Parliament approves COSCO and Piraeus port deal – Government U-turn

Lawmakers approved on Thursday an agreement with Chinese shipping giant COSCO to buy a majority stake in Greece’s largest port, Piraeus (OLP), with 223 votes in favour.

The bill was approved by SYRIZA, New democracy, Democratic Coalition, Potami, ANEL and the Centrists’ Union, while Golden Dawn and the Communist Party voted against it.

The Communist Party approved however an amendment for the area of Keratsini and the articles on the Coast Guard, except the one on its participation in FRONTEX operations. Golden dawn asked for a roll call vote.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras heads off for a state visit to China Friday after his government tried frantically Thursday to put out a fire that started when Chinese shipping giant Cosco raised objections to “unilateral” changes to the agreement for the sale of a majority stake in Piraeus Port Authority (OLP) that was submitted for ratification to Parliament on Tuesday.

Fearing that the latest fiasco would cast a shadow over the Beijing visit – which Tsipras hopes will help pave the way for further deals and investments – the government backtracked Thursday on the changes it made to the agreement that had angered the Chinese company.

Cosco had accused the government and the country’s privatization agency, TAIPED, of reversing what was agreed in the deal between the two sides on April 8, warning it would not accept any changes, sending shock waves that the agreement – under which Cosco would buy a 67 percent majority stake in OLP – would unravel at the eleventh hour.

More than strictly a fallout over a business deal, the government was reportedly concerned that the complication would further damage the country’s international standing at a time when it is trying to signal to international markets and investors that Greece has embarked on a new course and is doing what must be done to lure desperately needed foreign capital to kick-start the country’s debt-ridden economy.

The government insisted Thursday that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion,while senior officials alleged that the main concerns of some of Cosco’s Greek executives were not the company’s best interests but rather playing political games against the government.

However, the parties of the opposition called the issue a “fiasco,” and held it up as yet more proof that the government is incapable of pushing through reforms and privatizations.

“Never in the history of Parliament has a government gone back on its signature on a bilateral agreement,” New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the House, holding Tsipras responsible for the government’s “erratic” policies.

Conservative spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos echoed the same sentiment, saying, “Erratic policies on investment and privatizations kill off any possibility of economic growth,” while adding that “incompetence and unreliability drive away investments.”

“This undermines growth,” he said.

Meanwhile, the agreement between China’s COSCO and Piraeus Port (OLP) is very beneficial for the Greek port, China’s Ambassador to Greece, Zou Xiaoli, said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency on Thursday, ahead of a visit of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to the country.

“The project is a fine example of China-Greece cooperation, the significance of which has gone beyond economic cooperation and bilateral scope and has assumed great importance for promoting regional peace and development as well,” the ambassador said.

In fact, according to information attained by Athens-Macedonian News Agency, the Chinese envoy expressed his surprise for the latest handlings of the OLP case by COSCO.

At the invitation of Premier Li Keqiang, Tsipras is to visit China from July 2 to July 6. Asked about the visit, Zou said “he is full of expectations, confidence and passion” for the upcoming event. During the interview with today, Zou said that the visit will be an important one against “a profound background” and that the two sides “should seize this important opportunity to push bilateral relations further ahead”.

During the visit, the two sides will release a joint statement to reflect the outcomes of the visit. They will also hold the Second China-Greece Maritime Cooperation Forum and will sign a series of cooperation agreements on investment, finance, shipping, science and technology, culture, and tourism to strengthen cooperation between the countries.

“Greece is becoming an important knot on the ‘Belt and Road’ and the COSCO-Piraeus project has made Greece a key link between the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road on land,” the ambassador said.

He also pointed to Tsipras’ “important speech” on China’s policy made at the beginning of 2015 on a Chinese navy vessel visiting Greece, which was “well received” by the Chinese side. “It is fair to say that Greece has all along been China’s reliable partner within the EU,” he said.

Zou pointed out that there are four important backgrounds for the visit: First, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Greece. Second, COSCO is going to expand a mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation with Greece at the Port of Piraeus. Third, the regional landscape where Greece is located is undergoing profound changes and adjustments. Fourth, the “Belt and Road” is extending steadily to Europe.

He said Greece is at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa and its neighboring region has been hit by factors of instability such as war, refugees and terrorism. “This has enhanced the role of Greece as the anchor of stability and development in the East Mediterranean,” he explained, adding that Middle East countries also wish that Greece can continue to act as a bridge between them and the EU. “Greece itself has been very active in its diplomacy and the debt crisis has not undermined its important role in foreign affairs,” he noted.

China is ready to make joint efforts with Greece in several areas, the ambassador said: First, to continue to render mutual support to each other on issues of core interest; second, to use maritime cooperation as a dragonhead to lead to practical cooperation in various areas; third, to promote dialogues between different civilizations; and fourth, to enhance coordination and cooperation in the East Mediterranean and the Middle East. “The four areas reflect the features of the comprehensive and strategic partnership between the two countries,” Zou said.

Greece is an ideal partner for China to carry out international maritime cooperation, for Greece is not only the birth place of European maritime civilization, but also wields important influence in international shipping, he said. The capacity of its commercial fleets accounts for nearly 20% of the world total. Over half of China’s imported crude oil is transported by Greek commercial fleet. “More importantly, Greece is very experienced and open in marine-related sectors, making China-Greece maritime cooperation at the forefront of China-Europe cooperation.”
He also hailed Greece’s ability to facilitate dialog between different religions and cultures.