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Researcher: Dr Angela Cummine

Funder: British Academy

In Greece, national assets are up for sale. Everything from Athens’ water infrastructure, to the Olympic stadium, to the country’s main ports at Piraeus and Thessaloniki. As part of the bailout deal struck in July 2015, the proceeds of these sales must go into an independent fund to repay Greece’s international creditors.

For many Greeks, this feels like selling off the family silver, only to hand the proceeds back to those demanding its sale. The programme was controversial, and only went ahead after major concessions, including that the privatisation fund be run from Athens and that part of its proceeds must be spent locally in Greece. Ultimately, the demand for local control and benefit was a plea for ownership.

Greece offers a more extreme but not isolated example, as the past decade has witnessed the resurgence of the ‘owner state’. Government economic intervention and national bailouts have signalled a new era of public indebtedness, whilst in other states oil revenues or trade surpluses have seen governments storing impressive levels of wealth in new Sovereign Wealth Funds.

Who is liable for state debts, and who benefits from state dividends? These are tough choices for governments, and raise pressing questions of political theory. Who is the rightful owner of state property: citizen, tax-payer or government? Can the state be an “owner” in its own right, or is it always merely a steward of others’ property?

By re-evaluating the classic theories of the state, and developing a new framework for the relationship between states and citizens, this project offers a practical framework which can guide the distribution of the benefits and burdens of the modern state’s public property. Based on extensive interviews with treasury officials across the globe – from key figures in Greece’s Syriza government, to off the record discussions with the managers of the UAE’s vast holdings, the value of which has never been disclosed, this research will provide practical solutions to difficult theoretical problems.

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