GIG: SEV is an advocate of pro-growth policies focusing on increasing investments, productivity, and employment. How exactly can this happen? What role do you believe Greece’s industrial core will play in the future of the economy?
Bitsios: We need to create a friendlier economic environment, as the first and foremost condition, in order to attract investment. This is increasingly happening. We have had some initial positive government initiatives, and I think these are beginning to create – will create – more favourable investment opportunities.
We need to do this to attract foreign, and Greek, investments. Because of course, for SEV, an economy needs a combination of foreign and direct investments in order to achieve a desirable and sustainable level of growth.
Greece has a large and important industrial sector throughout the country. One of our priorities at SEV is to enhance the industrial production of Greece – for this to reach 12% of GDP. It would bring us closer to the EU averages and provide the basis for significant increases in employment. Industry’s capacity to create good, well-paid jobs is one of its most important aspects and an important element for us.
GIG: Greece exited the bailout in August 2018 and has returned to positive growth, but at the same time it has committed to meeting very demanding fiscal goals. Is sustainable growth possible under such high budget targets?
Bitsios: A lot has been achieved. I don’t want to underestimate the work that has been done during a very painful and demanding period for Greek citizens and the Greek economy. More still needs to be done, though, throughout the economy, through reforms and growth policies.
The government started out with a series of measures to create a more friendly business environment. Among the first were, for example, cuts on taxes which were very welcomed by all of us. This is a positive development because lightening the tax burden on industry is a necessary condition to attract investments.
But creating a friendlier business environment is also key for sustainable growth. Greece still ranks quite low in the relevant indicators so there is much room for improvement. We are predicting that economic growth for 2019 will be recorded at 2%, which as a starting point will allow us to build in the years to come.
GIG: In Greece employers often complain about the mismatch of skills graduates carry and the skills their companies demand. What needs to change to close this gap?
Bitsios: That is a correct statement. There is a shortage of modern, digital (and soft) skills that industry, and the private sector in general, need. SEV has highlighted the problem, published a special report, and has formulated proposals in a bid to address the issue. The source of the problem lies in the distance between companies and education, in particular technical, technological, and higher education.
A central element of our approach at SEV is to link the two. For younger students, this can be achieved through awareness of the opportunities and the skills that are required to seize them. But ensuring that educational content reflects some of industry’s needs is also important. Most of us study in an effort to get employed eventually. Improving technical education in schools, technological education, and lifelong learning and skills are the foundations for innovation, job creation, and sustainable growth, as well as to reverse the brain drain. Nevertheless, Greek human resources are of the highest calibre. SEV has developed a series of initiatives with higher education institutions in addition to vocational training programmes and studies of regional requirements.
GIG: Under the guidance of the country’s creditors, there was a significant reform push in Greece. Where do you think the best work was done? What additional reforms do you prioritise?
Bitsios: After years of reluctant reforms, we seem now to be embracing them with a new fervour, so a complete assessment of the reform programme will have to wait until the current one is complete. A lot has been done, and a lot still remains to be done. One of the biggest burdens has undoubtedly been taxation. The new legislation seems to be a significant step in the right direction to create a friendlier tax environment and help attract investment. Without going into the details, the new legislation helps address many chronic shortcomings, lifts practices which skewed growth, and brings us closer to the modern, European practices which are in effect throughout most EU countries.
GIG: When foreign business owners ask you for advice on whether they should launch operations in Greece, what do you advise them?
Bitsios: You know investors. Investors, crucially, talk among themselves. So the big projects that have gained traction and are moving along quite speedily signal positive developments for investors. If you ask, why should an investor come to Greece? I will answer, because Greece presents significant opportunity. Assets are priced at very low levels, we are coming out of a crisis, and there is a thirst for investment. Greek human resources are very well educated and capable, and the country can become a production and export hub. I would also underline that the structural reforms which have already taken place are beginning to bear fruit. I believe that success will bring more success, and that Greece will become a land of opportunity. Investors come where they see opportunity, and I think they will see opportunity in Greece.