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Inside Europe

Small Group Wants Autonomy in Corfu

Business and community leaders on the Greek island of Corfu have begun a campaign to achieve autonomy. They say unduly high taxes by the central government threaten the tourist industry on which the island depends.

The coastline of Corfu

Corfu is Greece's premier tourist destination

The Corfu autonomy movement wants to copy Spanish provinces like Catalonia, which have strong regional differences and exert control over their own destiny.

"The Athenian government has been taking a lot from Corfu," says Harry Tsoukalas, head of the movement. "It's just like the golden goose: they've been taking the golden eggs, but forgetting to feed the goose. Now they're ready to kill the goose as well."

Corfu's lush rugged vistas, exquisite beaches and Venetian architecture have made it Greece's premier tourist destination -- generating a disproportionately large percentage of the income flowing into the Greek treasury.

But in recent years, Corfu has struggled to compete with rivals like Croatia and Turkey. Its taxes, claim the autonomy movement, are being lavished on the mainland. According to Tsoukalas, the central government is unwilling to give anything back to Corfu.

Athens is neglecting Corfu's heritage

The Mon Repos Estate, for example, is a magnet for British holidaymakers. Not only does it have one of the best views in the Mediterranean, the stately home is also the birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Corfu's old town

Corfu's old town suffers from pollution and traffic congestion

But a church on the grounds has no roof and 17th century frescoes are exposed to the elements and rotting away. Tsoukalas says this is prime evidence of Athenian neglect.

"This is a disgrace," Tsoukalas says. "We have so much history on this island and Athens simply doesn't care about our heritage. These frescoes are a national treasure."

Other complaints against Athens include the failure to build a bypass around Corfu's old town. Traffic congestion is damaging the fabric of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite having millions of visitors each year, Corfu's long-awaited hospital is nowhere near completion and seriously ill patients have to travel to the mainland for treatment.

"We don't want independence; we still want to be part of Greece," Tsoukalas says. "But what we want is to have control over our finances, so the money that we collect here on the island stays here on the island."

Autonomy isn't the answer

The emergence of this autonomy movement comes at a time when opinion polls show that most Greeks are extremely dissatisfied with the two main parties, which have dominated Greek politics for more than 30 years. But the central government will want to crack down on any home rule initiative because if this movement succeeds, then other dissatisfied regions may want to follow suit.

"Certain people believe in autonomy, but they are out of touch with the majority," says Angela Gerekou, a former film star and one of Corfu's three representatives in parliament. She is the tourism spokeswoman for the Socialist party, which until 2003, enjoyed almost 20 years in power.

"What Corfu and the country as a whole needs is a new government, which will be able to assist the development of each region," Gerekou says.

A growing tide of anger

Hilary Papeite, the editor of a monthly English language magazine called The Corfiot, says it is conventional politicians like Gerekou who are out of touch.

Greek Parliament building in Athens

The government in Athens has no interest in Corfu's autonomy

According to Papeite, the autonomy movement is gaining traction.

"What I have been picking up recently is a growing tide of anger directed against the central government," Papeite says. "People here think they are getting a very raw deal."

Papeite says Corfu, which is a tiny part of Greece, is probably paying about 10 percent of the national income.

"People resent this very deeply because they are not seeing the infrastructure of Corfu progressing in any way," she says. "The roads are in a terrible state, the hospital, the pollution, nothing ever seems to get done."

This story has a historic twist. When Turkey's Ottoman Empire retreated from Greece in the mid 19th century, Corfu's independence was guaranteed by the treaty of London. It was signed by the Great Powers of the Time: Britain, Russia, France, Prussia and the Austro Hungarian Empire. Under this agreement, Corfu was only supposed to pay a small amount in taxes to Athens.

For Tsoukalas and his autonomy movement, the Treaty of London is still valid. He is appealing for the signatories to back it up.

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