Rethink! Ideas Forum

A green compass for Greece: society, economy, ecology

The "Rethink! Ideas Forum - A green compass for Greece: society, economy, ecology", on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Thessaloniki office, was held on June 29, 2022, on the premises of the Thessaloniki Concert Hall, M2 building. At this international conference, people from Greece and from dozens of cities around the world responded to our invitation to meet in Thessaloniki, to discuss ideas, proposals and practices from a green perspective, and to "rethink" together a number of crucial topics that define our lives: the new political possibilities opened up by the radical municipalism movement, the urban-rural divide, energy democracy, social inclusion and participatory planning.

Twenty-one people were on the panels of the conference, providing interesting insights, original perspectives and useful experiences. Furthermore, our event serves as an example of gender democracy, as 13 of these 21 people were women and 8 men, i.e. 62% and 38% respectively! Among the women of the conference were keynote speaker Laura Roth and the coordinator of all the sessions, journalist Alexia Kalaitzi.

The keynote session was entitled "Opening new paths in politics: radical municipalism in Barcelona and beyond" and looked at why people in a number of cities around the world have chosen a different role for local government and a different way of taking part in decision-making processes. Academic researcher and activist Laura Roth, member of Barcelona en Comú, shared the particular vibe that existed in Barcelona during the early period of the radical municipalism movement. As she pointed out, central governments, whether in their populist or technocratic versions, can no longer address people’s needs. Instead, local governments can do this better, because there citizens are able to participate directly and actively. Thus, the role of cities is constantly increasing, while the role of states is constantly shrinking. She emphasised both the local dimension and the feminist character of radical municipalism, as well as the balance that needs to be struck between grassroots movements on the one hand and institutional structures (e.g. political parties) on the other. The first discussant was Vedran Horvat, Head of the Institute for Political Ecology (IPE). He referred to the experience of Zagreb, where the movement stands indeed between radical municipalism and a more "traditional" type of green political agenda. Moreover, he raised the question of what happens when a grassroots movement has a political success and is finally able to participate in the administration: unfortunately, he said, it has to face enormous difficulties from the opposing interests, while the people, who expected a lot, end up disappointed by the low rate of implementation of promises. The second discussant, Elita Fasoula, from the Fridays for Future Thessaloniki movement, underlined the often-understandable suspicion that exists among the grassroots movements towards the political parties, especially in Greece. As she explained, this makes it difficult for both parts to cooperate, which would enable them to be the wheels of the same vehicle.

The first panel session, entitled "Dealing with the urban-rural divide", actually introduced a new topic into the public debate: the oftentimes-chaotic differences between Greek cities and the countryside, which set the future perspectives of Greek rural areas at risk. Byron Kotzamanis, Professor of Demography at the University of Thessaly (academic retiree) - Department of Planning and Regional Development, and scientific responsible of the research project "Demographic Imperatives in Research and Practices in Greece", contributed some disturbing insights. He clarified that the two extremes of the gap are not the cities and the villages in general, but rather the two major urban centres of Greece (Athens and Thessaloniki), on the one hand, and the rest of the country, on the other. As he pointed out, 50% of the population in Greece lives on just 3% of the country’s surface! He stressed that the Greek rural areas have no vital forces but an increasingly ageing population instead, and said he is pessimistic that there could be a reversal of this phenomenon. For her part, Carolina Perpiñá Castillo, Territorial and Geospatial Analyst at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, introduced official EU data on the rural-urban divide, which has been approached from many different angles. Important indicators, she explained, are demographic shifts, the distance of the inhabitants from health and education services, and access to broadband internet. In most of these, Greece is unfortunately below the European average... Transferring good practices to an institutional level, Sevdalina Nenkova, Director of Education and Social Activities of Gabrovo, Bulgaria, spoke about various projects and achievements of the municipality’s administration, thanks to which this city of about 60,000 inhabitants was awarded in 2021 with the prestigious EU Green Leaf Award. Another good practice, but on a different path, was shared by Alexandros Pazaitis, Researcher at Tallinn Polytechnic University and member of the P2P Lab. Alexandros is part of a team that applies open technologies (patent-less free software, knowledge sharing, etc.) to fabricate agricultural tools in a laboratory in Tzoumerka mountains, tailored to the specific needs of the region.

The thorny topic of energy was discussed from a social perspective in the second panel session entitled "Paving the way for energy democracy". Alice Corovessi, Managing Director of INZEB, spoke about the multifaceted phenomenon of energy poverty, which puts potentially everyone at risk. As she said, climate neutrality, which is the EU’s goal for 2050, must be accompanied by energy democracy, i.e. the eradication of energy poverty and the active participation of citizens in energy production. This can happen in several ways. For example, Ioanna Theodosiou, Policy Associate at The Green Tank, raised the issue of the dynamic introduction of Renewable Energy Sources into the energy system. Speaking in particular about the effort to reduce dependence on natural gas - especially after the war in Ukraine -, she made clear through official data that renewables are more cost-effective than a return to lignite and underlined that there are a lot of financial resources that remain untapped. Dimitris Kitsikopoulos, Vice President of Electra Energy, referred in particular to energy communities, noting that for some years now there has been a legal framework for their operation. He estimated that when a number of energy communities are dispersed within the energy system, it could become more democratic overall. Finally, Irene HongPing Shen, from the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), conveyed a great deal of international experience, insisting that energy should be owned or at least controlled by the public sector. Only through public ownership of energy, she said, we can reach the goals of climate neutrality, approach energy democracy, integrate perspectives such as feminism, and make proper transition planning in order to avoid energy chaos.

"Empowering open, inclusive communities" was the title of the third and final panel session, regarding the challenges of supporting minorities, the role of local authorities and communities, but also the management of the new social dynamics that have been emerging in recent years and invite us to reconsider the way we live together. In particular, the inclusion of women in urban planning and the integration of refugees were discussed. Eva Grigoriadou, architect from the Urbana group, demonstrated through her professional experience the need for urban design to be participatory and inclusive, and to incorporate a gender perspective, noting that gender equality must be implemented in all areas of life. Eleni Mougiakou, from the Commonspace coop, stressed that the people who will be affected by a project should be involved in its design from the very beginning, as this is their right but also produces better results. Shedding light to another aspect of inclusion, Simos Daniilidis, Mayor of Neapoli-Sykies and Chairman of the Social Policy Committee of KEDE (Central Union of Municipalities of Greece), gave specific data on the hosting and integration of refugees in his city, especially in terms of housing and children’s education. He particularly insisted on the positive economic impact that all these actions have for the local communities. Finally, the director of the Greek Council for Refugees, Lefteris Papagiannakis, described the poor situation in Greece in terms of human rights and concluded that the basic thing that is needed is to create an institutional framework that can function under any political circumstances, regardless of the willingness or the unwillingness of the leaders or local authorities.

Each session was accompanied by a fruitful discussion between the speakers, the moderator and the audience, who intervened with insightful questions and comments, further promoting the debate. The conference also made use of the Mentimeter application, which allowed the audience to participate in real time by answering Alexia Kalaitzi’s pertinent questions.

Nevertheless, the Ideas Forum was not only restricted to these four sessions. During the breaks, four speed-dating rounds were held in the foyer, where our strategic partners could meet the participants and shortly present projects that the Foundation has supported in recent years. Specifically, Vangelis Kosmatos (G-All - Gender Alliance Initiative) presented the campaign "Deconstructing gender stereotypes"; Vicky Tzega (EKPOIZO) discussed the major initiative "Clean energy bills"; Georgia Bekridaki (Dock - Cooperative Space for Social Solidarity Economy) spoke about the publication "Participatory Municipal Budget"; and Naya Kalfeli (School of Journalism and Mass Communications - AUTH) explained the key points of the research "More (about) Borders, less (about) Humans: Media Coverage of Migration and Asylum Seeking in Greece", which deals with the way the media cover the refugee issue. The presentations were met with the keen interest of the conference audience, who in several cases gave up... coffee in order to attend them, to get a brief taste of the projects and to obtain books and flyers with useful information.

At the closing of the conference, Michalis Goudis, Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Thessaloniki office, shared with the moderator and the audience his impressions, thoughts and conclusions from this inspiring day. As he pointed out, many different things from many different perspectives were heard, as most of the topics are still untouched and neglected in the Greek public debate, in which they are only now being introduced. Therefore, he concluded, our Foundation’s important contribution to this dialogue should continue through further meetings and actions.

On the 10th anniversary of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Thessaloniki Office, we held a major event in the "Maurice Saltiel" hall of the Thessaloniki Concert Hall (29 June 2022).
This event was an international ideas forum entitled "Rethink! A green compass for Greece: society, economy, ecology" - an invitation to rethink together and from a green perspective some crucial issues of our time.
Dozens of people from Greece and abroad responded to this invitation, including many colleagues from Heinrich Böll Foundation offices around the world.
Athens, Larissa, Berlin, Warsaw, Valencia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Beirut, are just a few of the cities where the speakers and participants came from.
Radical municipalism, urban-rural divide, energy democracy and inclusive communities were the four main topics of the conference.
The audience attended the four panel sessions with great interest and participated with intriguing questions.
Michalis Goudis, Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Thessaloniki Office, welcoming the speakers and the audience. He explained how we came up with the idea of holding this conference and roughly described the topics of discussion.
In the photo can be seen the Consul General of Germany in Thessaloniki Sibylla Bendig (right) and the Mayor of Thessaloniki Konstantinos Zervas. On the left, the former Director of the Foundation's Thessaloniki Office, Olga Drossou.
A short introduction by journalist Alexia Kalaitzi, who moderated all the sessions. Her expertise, her fluency in communication, but also her... strictness in keeping time contributed significantly to the success of the conference.
The radical municipalism movement, the growing role of local governments and the relationship between grassroots movements and institutional political structures were the topics of the key session of the forum.
The main reference point was of course Barcelona and Barcelona en Comú, but everyone agreed that in one way or another the movement was spread and thrived in many other cities around the world.
"The main point of radical municipalism is to share political power in order to empower ourselves." Laura Roth, academic researcher and activist
"For us the main challenge is how to regenerate the movements once there is a political success." Vedran Horvat, head of the Institute for Political Ecology
"Citizens are asking for change but they don't push or demand for those changes." Elita Fasoula, Fridays for Future Thessaloniki movement
During the coffee break, Vangelis Kosmatos of "G-All - Gender Alliance Initiative" introduces to the audience our joint campaign "Deconstructing gender stereotypes".
Naya Kalfeli, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, AUTH, explains the main points of a survey on the media coverage of the refugee issue, which we recently published.
The second session explored demographic challenges in Greece and Europe, the disparity in opportunities between urban and rural areas, and ways to reverse the situation.
"50% of the Greek population is concentrated in 3% of the total surface area." Byron Kotzamanis, Professor of Demography (academic retiree), University of Thessaly
"In 3,100 municipalities in Europe, people living there need to travel 50 kilometers to reach the closest health service." Carolina Perpiñá Castillo, Territorial and Geospatial Analyst at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre
"Everything that is done in Gabrovo is done with the support of the people and involving the people." Sevdalina Nenkova, Director of Directorate "Education and Social Activities" at Ciy of Gabrovo, Bulgaria
"We need to think of ways to enhance autonomy locally, so that people can access the technology, the tools, the resources they need to reproduce their lives." Alex Pazaitis, researcher at Tallinn University of Technology, member of P2P Lab
When the conference was held, there was no specific health protocol for covid-19, however, hygiene measures on the premises as well as personal protection measures were at high levels.
The speakers of the conference gained the interest of the audience and in several cases the discussion continued during the break. After all, getting to know each other and networking were some of the forum's main purposes.
Greek green politicians also took part in the forum. Here is an exchange during the coffee break, where they can be seen (from the left): Ilias Papatheodorou, Nikos Raptis, Michalis Tremopoulos, Dimitris Politopoulos.
Our Office Director Michalis Goudis flanked by Heike Dettmann, Deputy Head of Mission of the German Embassy, and Marc Berthold, Head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s European Union and North America Department.
In the third session of the forum, energy justice emerged as the main pathway to the green transition, notably through energy communities, renewable energy and public status of the energy system.
"In order to reach climate goals and to advance justice, we have to have the public ownership of energy." Irene HongPing Shen, Outreach Coordinator for Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)
"We have achieved quite a lot as a country on the issue of energy communities in the last three years." Dimitris Kitsikopoulos, Vice President of Electra Energy
"The path of green transition and renewable energy is a path that can lead us to peace." Ioanna Theodosiou, Policy Associate at The Green Tank
"'Good quality food or pay for my energy services?’ Such dilemmas shouldn’t exist...". Alice Corovessi, co-founder and managing director of INZEB
EKPIZO’s major initiative for clean energy bills, in which our Foundation is also participating, was presented during the coffee break by Vicky Tzega, legal advisor in the well-known consumers’ association.
Our publication "Participatory municipal budget" was the main topic of the introduction made during the break by Georgia Bekridaki from "Dock - Cooperative Space for Social Solidarity Economy".
The gender dimension of urban planning, as well as the inclusiveness of the Greek society regarding refugees and migrants, were discussed in the fourth session of the forum.
"As women, as femininities, we experience much more insecurity in public spaces in the city, especially at night." Eva Grigoriadou, architect, Urbana group
"The refugee issue is the most striking example that not all issues can be addressed through a bottom up approach." Eleni Mougiakou, Commonspace coop
"Migrant and refugees can offer local communities development and positive economic impact". Simos Daniilidis, Mayor of Neapoli-Sykies
"We don’t have an inclusive society because we don’t have an institutional and legal framework". Lefteris Papagiannakis, director of the Greek Council for Refugees
In closing the conference, Michalis Goudis summarizes his impressions, thoughts and conclusions from the discussions of the entire day.
Shortly after the conference we thanked the speakers for their participation with a small farewell dinner.