The other face of Greece

Greece has experienced serious economic turbulence since 2010 due to its hugely inefficient state, large administrative costs, and various rigidities in product and professional markets, to name just the most burdensome constraints to economic prosperity. However, very few observers are familiar with the other face of Greece—that of a country that despite all its shortcomings, constitutes a place with plenty of idle resources that, if mobilized appropriately, could kick start the economy. The message now to the global investment community should be that the country is ready to welcome them.

There are huge opportunities to invest in all parts of the energy sector in projects that will increase energy efficiency and thus pay for themselves very soon. The opportunities range from linking islands with inefficient energy production to the mainland to upgrading the energy efficiency of an aging stock of houses. It may be a well-kept secret, but the next entrepreneur with the innovative spirit of Elon Musk may be Greek. Greece has the companies, workforce, and know-how to support such investment. Greece produces batteries, solar panels, and many of the supporting clean technology. Greece also performs research in fuel cells with companies active in the US too.

Despite meager salaries and support, government-funded research universities in Greece are today conducting state-of-the-art research, from nanomaterials, plastics, and microelectronics up to medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Greek innovations are helping with the early detection of cervical cancer. Meanwhile, clusters of smaller and larger companies such as the Corallia microelectronics cluster, are diversifying into other areas. Greek technology is responsible for protecting airport radars from lightning strikes. But collaboration between these companies and research universities is currently made difficult by legal ambiguities and intricacies. Greece thus needs its own Bayh-Dole Act, which along with bold reforms would streamline any foreign investment along the nodes of establishing a company, financing it, distributing profits from risky innovative investment inside and outside the country, and supporting the legal ecosystem that comes with intellectual property, all in accordance with internationally established conventions and practices.

Greece remains a powerhouse on the high seas too. Greek shipping owners hold the most dead-weight tonnage globally and have shown the way to excelling in collaboration with international partners around the globe to mutual benefit. Greek companies build ships’ components and supply supportive services. They are global leaders with solid foundations on which to expand. 

Food and beverage manufacturing is traditionally an area in which Greek companies excel. It may be a well-kept secret, but Greece is for agricultural goods what Cuba is for cigars: we simply have the best products. Greece produces and exports to a dozen countries the superb Vergina beer. The same company exports authentic Greek ice tea, made from the tea leaves in the mountains of Northern Greece. And of course the example of olive oil, exported in bulk at a low price, is by now well known. But Greeks are also innovating. For example, a new cheap test to evaluate the quality of olive oil on the spot is now on the market, invented by Greeks and marketed in collaboration with Canadian partners. The treasure grove of the Greek landscape offers opportunities well beyond food, ranging from cosmetics to metals and textiles. Greek aluminum is found in much of our plumbing and its cotton in the dashboards of our cars to keep them from cracking in the sun.

So if Greece has all of the ingredients needed for an economic boom, why has it yet to happen? Sadly, one area where the country suffers from a dearth of invention is its political system. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has thus far spent much of his time in office making—and subsequently reneging on—promises to tear up the agreement with Greece’s creditors—time Greece’s sputtering economy can ill-afford to waste. But if he and his coalition colleagues are able to put even half as much effort into passing pro-growth reforms and rolling out the welcome mat to global investors, then the creative, productive Greece described above might just show its face.

Michael Mitsopoulos is an economist at the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, Greece, and has taught at the Economic University of Athens and the University of Piraeus. Pelagidis and Mitsopoulos are coauthors of Greece: From Exit to Recovery? (Brookings Institution Press, 2014) and of Who’s to Blame for Greece? Austerity in Charge of Saving a Broken Economy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).