Pablo thank you very much for your kind words. It’s always a pleasure to be able to compare notes with you, you’re also a young leader who has taken over a traditional center-right party. So, in that sense, there is a lot of a common basis for common experiences that I think are mutually helpful. Let me also say good morning to Margaritis Schinas, whose impeccable Spanish connections I could never hope to emulate. And of course to my good friend Antonio, again, let me congratulate him for the fantastic work he has done and he is doing at the level of our European political family.
First of all, let me say that indeed it has been a very interesting ride over the past five years. I was elected leader of Nea Dimokratia in January 2016, after suffering a significant defeat. My commitment was from the very beginning to renew the party, to infuse it with new personnel and new ideas, and to fight populism without adopting a populist rhetoric.
We placed a lot of emphasis on common sense, technocratic solutions, some of them non-ideological, practical solutions to people’s problems. That was our platform with which we won the elections in July 2019. We managed to secure an absolute majority in parliament. We managed to occupy what we call the the center space of the Greek political spectrum, while at the same time also eliminating the extreme right from parliament, which I think was a victory for Greek democracy. Golden Dawn is no longer represented in the Greek parliament and I think this was an important message that came out of Greece at a time when the voices of the extreme are on the rise in many European countries.
Οver the past 18 months we had to deal -as you pointed out Pablo- with numerous crises. We had to face the pandemic as every other European country had, and the economic aftermath of essentially shutting down our economic activity. I think we have done reasonably well on that level, we’re one of the best-performing countries in terms of dealing with the pandemic. But at the same time we also made sure that we used the opportunity presented by the pandemic as a springboard to implement important structural reforms that would make our economy more competitive, create more jobs and reduce income inequality.
So, although much of my time is spent in crisis management mode, I made sure that we never stopped the important reforms that were part of our electoral platform: how to lower taxes, how to attract investment, how do you make the public administration more efficient, how do you digitize the state, how do you move towards a green transition. And now we have an additional tool at our disposal, which is the Recovery and Resilience Fund. A very, very important step taken by the European Union to be able to borrow at the supranational level and give the member states the opportunity to use grants to drive through important investments and reforms.
We have already submitted our plan to the Commission. It has been very well received by the European institutions. We have used, as you mentioned, a Nobel laureate, Christophoros Pissarides, to come up with a master plan for the transformation of the Greek economy, which has served as a non-partisan point of reference, because I never wanted to give the impression that these reforms are strictly, simply implemented by our party.
And I think this report has proven to be very helpful because it has honestly looked at our deficiencies and proposed bold solutions. So now we have the funds available from the Recovery and Resilience facility. They will start being dispersed to Greece starting in 2021. And I’m quite optimistic that once we leave the pandemic behind us, which I expect to happen at some point during the spring or the summer of 2021, the recovery is going to be fast.
There are common themes that we need to discuss as countries of the South. I’m very happy that Mario Draghi is also pushing Italy now in the direction of ambitious reforms, because there are some common threads that connect all the countries of the South. And that is why more coordination is necessary.
You pointed out one initiative which I took, which I think is very important for all our countries, for Greece, for Spain, for Italy. And that is this concept of a vaccine certificate, which is a relatively simple idea that at the European level we have a common vaccine certificate that will make it easier for people who have been vaccinated to travel without going through the additional restrictions that we currently impose.
I think this is absolutely critical for our countries, as we hope to have a much better tourism season than we had last year. And I’m pretty sure that at the end the European Commission will move in that direction. But even if it doesn’t, member states will move in that direction, because they want to give their citizens the opportunity to have proof of vaccination, which they can then provide to other European countries so as to facilitate travel.
So there are lots of issues we can talk about that are of common interest: how do we protect our natural environment, how do we make better use of renewable energy as we are countries which are blessed with sun and wind.
But also how do we cooperate at the geopolitical level. Thank you for your support in our ongoing dispute with Turkey, we very much count on European support when it comes to resolving issues with our neighboring country. And I’ve made it very clear at the level of the Council that the differences between Greece and Turkey are differences which affect the European Union as a whole. And I think this point has been made very, very clearly by the Council, but I also want to highlight in particular the support of the EPP and all of the member parties, because they’ve been very, very vocal in supporting Greece against Turkish aggression.
I do hope that we will leave the tension of 2020 behind us. We have already started exploratory talks with Turkey. We’ve invited them for the second round. They haven’t responded yet but I do hope that they will respond, so that we can discuss in good faith what is the main difference we have with Turkey, which is the delimitation of our maritime zones in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean. I think if you trust international law and the law of the seas and if you have a fundamental faith and respect in the concept of a good neighbourly relationship, there is no issue that cannot be resolved.
So let me stop here. Let me thank you again Pablo and also Nueva Economia Forum for the invitation to participate in this discussion. I wish you, as a sister party, best of luck in your endeavors and I’m happy to come to Spain as soon as possible and as soon as the pandemic will allow it.
On the vaccine strategy of the European union, I represent a medium-size European country and I feel much more comfortable when the European Union is negotiating on my behalf compared to what I had to go through if I had to negotiate on my own, to compete against much bigger countries to ensure enough vaccines.
So the fundamental principle that the European Union purchases vaccines at the European level, and then distributes the vaccines per capita to all member states, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, large or small, Northern countries versus Southern countries, is in principle correct. It was the right approach to take. Of course, when you have 27 member states it’s always more complicated than if you had just one country negotiating. And I think the President of the Commission was very bold in recognizing that there were some delays. And I think that steps have been put in place to make sure that we remedy whatever complications had arisen and that we have access to the new vaccines as quickly as possible.
We in Greece have vaccinated with the first dose more than 6% of our population. We could easily ramp-up vaccinations much faster, but we are short of the necessary vaccines in order to be able to do that. But we do expect to get more vaccines in March and many more vaccines in April and in May, when I think we will probably have more vaccines than we will need at some point, because as Margaritis pointed out we’ve purchased a multiple of the vaccines that will eventually be used, just to be safe.
So, just to set the record straight in terms of what Europe has done and where we can all sort of improve our efficiency. The fundamental decision was absolutely the correct decision. And I think a very good example of European solidarity in practice.
Let me just touch upon an issue that Margaritis raised regarding the nature of the Recovery and Resilience Fund. Margaritis used the words -if I got the English translation right- “easy money”. There will be no easy money and we’re fully aware of that. And we accept that in principle, and this is the right approach. No one is going to give us money, just blank checks that will go into our budget to be spent as we deem. Our plan needs to be compliant with the country-specific recommendations, it needs to focus on reforms and investments, and it needs to be in line with the important priorities that the Commission has set at the European level: the green transition and the digital transformation. So these are non-negotiable principles and we all need to be fully aware of what we can and what we cannot do with this money.
Now, we perfectly accept this because these were our priorities from the very beginning. We want to support the green transition. We have already used the pandemic as an opportunity to drive through a transformative digital agenda in order to make the state more efficient. And we want to use the money to support companies, especially medium-sized companies, to invest more and to create more jobs, while at the same time making sure that we preserve social solidarity and reduce income inequality.
So the principles are very, very clear and the rules have been set and everyone needs to comply. I also happen to believe that these are the correct rules in order to make sure that this new pot of money, which was not on the table a year ago -and it’s very important to point this out- is used in a way that improves the competitiveness of all European economies.
One point that Antonio raised on the issue of vaccines and our strategy regarding the opening of tourism. We want people to travel safely. So the first thing that we need to do is to make sure that we contain the pandemic in our own countries. We want people to feel safe, that when they come to Greece, to Spain, to Portugal, to Italy, they obviously will not be coming into a hot zone. I think this is going to happen come spring and certainly come summer, as we vaccinate a significant proportion of the population. And as the summer kicks in, we know that there is a clear element of seasonality to this virus.
So then the second question is how do we facilitate travel. Vaccine certificates are very, very important, but also how do we put in place the right protocols to make sure that people can actually travel safely. So, we have very strict protocols regarding our tourism industry, what activities are offered, what activities may possibly not be offered this summer; how we protect workers in our hospitality sector and how we can also do additional testing over and above the testing that will be done before people actually enter a plane.
Last year we employed the services of some of our top data scientists and we put in place a very sophisticated algorithm that allowed us to do much more accurate predictive testing, not for everyone but for a significant sample of the people who actually came into Greece. And this gave us a very, very good idea of where the problems were. Last summer we didn’t have access to rapid tests and of course there were no vaccines and we did manage to open up relatively safely. We saw no real spikes connected to tourism. So I think we need to take those lessons and implement them this year.
Tourism is critical for our economies, especially for the economies of the southern countries. And that is why I think an approach at the European level is necessary. I received yesterday a response by the President of the Commission regarding my request to discuss the vaccine certificate. I think it is very positive that we acknowledge that the work will be done in order to make sure that we use this as “stage one” simply for medical purposes and then I think we need to discuss at the political level -once we do all of the infrastructure work- whether we can roll it out also to facilitate travel.
Obviously, Antonio, this is a discussion that will be much more relevant in April, May, June, when a significant percentage of the European population will be vaccinated. But we should have no doubt: the pressure will be put by our clients on their governments, because people in Denmark or in Germany or in Poland will want to travel and they will push their governments and also push the Commission to make travel easier.
And we’ve said very, very clearly: if you are vaccinated and if we have proof of vaccination, you can enter the country without significant restrictions, without a quarantine. You can enjoy your holidays in Greece and then return safely to your country of origin.
And can I just say one word about Antonio, which I didn’t say before. Antonio was present at every single Nea Dimokratia congress. At the time when we were in opposition and things were difficult he was always there. He was always a big supporter. Antonio, we never forget our friends and you have an open invitation to our next congress, which will take place in December. Now we have the advantage of being in government but we are very, very grateful for all the support you provided us when we were in the opposition.
Well, I’m looking forward to the debate on the Future of Europe. And I think the conference provides an appropriate forum for having discussions, which I think are long overdue. You raised a series of important geopolitical questions regarding the positioning of Europe in a changing world landscape.
This is a topic which we need to address head-on, also taking into consideration the willingness of the Commission -if I were to use Ursula von der Leyen’s words- to be a geopolitical Commission. Not just to be an economic power, but also power that expresses its strength in geopolitical terms.
The new Biden administration provides us with an opportunity to recalibrate our relationship with the United States. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will see eye-to-eye with the US on all fronts, but I certainly welcome certain aspects of the US foreign policy as they have been expressed. First the belief and the commitment to multilateral institutions. And second, the return of the United States to the Paris Climate Accord, because it is impossible to address climate change without having all the big emitters on-board.
It is not always easy -we know- at the level of the European Union to agree amongst 27 countries, when we take important geopolitical decisions. I have firsthand experience of this, because it did take me some time and effort to explain and convince the European Council why, for example, the relationship with Turkey is an issue which should be of concern not just to Greece and Cyprus, but also to the European Union as a whole.
So, we always need to take into consideration that at the level of the European Union decisions will not be taken maybe with the speed that many people expect. But this is the way Europe has always worked and it has the ability to surprise us pleasantly, as it did last July, when we agreed that we needed additional resources to tackle the economic implications of the pandemic.
Last March nobody would have placed any bets on the ability of the European Union to borrow as a supranational entity and to provide member states with grants to address the pandemic. And four months later this is actually something that happened. So this is the way Europe works. We need to acknowledge that. And some of these topics I’m sure will be discussed at the level of the conference on Europe.
The Vice-President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas, the President of Spain’s Partido Popular Pablo Casado and the Secretary General of the European People’s Party Antonio Lopez- Isturiz also participated in the discussion.