At a time when Greece needs the Diaspora more than ever, the Greek government – under pressure to cut expenses by its international lenders – will be closing six embassies and two consulates around the world instead of spreading spending cuts around its diplomatic missions.
Embassies set to shut are in Hanoi, Lima, Montevideo, Wellington, Khartoum and Harare, while the consulates that will be terminated are in Atlanta and Perth. The initial list of diplomatic offices to close also included the Greek consulate in Los Angeles, but a last-minute reprieve from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dimitri Avramopoulos, saved it.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is trying to conclude a $17.45 billion spending cut and tax hike plan to please the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that is putting up $325 billion in two bailouts. Part of the savings include the elimination of the diplomatic missions in the eight cities, while others around the world will be spared from cuts.
A spokesman for the General Secretary in the Foreign Ministry said: “We do not close embassies and consulates so the rest can continue spending. We have asked all of our employees abroad to try and reduce their costs. We don’t close these offices just for the costs, as the global map is changing and the Greek foreign Policy is shaped accordingly we may need to make changes, for example we are also opening a new economic office in Erbil (Iraq) that is of great economic significance in the area.”
As far as the diplomats serving in the offices, the plan has many of them moving to other diplomatic missions that require more personnel and some returning in Athens. A reform of the Greek Diplomatic offices around the globe is definitely necessary and welcome, but this office reduction list is definitely not a reform.
Instead of removing Greek missions, the Hellenic Republic could downsize many of its offices around the world and ask its embassies, consulates and other offices to cut down in spending in a surgical manner, rather than with a wholesale approach. Greece needs representation globally and should be able to serve its citizens wherever they are, without asking them to make a trip to another country, or fly three hours in a plane for a simple passport renewal.
This can be achieved by downsizing the unnecessary and expensive fiscal footprint of many embassies and consulates and keep operating small offices to deal with the needs of Greek citizens. These offices that could be similar in fashion to the Centers for Citizens Service (KEP) and report directly to a country’s embassy or a neighboring consulate and operate with minimal diplomatic personnel and local staffers.
To have a consul-general in an area where there is not much interest for Greece requires expenses that the country can’t afford during this crushing economic crisis, although this may be a chance for a total reform in the presence of Greek Diplomatic offices around the world.
Big villas, large offices in trendy neighborhoods, and high-limit spending accounts are common for members of diplomatic missions, but Greece – not exactly the richest country in the world right now – should ask its officials to cut spending and live a less luxurious lifestyle than other diplomats, and move their offices to smaller and less expensive premises.
Instead of demanding its employees to reduce costs significantly, something that the average Greek is doing daily, the approach that the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to be guided by a philosophy of wholesale cutting across the board and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Before the government decides to close offices for the Greeks of Diaspora that help them deal with the Greek state, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can try to find alternatives and lower its cost of operation by reforming embassies and consulates into satellite offices that could serve Greek citizens abroad. Here we present you with ways that the Greek State can afford to have small satellite offices around the globe to service its citizens abroad.
- Raise the price for passport renewals and other services: Among the most vital services that embassies and consulates offer are passport renewals and several certifications by the Hellenic Republic. The Greeks of the Diaspora would prefer to pay a higher fee for their passport renewal, or other services instead of not having a local Greek representative and being forced to travel for hundreds of miles.
- Move offices to smaller and less expensive buildings: While Greece could once afford to pay tens of thousands of euros for monthly rents, now, in a time of crisis we should all compromise and try to find ways to save money for the Greek state. Instead of closing a few offices so others could continue to spend, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could ask ALL or most of its local employees to move to less expensive offices. In many cases only from such a move the Greek state could save up to 50% in rent.
- Take away Consul Generals and Ambassadors where they are not necessary: While high-ranking diplomats such as Ambassadors and Consul Generals are vital for Greece and its foreign policy, in many cases having such high-ranking officials in every diplomatic mission may not be necessary. Such officials are there to design and execute Greece’s foreign policy but in many cases they have been downgraded to public workers that just issue papers. Such officials also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Greek public for an office that is dealing mostly with issuing unnecessary paperwork. A lower ranking diplomat assisted by local staff (which costs much less) may still be able to serve the community. In this case the Greek State will also not have to pay for a Consul’s residence that usually is a big expense, since such officials require expensive housing and pay high rents.
- Keep minimal diplomatic personnel and turn some consulates into small offices of the Hellenic Republic: These offices can still service their local communities and could report to another neighboring consulate, embassy, or directly to a central authority for satellite offices in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, Greece may not need a consul general in an area that is of less importance to foreign policy so a consulate may not be necessary. However, the local Greek community will still need an office to do necessary paperwork, something that can be achieved with a few lower-ranking officials and local personnel to assist them.
- Spend less on big villas for high-ranking officials – While the head Diplomat’s house in a destination is used for different functions and hosts many VIPs, huge villas are not a necessity at this time of Greek crisis. If a a foreign official visits one of our head diplomat’s abroad and sees that he/she lives in a more moderate house, they will understand the need for downsizing. The ministry could send a memo to Greek Ambassadors and Consul generals who pay high rents, asking them to reduce their housing costs ASAP. Another way of reducing housing costs would be to set a limit on the rent for a residence and if somebody wants to live in a more expensive one they can pay the difference out of their pockets.The limit for the rent could be adjusted according to diplomatic destination and the cost of living in a specific country.
- Do not sell properties, especially those that were donated to Greece. Instead, Greece can rent them and use the money for the general budget. In many cases diplomatic missions use buildings that were donated. Liquidation of hard assets, although they do generate immediate results, are a “one-off” policy instrument, which alleviates short-term pressures but does not correct long-term imbalances. It is also not a favored practice by the IMF in sovereign restructuring cases because of those reasons.
To achieve all this, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs could audit its missions internally and suggest specific budgets and spending cuts. If those don’t materialize, they can remove the previous head of the mission and send somebody who could do the job. This will create accountability and make people responsible for each mission to reduce their costs or risk being removed.
If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can’t do this because of the political cost and personal relations of its employees they can hire an independent consulting company per country/region with the goal of reducing costs significantly. The consultant would establish specific goals, would then audit the consulates for excessive expenditures and would issue a recommendation report to the ministry. The consultant could be paid with an one-time percentage of the savings ONLY.
And if the Foreign Minister still thinks that some countries or locations are not important to Greece then they can close their offices. But closing some offices so the rest can be untouched and continue spending is not a responsible solution with a longer-term horizon in mind.
Finally, under the current plan, because of the elimination of these six embassies and two consulates, the plan created the notion to many diplomats around the world that they can continue to operate without vital changes and significant cost reduction. An anonymous source close to the Foreign Minister told Greek Reporter that, “If some think that because some authorities are closing they will be untouched they don’t know that a second plan to eliminate offices abroad may come soon.”