Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ remarks to the Press after the meeting of the European Council

Good afternoon,

The EU Summit ended a short while ago. I assume that the conclusions, as ratified by the heads of state and government, have already been published.

Let me start by pointing out that in Europe we are very concerned about the issue of Covid-19 and I don’t think anyone can say with certainty when we will be able to meet again in person. As you saw, there were cases of colleagues who were forced to leave the Summit, because they had come to contact with individuals who have tested positive. Let me start with this topic, which preoccupied us a lot last night, and stress what I said last time: that there is rising concern amongst all of us about the second wave, its extent, its intensity, in all European countries.

There was an initial agreement on a very interesting proposal submitted by Chancellor Merkel -in her capacity as head of the presiding country- to organize regular teleconferences of the heads of state and government, so that we can discuss specific issues on how to handle the second wave of the pandemic.

I think that we can all benefit from the experiences of fellow member states. We can draw lessons from what they did right and what they did wrong. And I believe that the Chancellor’s initiative is a move in the right direction, adding to a series of very important initiatives already launched by the European Commission and ratified by the Council, on the way we unify/consolidate our response at the European level.

It is really positive that we now have a European map -published by the ECDC- which depicts with three basic colors the level of risk in each region, based on common criteria agreed upon at a European level. As shown on the map -and I consider this to be a positive sign- Greece is still one of the countries performing relatively well, at least compared with Western and Eastern Europe.

We are, however, aware of the fact that this can change at any moment if we are not cautious, if we stop implementing the measures recommended by the experts, especially focusing on basic preventive measures, which are not particularly costly.

I also raised the issue of initiating preparations now, at a European level, for the upcoming spring and summer tourist season. I think it is of vital importance, especially for countries that are heavily dependent on tourism, to reach a deal at the European level regarding certain common protocols, so that we can be better prepared for 2021. We all hope that a vaccine will be available in the spring but we need to be prepared for any scenario, so that everyone can travel with greater safety, using common protocols, agreed upon -hopefully- at the European level.

Let me now talk briefly about the other issues that were discussed. I will conclude with the issues concerning the Eastern Mediterranean. There was an extensive discussion on Brexit. We have all warmly supported the work of the European negotiator, Michel Barnier. We take into account the fact that deadlines are getting closer. We reiterated our wish to preserve functional, genuine, trade relations with the Great Britain.

But we have agreed -and this is a common line- that we will not accept just any agreement. A bad deal is worse than no deal. I want to believe that there will be progress, even at the last minute. This would require of course a change in Britain’s stance. But we have full confidence in our European negotiator, who negotiates on our behalf. We have complete trust in him.

There also was a discussion on issues related to climate change, in view of December’s Summit. In principle, we have confirmed the intention of all member states to aim higher, with greater ambition, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 55% compared to 1990, which is the base year. You know that Greece has already submitted to the European Commission -like all European countries- its National Energy and Climate Plan. I would like to point out that many of the initiatives featured in this Plan are strongly growth-oriented.

Dealing with climate change is not just about our obligation to preserve the one and only planet we all live in. This is not just a responsibility in view of a reality that we experience every year, with natural disasters that are more and more frequent. This is also a significant growth opportunity for Greece and Europe, to lead in what we call green transition, with cutting-edge technology, which will enable us to adapt to the very ambitious targets that we have set.

This morning we also talked about the relations that the EU should have with Africa. Unfortunately this is a topic that we do not talk about enough in Greece. Africa has a population of 1.3 billion people, 75% of its inhabitants are under 30 years of age. This is the youngest, most developing continent in the world. Greece is Africa’s neighbor. This political agenda should be of particular interest to us, both in terms of investment and the crucial portfolio of managing illegal migration, which concerns Greece.

Many countries -including Greece- insisted on the need to add an explicit reference to the text of the conclusions about return and readmission policies. This is of major importance to us, as we are currently discussing the Pact on Migration and Asylum. Return policies is one of the main pillars of this Pact, as Europe must process returns centrally.

Let me now come to issues concerning the Eastern Mediterranean, our neighborhood and the relations between Europe and Turkey. As you know, this issue was not scheduled for discussion and it was not part of the agenda. If you go through the letter sent a few days prior to the Summit by the President of the Council to the heads of state and government you will see that it was not included. Yet, I and President Anastasiades insisted and the issue was discussed.

We asked for an explicit reference in the conclusions, which would show that the European Union strongly condemns Turkey’s new, unilateral, provocative actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the recent exploratory activities by the “Oruc Reis” vessel within the Greek continental shelf. In the end the heads of state and government agreed on how these references will be phrased. There is also an explicit reference stressing that Turkey needs to respect UN Security Council Resolutions 550 and 789. The European Council highlighted the importance of the status of Varosha, urging Turkey to reverse its actions, work for the reduction in tensions, while stating yet again that it will continue to monitor developments, in light of the conclusions of the Summit held on October 2.

Let me say this about this issue: When we started talking extensively about the issue of Turkey during the previous Summit, it was obvious that we needed to go a long way in order to explain to our European counterparts why this issue is important, not just for Greece and Cyprus. It is an issue of major importance for Europe as a whole, for the geopolitical stability of the Eastern Mediterranean. I believe that at the end of every Council meeting we have covered more ground. Let me remind you that the conclusions which were reaffirmed today in paragraph 21 -I am referring to the conclusions of the previous Summit- clearly define the timeframe for the evaluation of Turkey’s attitude. It is clearly stated that December will be the deadline for Europe to reach and make its decisions, in the event that Turkey continues its unilateral, escalatory actions which violate International Law. I do not need to repeat that these actions -the weapons that the EU has at its disposal- are described very cogently in the Summit’s conclusions.

I also raised another issue while discussing with my counterparts. I reminded them that previous decisions at the European Council -not by all member states, but by some of them- regarding Turkey’s provocations in Syria referenced conclusions about an arms embargo on Turkey.

I brought this up because we shouldn’t forget that the best expression of European solidarity towards two member states tested by such threats would be a European initiative, or several initiatives by individual member states, that would bar arms sales to Turkey, as these arms could be used to threaten the sovereignty and sovereign rights of two member states.

I spoke about this during the European Council. I think that my position was well-understood. I also reminded my counterparts that other countries, which are not part of the European family, such as the United States, have decided not to sell fifth generation F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, because Turkey purchased a missile defense system from Russia, considered by the US as a threat to NATO. Canada has recently decided to halt arms exports to Turkey, due to the latest developments and Turkish aggressiveness in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Let me stop here, expressing my wish that -returning to the starting point of my statement- things on the coronavirus front will get better and by December we will be able to meet again in Brussels. Besides, as much as technology helps us remain in regular contact, I assure you that when it comes to hard and complicated negotiations – there is no substitute for human contact and our physical presence in the Council’s meeting room.

Let me stop here. Ms Peloni please coordinate your colleagues’ questions.

Dimitris Gkatsios (ERT): Mr Prime Minister, we see that in the last few days Europe has sent some strong messages to Turkey. I am referring to the press conference of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Germany and France. They used very harsh language, which shows that Brussels is running out of patience, as far as Turkey is concerned.

I listened to what you said earlier and I would like to ask you. What is the sense that you get from this Summit, compared with the previous one held on October 2? Has the picture changed? Till recently there were countries that appeared hesitant when it came to the imposition of sanctions on Turkey.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: As you are well aware, Europe does not make decisions overnight. Europe is like an ocean liner, which takes some time to turn. Yet, when it does turn, I would say that it does keep a very stable course towards the new direction it has chosen.

Yes, I do believe think that countries which expected a more positive development were unpleasantly surprised by Turkey’s initiative to again send the “Oruc Reis” for seismic surveys. Nobody wanted this, obviously we didn’t. However, the more Turkey insists on escalating along this line, the more countries which may now suspicious, skeptical and concerned will be convinced that at the end of the day what cannot be questioned is European credibility itself. And European credibility was demonstrated in the conclusions of the previous Summit, which now constitute European acquis.

I want to believe that there will be no need to get to that point. Yet the point in time when we will make a decision has been set, it’s in December. I still hope that we will not have to do it. But nobody should question that Europe is determined to take measures, if Turkey persists with provocative actions. And these measures will be painful rather than symbolic.

Giannis Christakos (MEGA): Mr Prime Minister, you mentioned the discussions you had on the dramatic repercussions of Covid-19, especially in Central and Southeastern Europe. I would like to ask if you can give us some additional information on what you have discussed as far as the common European reaction to the pandemic is concerned, compared to what we already know. Are there new proposals on table? Which is the state in Greece relatively to other European countries, considering our population? We saw yesterday that the first restrictions were imposed locally.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: The state of play in Greece can be seen on the ECDC map of Europe. It sits in a better position compared to almost every European country. This does not mean that we are not gravely concerned about the virus’ upwards trajectory all over Europe.

So far, over the last three weeks, Greece has managed to keep cases at a relatively stable level, while we now have some common European indices; the 14-day case notification rate per 100,000 people, the positivity rate, which might be the most important index, as far as I am concerned at least. The percentage of coronavirus tests that turn out positive. In Greece, these last few days, we carried out more than 20.000 tests per day and the positivity rate is estimated around 2%. Let me point out, indicatively, that the positivity rate in Belgium is over 10%, which means that 1 out of every 10 tests performed is actually positive. In Greece, the ratio is 1 out of 50. This tells you something about the extent of the transmission in the wider population.

Following recommendations by our experts, we have a clear classification of risk levels in our country. We did have a specific issue in Kozani. The experts recommended that we place the region in a state of enhanced protection, level 4. Of course we accepted their recommendation and implemented this measure for 14 days. We would like to see such localized restrictive measures be effective where the spread of the virus exceeds tolerable levels.

I would like to stress that up to this point these measures have been implemented only in Kozani. We hope that the problem will be restricted to this level. But we cannot turn a blind eye to what is going on in the rest of Europe, as the situation seems to be getting out of control in many countries. This should raise our awareness. We must remain steadfast in the implementation of measures indicated by the experts.

I discussed this with my counterparts. There is an absolute caseload above which contact tracing, the process of locating all people that a COVID-19 patient has come into close contact with, becomes impossible. If we reach this point the only solution is taking local and horizontal measures. This is what France was forced to do, for example, in the wider Paris area and elsewhere as well. I think that 1/3 of the population of France is affected by the measures announced by President Macron. This is why it is so important to keep the number of cases low. Because, as long as they are low, we can keep doing this (effective contact tracing).

Of course, rapid antigen tests are an important addition to our arsenal. We have been doing these tests in Greece for quite a while. We are one of the first European countries to have used them, with a high level of dependability. These tests are very important, as they let us have a result really quickly, within half an hour. This means that we do not waste these one or two days, when we do not know if the person is positive or not. Many of my colleagues expressed their concern about this problem.

We not only wished but strongly urged the European Parliament to complete the ratification of the decisions that we made last July. As long as things are worse than expected -not in Greece but the rest of Europe- growth rates will be affected. The deeper the European recession in 2020, the more necessary, pivotal I would say, it is not to waste time in the implementation of Recovery Fund.

Giannis Kantelis (SKAI): Mr Prime Minister. During the last Summit, the European Union warned Turkey that there will be sanctions if the provocations persist. In less than 10 days, Turkey ignored these warnings in Cyrpus, as well as by dispatching the “Oruc Reis”. Is waiting for December a realistic scenario or should the European Union show its determination earlier, given Turkey’s attitude? Will a Summit be required or are you examining another way to make the decision on possible sanctions, if needed?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Mr Kantelis, we will see about that. We set a very concrete timetable at the previous Summit. Whether we would like this deadline to come sooner or faster is a theoretical conversation. But, as you know it takes unanimity, rather than a majority, to reach conclusions. It took unanimity to reach conclusions at the previous Summit too, which required a big diplomatic fight at every level, in order to achieve a common European course.

Yet, I need to point out that since the last Summit there have been certain developments, which you described. But, there has also been a very strong verbal condemnation of Turkey, from countries that were up to that point more cautious in their wording or how they viewed this balance between a positive agenda and an agenda that would consider sanctions against Turkey.

As I said earlier, Europe does not make decisions overnight. There is a clear timetable. Final decisions will be made at the Summit in December, when the overall progress -from the beginning of October until December- will be assessed. We will be able to be more specific then and Europe will be more precise about what it intends to do as far as our neighboring country is concerned.

Giannis Palaiologos (Kathimerini): Thank you Mr Prime Minister. I would like to ask you a question on Covid too. We have been informed that there is a discussion as to whether the European Commission should launch an initiative for the procurement of rapid tests so they may be used widely by the member states. This would facilitate transport within the bloc, among other things.

Secondly, as far as vaccines are concerned, once there is a vaccine -hopefully within the next months- how quickly can the production capacity of pharmaceuticals be increased, so that we can have access to the necessary doses?

Thirdly, obviously there are many differences as far as national policies are concerned. Yet, strategically is there an agreement among the 27 member states on how to deal with the pandemic? Are there any countries that turn to the notion of herd immunity, even partially, at least for the chunk of the population that is less susceptible to the virus?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Let me start with the last point. As you know there is one country, Sweden, which followed a different strategy. I would say that health and public health strategies are exclusively a matter of national policy.

The European Commission moved quickly in order to be able to tackle a series of challenges, the one you mentioned being the most important one: when and how we will have access to vaccines in Europe. This is a significant success for Europe; the fact that we have concluded agreements for the pre-order of vaccines. I do not know at what pace they will be available. They will be distributed to all member states on the basis of a single allocation key, population. It is up to us, of course, to see how these vaccines will be used, perhaps following the recommendation of the European Commission. Obviously, we will vaccinate our medical and nursing staff and the most vulnerable people first.

Since we are talking about vaccines, I would like to inform you that the vaccination against the flu is going very well. Over 1 million of our fellow citizens have already been vaccinated. We had ensured access to over 4 million doses. And I think that the vaccination plan will soon be completed, without any delays. It is very important so that we do not have to face an outbreak of the flu and Covid-19 concurrently, during the winter.

Alexia Tasouli (OPEN): Mr Prime Minister, the conclusions condemn the recent illegal actions of Turkey. Nonetheless, five days have passed since the “Oruc Reis” crossed into in the Greek continental shelf and there is an ongoing public debate as to where the “red line” is drawn. There are government officials who say that the “red line” corresponds to the 6 nautical miles’ range, where we have sovereignty, and not the 12 nautical miles, a breadth where, according to the International Law, we have the right to extend our territorial waters.

So, I would like to ask what whether Greece’s “red line” concerning the “Oruc Reis” and operational actions corresponds to the 6 or the 12 nautical miles’ range.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Greece defends its national sovereignty and its sovereign rights. As you know, we have already announced our decision to expand our territorial waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles in the Ionian Sea. Territorial waters are at the heart of national sovereignty, core national sovereignty. It also well-known that Greece has already moved forward with two agreements, with Italy and Egypt, for the delimitation of maritime zones, within which each country exercises sovereign rights. It is also known that Greece defends its sovereignty, both in the air and at sea. Our national airspace extends to 10 nautical miles and any violation is dealt with by the Armed Forces, in accordance with known protocols and the procedures.

None of this is new. The whole debate on the enlargement of our territorial waters, as conducted publicly by the opposition, is in my view a conversation that cannot be held in such a way, through the media. You know that it is an inalienable right of the country to expand its territorial waters to 12 miles. But you also know, everyone does, why this has not happened so far in the Aegean.

Therefore, this is a very complicated discussion that cannot be simplified in this way. I will repeat what is obvious: Greece fully reserves its inalienable right to expand, whenever and however it deems so, its waters to 12 miles.

Maria Aroni (ANT1): Mr Prime Minister, you said that the European Council expressed great concern about the second wave of the pandemic. Given the latest developments, no one knows whether December’s Summit -when possible sanctions against Turkey will be examined- will be held with the leaders being physically present.

Hence I would like to ask you whether you are concerned about the possibility that Covid-19 delays decisions on Turkey. According to most officials here in Brussels this issue demands that leaders be physically present.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: As I told you, it would be preferable if we could physically attend the Summit. But there have been other Council meetings that were held online. If we have to resort to this alternative and we need to make decisions, then this is what we will do. Covid-19 will not paralyze the running of the European Union, just as it did not cause such a paralysis in March, April or May, when essentially the entire continent was in lockdown.

Despite the difficulties, I think that leaders wish and want to meet, while observing the strictest protocols. This is my wish too. I prefer to think that things will not get so bad that it will be impossible to (meet here) in December.