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Greece says EU’s China concerns must not harm its economic interests

The deputy prime minister of Greece has warned that European Union suspicion of China is in danger of becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy” while reaffirming his country’s support for Beijing’s controversial “Belt and Road Initiative”.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post in Athens on Monday, Yannis Dragasakis said he hoped logic would prevail in the EU’s relationship with the world’s second-largest economy.

“We would like to see the EU having good relations with China,” he said.

“Seriously, we should start [the discussion about China] from the opposite end, which is, what are the needs and problems that we can work on with China?”

Dragasakis was speaking ahead of the annual summit between the EU and China in Brussels on Wednesday, which this year will take place against a backdrop of suspicion among some EU countries over Beijing’s political and commercial ambitions in the region.

Europe has been divided over whether to work with China’s enormous belt and road plan, which aims to link China by sea and land with southeast and central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network along the lines of the old Silk Road.

Washington has criticised the scheme as a “vanity project”, and the EU looks set to refer to China as a “strategic rival”, with some European leaders fearing Beijing’s diplomatic manoeuvres could derail unity among member states.

Last month Italy, which is grappling with its third recession in a decade, became the first G7 nation to join the belt and road programme, in a bid to boost exports and upgrade its port facilities.

Last year Greece – ranked second lowest in economic competitiveness within the EU by the World Economic Forum in 2018 – signed up to the scheme, after years of relying on China to help it through its own financial crisis.

Chinese state-owned shipping company Cosco bought a 51 per cent stake in Pireaus Port, Greece’s most important infrastructure hub in 2016 with an option to buy another 16 per cent after five years.

China aims to make the port the “dragon head” of its belt and road programme, serving as a gateway for its cargo to Europe and North Africa.

With its warming relationship with Beijing, Athens has, at times, departed from EU positions on China.

In 2016, Greece helped stop the EU from issuing a unified statement against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. The following year, Athens stopped the bloc from condemning China’s human rights record. Days later, it opposed tougher screening on China’s investments in Europe.

Dragasakis was clear that the EU should not devise any policies that may hinder Greece’s ability to revive its economy.

“Greece badly needs investment. We hope logic will prevail at the end of the day, which means we should take advantage of all opportunities and build on these prospects to further our collaboration,” he said.

“Greece will keep following a multidimensional policy, an inclusive policy, without excluding anyone.”

Dragasakis hit back at France and Germany for treating China as a geopolitical rival, while simultaneously signing up to trade agreements with Beijing.

Days before receiving Chinese President Xi Jinping in France last month, President Emmanuel Macron declared that the “time of European naivety” towards China was over – a remark the Greek deputy prime minister described as “interesting” during the interview.

“It’s so interesting, yes. Mr Macron, despite his statement, actually signed very large-scale agreements with China,” he said, adding: “Germany, the same”.

Macron invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to his meeting in Paris with Xi, where the four sought to reassure each other over economic cooperation between the European trading bloc and China.

Dragasakis said Greece’s relations with China were based on “very solid ground” with the two countries sharing complementary interests, particularly through the belt and road plan.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is understood to be considering joining Foreign Minister George Katrougalos at the belt and road summit in Beijing, which will be hosted by Xi later this month.

More than 40 heads of state are expected to attend the summit, with China’s foreign ministry recently saying that Europe had started to see the value of the scheme.

If confirmed, Tsipras’ presence at the summit will be interpreted as an attempt by Greece to consolidate Chinese support in the wake of Italy’s joining of the scheme.

He will also need to mend ties with Beijing, following a recent decision by Greece’s archaeological body to block a plan by Cosco to upgrade facilities at the Piraeus port, throwing the future of the multimillion euro privatisation deal into uncertainty.

Dragasakis said there were strong prospects for the future relationship between Greece and China because of the two countries’ reciprocal interest.

Relations with other Asian countries, while not yet as close as Greek ties with China, would continue to be developed, he said.
Dragasakis said Athens would not adopt discriminatory policies against any country as it looked to shore up foreign investments to boost its economy.

India, for instance, has set its sights on Greece as a potential business partner, with President Ram Nath Kovind becoming its first titular head of state to visit Greece last year.

“Relations with India are lagging behind – they are not at the same level as with China, but of course we are mulling further developments with India,” Dragasakis said, adding that Greece would also work more closely with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.
Source: South China Morning Post

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