Greece’s Thessaloniki International Fair focuses on the American factor

USA/TIF

The US pavilion at the 83rd Thessaloniki International Fair.

As this year’s “Honoured Country” the US’ dynamic economy and innovation take centre stage, but Tsipras is angling for a political boost


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The Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF) has for 83 years marked the traditional high point of the Greek economic calendar and forms the venue for each Greek prime minister to lay out the country’s economic priorities for the year and beyond.  The main opposition party is given the opportunity to make a formal rebuttal one week after the prime minister speaks.

With this as a backdrop, exhibitors from all over the world but especially the Southeast European region seek to engage new customers and the public at large.  Each year a different country is given the status of “Honoured Country” which presents the opportunity to promote that country’s cultural and social accomplishments in addition to purely commercial opportunities.

This year’s 83rd edition of the TIF runs from September 8-16 and has signed up 1,500 exhibitors from 20 different countries.  It has not always been a smooth ride however with interest in the Thessaloniki venue, and the trade fair format generally, gradually declining in recent years.

Whenever a global economic power is lined up as “Honoured Country”, Thessaloniki — Greece’s second city — resembles a form of a mini World’s Fair or UN General Assembly for close to 10 intense days (unfortunately, not the rest of the year) with each country striving to surpass the excitement created by the previous “Honoured Country”.  This year, at #TIF2018, the United States is the “Honoured Country,” following China in 2017 and Russia the year before that.  India will be up next year.

Greek elections frame this year’s fair

We will be seeing several key issues in sharp focus this year.  First, this TIF marks the first instance where Greece is not under full creditor supervision, so analysts will be nervously watching for what the Greeks have unceremoniously labelled “handouts” which amount to specific reform rollbacks (clearly election-linked) to be announced by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras now that the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank aren’t calling all of the economic policy shots, just hovering in the background formulating the key macroeconomic targets.

Although no date for Greek parliamentary elections has been set, they must be called by September 2019 at the latest and most analysts currently believe May 2019 is the most likely date.  It should be noted that “handouts” are a Greek political tradition and the prime minister’s announcement of some form of a state-funded giveaway for certain favoured groups at the festival is practically routine.

A large set of rumours are constantly circulating about which tax cuts and policy shifts will be announced this year and if these are drastic or controversial enough in the current pre-election climate Tsipras’ announcements have the potential to overshadow the rest of the fair’s agenda.

In this vaguely-delineated pre-election period, the US connection is especially symbolic for most Greeks, but this would be the case for any Greek government, not just that of Tsipras, who is still trailing significantly in opinion polls.

Nevertheless, in the current Greek political context no one should be surprised that Tsipras will strive to shape the narrative for the event into an expression of solid US political support for his government’s accomplishments both domestically and regionally, which was quite probably his intention from the day he approved the plan to name the US as the recipient of the Thessaloniki fair’s top honour for 2018.

 Reiterating the US commitment to assist Greece’s economic recovery

The decision to designate the US as “Honoured Country” at this year’s TIF remains a bit of a mystery.  It had not been scheduled years in advance, as is customary, and it appears to be an initiative developed by the US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, who after visiting last year’s fair for the first time and coming away admiring the impressive Chinese “Honoured Country” pavilion, apparently requested the US be designated as soon as possible, effectively bumping another country.  No problem.

This all happened within the context of Tsipras’ plan for his October 2017 Washington visit, and it is no surprise the decision to award the US with this honour was mentioned in the Rose Garden by both US and Greek leaders as a significant bilateral development, as the US was previously designated the “Honoured Country” in 2000, a year after former President Bill Clinton visited Athens.

What’s best about America…beyond the political issues of the day

The theme of the US presence at the Thessaloniki International Fair is “Harnessing the Power of Innovation and Creativity” – a brilliant choice for two reasons.  One, it focuses the US presence far above the politics and trade disputes of the day and this theme really captures the essence of what makes the United States the world’s predominant economic power and driving technological force.  Full details of the US presence and extensive program events can be found at https://usatif2018.gr/

A total of 60 American companies are participating, including such giants as Facebook, Google, Intel, HP, Oracle, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, and Cisco among others, all of which already have a strong presence across the EU market.

According to tradition, the “Honoured Country” sends a high-level delegation to inaugurate its national pavilion. This year is no exception with the US Embassy and American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce working nonstop to publicise every detail of the American commercial presence and its global technological leadership and magnifying wherever possible each expression of Washington’s political commitment to Greece as its economy begins to recover.

Adding to the political impact of the high-level US delegation, the USS Mount Whitney, a command ship which is currently the Sixth Fleet’s flagship, will dock in Thessaloniki throughout the fair.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who previously ran a company that invested in Greece, is heading the US delegation, which also includes senior-level representatives from the Departments of State, Energy, the White House, Congress, and other government organisations.  A side meeting between Ross and Tsipras, not unexpectedly, has been arranged and will receive wide publicity.

This will surely be used for partisan purposes in the Greek context. For many months after Tsipras’ US visit in October of last year, rumours circulated that Vice President Mike Pence would lead Washington’s delegation at this year’s TIF. This option was eventually definitively taken off the table, but for whatever reason, the rumour was again circulated to journalists this spring, which may have led to overinflated expectations about the US attendance in Thessaloniki.

 

On September 7, the American Hellenic Chamber of Commerce has organized the Southeast Europe Energy Forum as a prelude to the TIF inauguration. Energy ministers and high-level officials from Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, and the US are participating.

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