SUCCESS FOR GREECE EQUALS SUCCESS FOR EUROPE
Event: Economic Conference on Greece
Location: Four Seasons Hotel, London
Speech Date: 04/12/02
Speaker: Baroness Symons
Ministers, my Lord Mayor, Ambassadors, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to be here today, at this conference on Greece, a country which I have visited several times in various ministerial roles and one in which I have always been made very welcome. And, of course, Greece is the country that will hold the next Presidency of the European Union. May I thank the British Hellenic Chamber for organising this important event.
The theme of this conference is 'partnerships and investment opportunities' so I am pleased to see so many people from both the British and Greek business communities here. I want to talk this morning about why it is so important that Britain and Greece continue to work together, bilaterally and through the EU, to increase prosperity and promote opportunity not just in our own countries, but across Europe, and the world.
Trade is vitally important to both our countries: the UK is Greece's 4th largest supplier of goods after Germany, Italy and France. Trade between the UK and Greece in 2000 showed UK exports at £1.2 billion and imports at £434 million.
But there is more to our economic relationship than figures of imports and exports. There is a long and impressive history of commercial and cultural ties between our two countries: Greek students attend British universities in large numbers, and many British people visit Greece each year for business and pleasure.
This means that there is a movement between our two countries, not just of capital and goods but also of people, ideas and technology. This promotes innovation and contributes to the competitiveness of both our economies. And this is essential if our two countries are going to prosper in a rapidly changing world.
RELATIONS WITH THE EU
A vital part of this partnership is, of course, our relationship within the EU. In just over 500 days time, the EU of 15 - as it now stands - could well be an EU of 25. The challenges of this enlargement are obvious for all to see - the benefits have the potential to transform the economic climate of the whole continent. Geographically, historically, economically we're part of Europe. More than half of British trade is with Europe. Trading with Europe is in our national interest. Our jobs, our prosperity depend on it.
As you know Greece is about to take up the Presidency of the EU. The Convention will indeed be important and we look forward to the publication of the report from the working group. We have also been working hard together to increase prosperity and promote opportunity. We have developed an excellent dialogue on the key issues of the Lisbon Agenda, including labour market reforms, environmental improvement, innovation and research, competition and better regulation, and developing a single market for financial services. These are matters of crucial importance for us all. Europe's unemployment has always been too high - stuck at 8% against 3% in the US. And subsequently, our productivity has always been around 40% below America's. This is not good enough. It is an issue which Europe as a whole is determined to tackle.
Lisbon 2000 has set the challenge - raise EU productivity and employment levels to the US within ten years. This is an ambitious plan - but it has been signed up to by all the Heads of Government across Europe. We must meet the challenge.
The IT agenda is also vitally important, as is e-business, e-commerce and e-Government. In October, my Ministerial colleague at the DTI, Melanie Johnson visited Athens to take part in a bilateral conference on consumer issues, better regulation and competitiveness agendas. Last month, Nigel Griffiths, our Minister for Small Business, made his second visit this year to Athens to carry forward discussions on the SME sector. Great progress has been made under the MOU since Patricia Hewitt and Akis Tsohatzopoulos, signed it almost exactly a year ago, on 19 November.
We were delighted the Lord Mayor visited Athens last week with a high-level delegation, to discuss the Financial Services Directive and other issues of concern to the UK financial sector. Later today Mr Christodoulakis, from whom you have just heard, will be meeting the Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown, which I am sure will go well.
THE TRADE AGENDA
The UK Government is committed to opening up new markets overseas, and reducing trade barriers. Internationally, we are working hard to ensure that the free trade agenda provides increased opportunity and prosperity for all. It is in all our interests to liberalise the global trading community.
We will of course all be looking for some concrete results at the next Ministerial Conference in Cancun in September 2003, to help keep the work programme approved at Doha on track. Some tough decisions still lie ahead. And it is easy when bad times hit and domestic pressures build for Governments to turn towards protectionism. It is easy to give in to these pressures, to batten down the hatches, to retreat to apparent safety, and wait for the good times to return. But history has shown us that this doesn't work. That was the painful lesson of the 1930s, when raising tariffs intensified the Depression, compounding the misery for businesses and working people. Clearly, unplanned, unsequenced liberalisation can have damaging effects. There are risks in opening up certain markets too fast. But when markets open in a sequenced, properly regulated way foreign investment is a force for good.
Cancun will be vital to take forward our agenda - the one we settled on at Doha - which committed us to phasing out the subsidies that distort trade. Many countries use subsidies - the U.S., Japan and the EU. So we in the EU have some tough decisions in relation to the Mid Term Review of the Common Agricultural Policy.
Partnerships with Greece are not just at an inter-governmental level. There are many at the inter-business level which are just as significant.
Firstly, the UK is at the forefront of those grasping the opportunities offered by the Internet. We have the largest e-commerce market in Europe and are fast closing the gap with the USA. We intend to have all our government services available electronically by 2005, and we have created 2000 UK Online centres for the public to use.
Thanks to competition between the telephone and cable networks, we now have one of the most competitive broadband prices in the world, and approximately 30,000 broadband connections a month now being sold. Last month, we celebrated the one-millionth broadband connection in the UK.
Next May the Greek Presidency intends to hold a ministerial conference in Athens on 'E-Government beyond Borders'. This would be primarily aimed at South East European countries, to exchange experience on how governments can develop online information and services for citizens and businesses. This is a very forward-thinking project.
The UK can offer its strong support to Greece in taking forward initiatives like this, delivering the best of the successful e-Europe strategy to achieve growth and sustainable employment.
Perhaps I can turn to another point of mutual interest - Public Private Partnerships. Public Private Partnerships are another area of expertise in the UK. Our two countries have been cooperating in this very important field for several years. I welcome this and the big strides the Greek government are making in developing both the expertise and the necessary legislation.
As a world leader in Public Private Partnerships the UK has hundreds of projects, either completed or in train, and UK construction companies, consultants, banks and law firms have accumulated vast and varied experience which I know they are willing to share with Greek businesses.
The same goes for privatisation. We have long experience of this, and UK banks have accumulated a great deal of expertise in the management of individual privatisations. We have already been involved both directly and indirectly in Greece's important privatisation programme over recent years and I hope that UK business will continue to be involved in the future.
Today's seminar is also about Investment. I know, from the positive messages I have had from the Greek government, that Greece is interested in welcoming UK investors, especially where they can provide jobs and development in areas of high unemployment. And there are certainly plenty of UK companies willing to invest in Greece. But the conditions must be right and free from unnecessary state control and regulation - clearly for business to take that decision it must be attractive. Businesses invest overseas when regulatory regime is straightforward and when there are few legal burdens on them - especially the smaller investor. That again is why our WTO agenda on transparency in investment and competition is so important.
THE 2004 OLYMPIC GAMES
Last, but by no means least, let me turn to the event that must be in the forefront of many people's minds in Greece at present - the 2004 Olympic games.
I am very pleased to see that the last hour or so of this morning's programme will concentrate on this event. We are conscious of how proud Greece is to have been awarded the games. And I am well aware of the importance Greece places on ensuring that when these Games 'come home' they will be a resounding success.
The Games are a marvellous opportunity for competitors from all over the world to come together in the pursuit of a single goal. They are also a great opportunity for businesses from all over the world, from the largest multinational right down to the smaller, but equally important SME.
As we all know, the Games involve not only major construction projects but also ticketing operations, media centres, catering, accommodation, health care and security and much else.
It goes without saying that there are many UK companies with expertise in a number of these areas, and they are keen to partner Greek companies in seeking to win Olympic business. I hope that this event will help bring the companies together to do business.
Success for Greece equals success for Europe.
So there are many ways we are working together. This conference, I'm sure, will help us forge even closer ties. I look forward to continuing working with you - as we look to promote prosperity and opportunity for all of our citizens.