Piraeus port deal intensifies Greece’s unease over China links

The Chinese language-lettered banner hanging over the doorway is without doubt one of the few indicators that Beijing now controls Europe’s fourth-biggest container port.

But this month the Piraeus Port Authority handed an additional 16 per cent of its shares to Cosco, cementing its management by the Chinese language state-backed delivery group, which purchased 51 per cent of the Greek port in August 2016.

The deal has intensified unease within the EU over China’s growing involvement in European infrastructure and met a wall of opposition over environmental and social issues, and China’s unmet funding pledges.

“I need the Chinese language, however I need them to spend money on the correct method,” mentioned Vassilis Kanakakis, president of the Greek shipbuilding and ship-repair contractors’ union. “Keep in Greece however work with us.”

The switch of the extra shares caps 5 years of negotiations that incessantly hung within the steadiness amid pushback by native curiosity teams, Greek paperwork and diplomatic tensions. 

Beneath a preliminary 2016 settlement, Cosco was to obtain the additional shares if it accomplished 11 funding initiatives value about €300m by 2021. The listing included increasing the port’s capability to obtain extra cruise ships and bettering its shipbuilding infrastructure. However most stay incomplete.

China has blamed the delays on Greek paperwork and native opposition. Piraeus residents have launched a sequence of lawsuits, claiming Cosco has didn’t comply with environmental protocols and broken the marine atmosphere.

“I used to be born and raised in Piraeus, and this funding goes to destroy my metropolis,” mentioned Anthi Giannoulou, a lawyer and one of many residents concerned within the lawsuits.

Native curiosity teams say investments that haven’t confronted authorized challenges have additionally remained incomplete. “They haven’t spent a dime right here; even when they should change a lamp, they bring about it from China,” mentioned Kanakakis.

The port deal has come beneath wider EU scrutiny, at an ungainly time in its relations with China. Confronted with an more and more assertive Beijing, the EU has sought to raised defend strategic sectors from Chinese language affect. Analysts say the Piraeus deal is incessantly cited by officers as a cautionary story when pushing states to privatise belongings.

“This take care of Cosco is regarding. Not solely can we now have a a lot clearer view of the dangers that such Chinese language investments in strategic infrastructure entail for the EU, however we additionally know that Cosco just isn’t residing as much as its contractual obligations,” mentioned Raphaël Glucksmann, a member of the European parliament who chairs a committee to evaluate overseas interference within the EU’s democratic processes.

Final yr Brussels tightened procedures for screening overseas direct funding by overseas subsidised corporations making acquisitions or bidding for public tenders within the EU.

Container vessels at Piraeus. The port deal has come beneath EU scrutiny, at an ungainly time in its relations with China © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Cosco first acquired its shares within the port through the sequence of sell-offs pressed on Athens by worldwide collectors, together with the EU, following the €300bn worldwide bailout of the nation after the 2008 international monetary disaster.

“Trying again it would have been higher for the Piraeus port to not be bought,” mentioned Werner Hoyer, president of the European Funding Financial institution, throughout a go to to Athens in June.

For China, the port is vital to its Belt and Street Initiative, which seeks to construct infrastructure linking Asia, Africa and Europe. More than a dozen EU member states have signed up to the BRI, with China betting on making Piraeus a regional distribution centre. Throughout a go to in November 2019, Chinese language president Xi Jinping mentioned: “I have seen within the port at this time that the [BRI] just isn’t a slogan or story, however a profitable apply and good actuality.”

Relations between Greece and China have cooled, nevertheless, with the conservative Greek authorities that got here to energy two years in the past steering a slim course between western allies and Chinese language traders. The US authorities is following the developments. It has no affect over the Piraeus deal however has labored to make sure vital investments, similar to ports within the north of Greece and 5G initiatives, stay within the palms of western allies.

Through the previous yr, Greece has eased out Chinese language state-owned enterprises from public tenders and has refused to host a summit in 2022 for the “17+1” grouping of China and central and jap European nations. Greece joined EU companions in March in condemning China’s human rights violations towards its Uyghur minority, and backed sanctions towards Beijing. 

The Chinese language ambassador abruptly left Athens shortly afterwards, with a alternative not arriving till September. “This deterioration in relations would possibly clarify the Chinese language ambassador’s sudden departure that many see as . . . a transparent signal of Beijing’s displeasure,” mentioned Plamen Tonchev, from the Athens-based Institute of Worldwide Financial Relations.

With the deal now signed, Cosco has been given 5 extra years to finish the anticipated investments. Athens will reclaim the shares if it fails to take action. 

“How may an enormous like Cosco not have the ability to make a single funding within the port for 5 years?” mentioned Dimos Bakopoulos, former head of the Public Ports Authority. “The one factor that modified with this new deal is simply the timetables and never the obstacles that created the delays.”

Athens has defended the association, saying it protects Greek pursuits whereas displaying the nation welcomes overseas traders. “Greece is a reputable funding associate and does what must be achieved, [and] we’re providing a protected atmosphere for overseas investments,” mentioned George Gerapetritis, minister of state within the Greek cupboard.

Officers additionally level to the enhance to the native economic system since Cosco took a stake within the port. Since 2008, the corporate has invested €1.2bn and elevated the power’s container capability five-fold, in line with the Greek authorities.

Cosco declined to remark.

Yannis Moralis, Piraeus’s mayor, mentioned Cosco paid 3.5 per cent of its turnover to the 4 totally different municipalities the place it operated: “Piraeus receives about €3m every year. The extra the port’s turnover will increase, the extra the municipalities will obtain.”

However, he warned, cash was not the one problem for locals. “That’s what the Chinese language want to bear in mind: the port can’t develop towards the pursuits of the residents, in any other case the funding is senseless.”

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