcome its numerous visitors with competitive prices and high-quality services, adjusting to the needs of modern travellers. All the tourists, including our friends from Bulgaria, should know that they can enjoy the unique diversity offered by Greece’s natural landscape, combined with the historical, cultural and religious richness, in a secure and hospitable environment.
What are the current developments concerning Greece’s economy?
Against all odds and forecasts, thanks to the sacrifices of the vast majority of the Greek people, Greece’s economy produced a primary surplus, returning to the bond markets with success, something that about three-four years ago was out of question. For 2014, a small but positive growth of 0.6 percent is forecast. Greece today is holding the Presidency of the European Council and has already contributed to positive results related to the priorities that had been set, as for instance the banking union, immigration and maritime strategy.
What is your impression about Bulgaria so far? If a Greek friend came to visit you what three places would you recommend to see?
During the short period since I took up my duties in Bulgaria I have very positive impressions about its people and natural environment. Sofia is without question a very interesting city that a visitor to Bulgaria should explore. Its museums and monuments coexist in harmony with the nice parks. The architecture of many buildings especially in Sofia’s centre is impressive. Two other cities that I had the chance to visit so far and I would recommend without hesitation to a visitor: Veliko Turnovo and Plovdiv. Of course, there are many other beautiful places in Bulgaria with rich history and traditions that I hope to have the chance to visit during the next years of my stay here.