Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview with journalist Mark Bendeich, in the context of the Reuters NEXT digital conference

(Γ.Τ. Πρωθυπουργού/ Δημήτρης Παπαμήτσος)

Mark Bendeich: Hi everybody. My name is Mark and I am the radio news editor for Reuters. Welcome Prime Minister, we can start with the first question, which is the big story of the day and that is that your government has just announced that it will be mandatory for over 60s to be vaccinated against COVID. Tell us what your assessment is on the danger of this new Omicron variant, and why is it that so many of the older groups are reluctant to get vaccinated?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, Mark, let me point out that 83% of Greeks over 60 have already made the choice to get vaccinated. 17% have not. And because we know from the data that we have at our disposal, just a visit to our hospitals will confirm what I tell you. It is the older people who get sick. It is the older unvaccinated people who are in serious risk of ending up in an ICU bed and possibly even losing their life.

So we think that what we are in the process of legislating – we will be legislating it today – is a proportionate response, which takes into consideration the fact that we have exhausted all other means to convince these people to get vaccinated. There will be what I consider to be a reasonable €100 fine every month for people who remain unvaccinated. And what’s very interesting is that in less than 24 hours, we’ve seen a significant uptake in appointments for the first dose of vaccines from that age group.

So, I’m pretty sure that this policy is going to be effective and that we would further drive up our vaccination rates. We are currently around the EU average. If you look at people above the age of 18 who have gotten vaccinated, three out of four have gotten vaccinated. But with the Omicron mutation, with the omicron variant, we don’t know what’s in stock, but what we do know is that we need to accelerate vaccination and also accelerate the booster shot.

We were one of the first European countries to open up the booster shot for everyone above the age of 18, once six months have passed from their last dose. We are even looking to reduce that time window to allow people to get vaccinated with the booster shot earlier.

Mark Bendeich: Ok. And how would you enforce this mandatory vaccination rule?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It’s very simple. It’s a fine and you have to pay it. So it will appear, you know, and it will be confirmed by the tax authorities. And it’s a fine like every other fine. You have to pay it.

Mark Bendeich: Would you consider extending that vaccination requirement to other age groups?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We are focusing on the elderly because that’s where the real pressure on our healthcare system is. Right now, there are no plans to expand that to other age groups. We want to make sure that we target the core of the problem. And as I told you, the core of the problem today is that almost nine out of 10 people in ICU units are unvaccinated, elderly people who are putting a lot of strain on our health care system, and they’re also drawing resources that are necessary for all the other users of the healthcare system that have made the choice to get vaccinated.

Mark Bendeich: And obviously, tourism is a very important part of the Greek economy. We’ve seen other countries start to impose travel restrictions and new rules for travelers. How concerned are you for the next tourism season in Greece?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, in a sense, we’re lucky because our tourism season – our main tourism season – just came to an end. I want to point out that we did particularly well in the summer. We received lots of awards as “favorite destination”. We managed to bring in more revenues than we had anticipated. The reason was that we were very clear in terms of communicating how we would open to tourists and what would be the rules that we would put in place. People did come to Greece, and we’re planning for a very, very successful 2022.

Again, our tourism season officially starts in April, and hopefully by then we will have addressed the current spike of the pandemic. And hopefully by then, things will have gotten better in terms of administering more booster shots, but also having access to the drugs that look particularly promising in terms of treating the more severe COVID cases.

Mark Bendeich: And so in general, do you have a target for the tourism industry next year. As you said, this year you mentioned that you exceeded the target. But for next year, do you have a target?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We want to measure success in terms of revenue and in terms of our main sustainability indices and not just in terms of the raw number of people who come and visit Greece. What was very interesting this summer is that fewer people, of course, came, but they spent more money, which is exactly what we want to do. We want to move up the value chain, make the Greek tourism product fully in line with the sustainability requirements of our era and invest in premium products.

This is actually happening as we speak. We have numerous new hotels that are opening every month in Greece. We’re also opening new subsegments of our tourism product. For example, city breaks. Athens is really booming today and it’s a year-round destination. We’re focusing a lot on pushing Greece as a year-round destination. Of course, the bulk of people visiting Greece will come during the summer, but we do want to extend our season and make the case that Greece is an attractive destination year-round.

But it should be an attractive destination, Mark, not just for tourists. It can also be an attractive destination for people who choose to work from Greece, and the pandemic has highlighted how important quality of life, good connectivity, good access to healthcare is. What we’ve seen is an influx of people. We can call them digital nomads who choose to actually spend more time in Greece, work from Greece. We have special visa schemes that allow them to come and work from Greece.

A lot of these people are ending up purchasing real estate in Greece, setting up their businesses in Greece. So Greece is a destination not just for tourism, it’s a destination for employment, it’s a destination for retirement. It’s a destination for entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s really phenomenal what’s happening in the high-tech ecosystem in Greece. So it would be, I think, unfair for Greece to just be portrayed as a tourist destination. Tourism is always going to be the flagship of our economy, but other sectors are doing incredibly well these days.

Mark Bendeich: If the pandemic increases like this, on and off, new variants.. With Greece emerging from a very serious financial crisis and economic crisis. You see risks if the pandemic continues like this?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I think the risks will involve everyone, not just Greece. Greece has recovered better than most European countries from the pandemic. Our economy is going to grow by more than 7% this year. We’ve already made up all of the lost ground from the pandemic. Greece is becoming a very attractive investment destination for foreign capital. We spent a lot of money during the pandemic to support our businesses. We are leaders in bringing down unemployment, over the past two years, which means that as we removed the support mechanism for businesses, unemployment came down rather than creeping up as many people expected.

And we have lots of talented young Greeks who left Greece during the financial crisis, who are interested in returning to Greece. So the future is very promising. Of course, no one knows what the pandemic will throw at us again. We simply do not have enough data regarding the Omicron variant to be able to plan for the future. But what we know works is to increase vaccination rates, strengthen your healthcare system, making sure we get as many boosters in people’s arms as quickly as possible. And this is what we will be doing for the foreseeable future.

Mark Bendeich: The pandemic comes at a time when Greece was at a real crossroads – surely economically. The ECB, its emergency pandemic bond buying program is due to finish in March. If Greece still has a debt to GDP ratio of almost 200%, can Greece withstand the withdrawal of that and any ongoing program in March?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, if you look at the big picture, Greece in 2021 has no comparison to Greece in 2011 or even 2015. I mean, this is a country that has put its public finances in order. Of course, we’re running big deficits as a result of the pandemic. This is to be expected. But we have a very clear plan regarding how we will return towards fiscal sustainability. Of course, there’s a discussion – as you know – in Europe, about the definition of fiscal sustainability in the post-pandemic world.

And I do expect that the rules of the existing Stability and Growth Pact will be changed, to take into account the lessons of the financial crisis, but also the lessons of the pandemic. If you look at our debt, yes, it’s high as a percentage of GDP, but our GDP is increasing very rapidly and I do expect us to be on a path where our GDP is going to be higher than the EU average for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, our debt repayment obligations for the next decade are relatively low because our debt has, as you know, very, very peculiar characteristics, and the markets have rewarded our government by essentially offering us record low interest rates. So yes, we are aware of the legacy problems of the Greek economy. But we’re also a reform – oriented government that is pursuing growth-friendly policies without endangering fiscal sustainability. So as long as we stay the course, I am not particularly concerned about the situation of our debt.

Mark Bendeich: When do you think that this progress is going to be rewarded by credit rating agencies?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I would hope that by the beginning of 2023, at the latest, that would happen. As you know, the credit rating agencies have upgraded the Greek economy during the pandemic. That was not obvious. But I think there is a general understanding in the global capital markets that we are focused on fiscal sustainability. But at the same time, we managed to cut taxes and focus on growth. Τhat without putting the country on a high growth trajectory, οur debt is never going to be truly sustainable. And, in order to do that, we need to engage in meaningful reforms.

And what I can tell you is that we never stopped doing important reforms even during the pandemic. So half of our brain was focused on crisis management. The other half was focused on making sure we fix the underlying problems of the Greek economy. And you just have to ask the big multinationals that are looking at Greece, that are investing in Greece today and they will tell you a very – I think – exciting story about a country that is changing and that is becoming an attractive investment destination.

Mark Bendeich: Prime Minister, are you still confident in that forecast for GDP growth next year at 4.5%?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It could be even higher than that. If I look at all the raw data… And again, this assumes that there is no major hiccup with the pandemic, but assuming that the pandemic is gradually going to come to an end – during the first six months of 2022 – I’m very bullish about the prospects of the Greek economy. But, Mark, this is not just about the GDP figure itself.

In the past, we’ve also grown at a pace that was higher than the EU average pace. But it was a growth fueled by debt and consumption. Now we want the growth that’s fueled by investment and by innovation, and by making sure we are leaders in the twin transitions: the green transition and the digital transition. And there are a lot of indications that this is currently happening in Greece.

So I think we are describing not just a plan for the future, but the true work in progress.

Mark Bendeich: You spoke about innovation and investment. Of course, both are going to be needed in great quantities to confront Climate Change. Greece on the frontline of Climate Change. How is Greece going to adapt in a world of 1.5 Celsius degrees increase or even more?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, we all need to make the case that to stay on the 1.5 trajectory, we need to do more. I think we’re doing our fair share. We’re a medium-sized country, but we have been champions supporting the European Green Deal and the European ambitions regarding the green transition. And Europe is at the forefront of innovative climate policies. We took the decision to move away from coal two years ago, way before coal became the big topic in Glasgow.

I think it was the right decision, both for ecological, environmental reasons, but also for economical reasons. Coal has stopped being a cheap source of energy with the price of ETS, where it is now and where it would probably end up over the next year. So we’ve been pushing this decarbonisation agenda aggressively, since we took over two years ago. And because exactly we were leaders in moving away from coal, we’ve managed to secure significant European funding through the just transition funding schemes to make sure that we support our coal regions.

We have to convince people that this transition is not going to destroy jobs, that it will probably create more and better jobs and that it will not hit disposable income. And that is why we have also supported households to make sure that they don’t feel the pain from increased electricity bills because of the volatility of the gas market. It’s very important to make the case that the green transition is not just a project for the elites. It’s a project that needs broad social mobilization.

And in order to get the levels and degrees of social approval, we have to have very detailed plans on how to create more jobs than will be lost as a result of the transition and how we will support disposable income for more vulnerable households.

Mark Bendeich: I know you said that there’s much more to the Greek economy than tourism. But one question people outside Greece might be asking is how will the industry (of tourism) cope with temperatures as high as 40s and maybe even 50s. Does the tourism industry have a plan for that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It is a long-term adaptation to this environment. It is a challenge, of course. It’s a challenge for every country. It is a challenge for our tourism and industry. If anything, it’s probably going to make Greece more attractive. You know, in the spring or in the fall or even in the winter. Again, we probably have more people than we want arriving in Greece in August.

But what we’ve done on the adaptation side is we’ve set up a Ministry of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection. As you know, we were hit by wildfires this summer and we need to do more to protect ourselves against natural disasters, which will hit us with increased frequency. There’s much more room for European cooperation when it comes to civil protection, and our number one duty is to protect people’s lives. We had catastrophic wildfires this summer, but we did manage to save lots and lots of people. Οne person lost their life. And we need to become better at living with these extreme weather events. At the same time, it is very, very clear that when we talk about sustainability, about climate change, it’s about making good use of our limited natural resources. So if you look at, for example, our islands, we are pushing hard to turn them into carbon neutral islands as quickly as possible. We have two pilot projects, one on Astypalaia and one on Chalki, where we have actually demonstrated that this can happen at a relatively fast pace.
Chalki is a small island, very close to Rhodes. We’ve just installed a 1 megawatt solar PV system. And suddenly the people of Chalki have access to virtually free electricity. We’ve put in charging stations. We’re going to make the island completely free from internal combustion engines very soon. We’re focusing on recycling, reusing water. So, these small islands can actually be test cases of how one can move to a carbon neutral, fully sustainable model of development very quickly. And of course, this is also going to be attractive for our tourism.

High-end tourism is looking for these types of stories and we want to be leaders and not laggards when it comes to these types of projects.

Mark Bendeich: Your government is planning to issue a green bond next year. How much, Prime Minister, is the government looking to raise?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I’ll leave that to our Public Debt Management Authority. Yes, we will be issuing a green bond next year. But again, if you want to issue a green bond, you have to make sure you have attractive projects to channel the funds. And I think overall, the credibility of Greece as a serious country when it comes to addressing Climate Change is high. So I think we will have no difficulty raising a green bond at relatively attractive interest rates.

Mark Bendeich: Good luck with that. I’m going to turn to another issue which must be on top at the moment. I am talking about migration. Migrants arrive massively to Belarus and also across the channel in London. How concerned are you about the situation and the implications for Greece?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We have lived with the problem of migration for many, many years. This is not new to us. We were at the forefront of the big migratory waves of 2015, when essentially Greece had no migration policy. We were a conveyor belt as people moved towards Europe, and we were also the first European country to suffer the consequences of a neighboring country instrumentalizing migration. Back in March 2020, when Turkey tried to do essentially what Belarus is doing today with the Baltic countries and Poland.
And we said “No”, at the time. “This is not going to happen. We protected our borders. We made the case for the need for more European resources to protect our borders. And we have what I consider to be a tough but fair migration policy, which makes the case for eradicating smuggler networks while, at the same time, providing legal pathways for migration and acknowledging the fact that there are needs even in our labor market, which could be addressed through regulated migration.

Greece is a country that is currently hosting 55.000 asylum seekers and people who have already received international protection. At the same time, we’ve reduced migratory flows in the Aegean by 90%. We’ve built new and very humane facilities on all our islands. So the images of these horrible camps – Moria in particular on the island of Lesbos – this is history. This no longer exists in Greece. People who do arrive are housed in what I consider to be state-of-the-art facilities until their asylum application is processed.

And if they do receive a positive answer, they are welcome to stay in Greece. And we want to focus more on how we can integrate these people in Greek society. At the same time, we welcomed more than 700 Afghani women and their families. We were extremely generous in terms of accommodating these people, whose lives were in real danger. So I think we’ve proven our humanitarian track record and our concern with fundamental human rights. Our Coast Guard has saved thousands of people at sea.

At the same time, we’re also defending our border. So, it’s a tough balance, but I think we can actually do both and be very consistent in our policies.

Mark Bendeich: Nevertheless, Prime Minister, there are critics who have accused the Greek government of pushbacks at sea and treating migrants very badly. What do you say to those criticisms?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, I take any allegation very seriously, as long as it’s an allegation from a reputable independent source or international organization. I’m saying this because we’ve seen a lot of fake news coming out of Turkey on this issue. So one needs to be very careful. What we’ve done is that we’ve asked the Independent National Transparency Authority – which we’ve set up and is totally independent – to investigate any such allegations and we will continue to do so.

However, I do want to point out that intercepting a boat at sea is not the same as pushing it back. The Turkish Coast Guard needs to do its job, and it needs to pick up these people who frequently leave the Turkish shores in desperate conditions and return them to Turkey. We consider Turkey to be a safe country. People are safe in Turkey. They are not fleeing war and persecution when they leave the Turkish coast. So, I encourage Turkey to cooperate better on this issue.

My minister of Migration was in Turkey a few weeks ago. I think we have a constructive dialogue on how we can work to address these issues. It is true that Turkey is hosting 4.000.000 refugees. So they need to be partners in addressing this problem. At the same time, we also need to be absolutely clear that we and by “we” I mean, the European Union not just Greece, we will not tolerate episode 2 of instrumentalizing migrants for geopolitical purposes. So what happened in Evros in 2020 is not going to happen again.

Mark Bendeich: You seem quite confident that a repeat of the scenario from 2020 cannot happen.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It will not happen. It will not happen. We will not allow it to happen. But I’m also confident that Turkey understands that it is not in its interest to allow such a scenario from happening again. And we’re here to help Turkey also protect its eastern borders. We consider Turkey to be a partner rather than an adversary in addressing the migratory challenges. And we have many differences with Turkey. We shouldn’t make migration another one of those.

Mark Bendeich: Generally, what’s your assessment of how the EU is handling this migrant situation? And do you think it needs to be revisited again? The Dublin Rules? Poland, for instance, is now on the front line. So, what’s your assessment of EU policy on migration?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We’ve got to be honest. We have failed to address this issue at the European level constructively. It’s very difficult to achieve unanimity in the Council. There are some good proposals by the Commission regarding this file but there are also some issues where we disagree with the Commission. We think that the EU should fund permanent structures that protect our borders. I see no difference between funding drones and funding a proper fence, which is what we have on our land border.

But, at the end of the day, this is about solidarity and common burden sharing. And I’m afraid that not all member states see the problem in its true European dimension. So I’m not particularly optimistic about us being able to make significant progress on this file. Maybe we should at present just focus on the external aspect of the problem. And certainly what we need to do is we need to work better with the countries of origin to make sure that we can actually return people to them more effectively and at a quicker pace. Because right now it takes ages to send people back.

Mark Bendeich: And in particular with Afghanistan what can the EU do to prevent an exodus of Afghans towards Europe?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, we haven’t seen it, which is encouraging. Of course, the last thing we would want is for Afghanistan to collapse as a country, as a society. It’s not easy to interact with a new regime. But I think the EU has taken the measured approach in terms of making sure that any engagement needs to be reciprocal, in terms of the reaction of the Taliban regime. The good thing is that so far we have not seen, over the past months, a significant increase in migratory pressures from Afghanistan.
I mean, the people from Afghanistan who come to Greece or try to enter Greece today are those who have been in Turkey for quite some time. They’re not new arrivals.

Mark Bendeich: One more question on the “working nomads” people who are looking to set up in a third country and work from there. Do you have any new incentives?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, we already have quite a few incentives. If you relocate to Greece and especially if you’re Greek and have left the country and you want to return, for five years, you’ll be paying 50% of your income tax.

We have a series of attractive schemes regarding non-dom regimes for wealthy individuals who would want to set up tax residence in Greece. We have a golden visa scheme that gives a permit to live in Greece. If you purchase real estate, if you make an investment in Greece. So I think we have the proper incentives in place to make the case that Greece is – as I told you – attractive not just as a pleasure destination, but also as a business destination.

Mark Bendeich: Well, thank you very much. Thanks so much for joining us.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you, thank you Mark.