Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis participates in an open discussion with David Ignatius, in Georgetown University

David Ignatius: Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister. I want to say “Efharisto”, in what I hope is not too terribly botched Greek and welcome you to this important visit. As Mike and President DeGioia said, you will be addressing a joint session of Congress tomorrow. I believe this is only the 8th time that a foreign leader other than you has addressed a joint session, first time a Greek leader has ever done so. And I want you to give this audience a little preview, if you would, of what you’re going to say to our Congress tomorrow about this Bicentennial, about the relationship between Greece and America, about what you know as the Prime Minister of the world’s oldest democracy.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Oh, thank you. Thank you, David. And thank you, Mr. President, for your very kind introduction. It’s a real pleasure to be back at Georgetown. I remember that when I was 19 years old, I was doing an internship for a Senator from Maryland, spent six weeks around the Georgetown campus. That’s changed a lot since then towards the better. And it’s always a pleasure to be back speaking at top American universities. Indeed, David, it’s a great honor for me personally, but also for Greece to be able to address the joint session of Congress. I will be the first head of state of government from Greece to be able to do so. And I believe it will be an opportunity for me to speak about these parallel paths of our two democracies because indeed, this is a very interesting story. The founding fathers were very much inspired by the ideas of Athenian democracy as those were established 2,500 years ago. And our founding fathers, the leaders of the Greek revolution, were in their return inspired by the founding fathers. Our intellectuals communicated with the founding fathers and there was a lot of interest in the US in the fate of the Greek War of Independence.

We won our freedom against the odds. The first Democratic state to be established in the Balkan Peninsula. And ever since, our two countries were always on the right side of history. We fought together in world wars. There were difficult moments regarding the relationship between our two countries during the military junta of 1967 to 1974. But ever since, the relationship has improved significantly. So it will be an opportunity for me to take stock of what the relationship is today. I think it is at its strongest point ever, but also to speak about the concept of a resilient democracy, because Greece has gone through a lot over the past decade. We struggled with the demons of populism. We suffered the consequences of a profound economic crisis, but we ended up emerging stronger. So how did this actually happen? I think this is a relevant story for all democracies and I will be able to share some ideas bringing the Greek experience when I address Congress tomorrow.

David Ignatius: With your permission, I’d love to ask you to take that a little bit further. Democracy is fragile, and it’s no secret that democracy is having its troubles around the world, dealing with authoritarian countries. Αnd it’s having its troubles, we sometimes fear here in the United States. Greek democracy in its founding era in Athens lasted only, I think, 250 years, and then it was gone. You’ve had a wonderful democracy since the last 200 years, but it’s had some moments of great difficulty with the military junta and other stresses. And I’m really interested, I think we all would, what lessons you draw from Greece’s experience about the word you used was resilience, about how democracies can restore their vitality when they’re stressed, as so many are these days.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Ancient Greece was a unique experiment. It was a democracy unlike the democracies we have today. Women, obviously slaves, were not able to participate in the efforts of Athens, but it was the first exercise in the history of the world in self governance and in equality versus the law. If you look at the story of Athenian democracy, it is interesting that Athens ended up losing a war, the Peloponnesian war, against an authoritarian state. But democracy came back after that, more resilient, stronger. And I think there’s one lesson one can draw by reading the ancient texts and what Thucydides put in Pericles’ words, is the ability of democracies to have checks and balances against the passion of the moment, because many of the decisions that led to Athens’ downfall were the result of demagogues affecting and influencing those who actually took the decisions, which were essentially all adult male Athenians at the time. So resilient institutions that hold leaders accountable every four or five years, whenever their turns come to an end. But that managed to diffuse the very polarizing nature of the public debate. Yes, maybe this is a lesson we can draw from classical Greece. If you look at the more modern experience of Greece, what we went through over the past decade, Greece went through a profound economic crisis.

I think what we call the old political establishment was certainly to blame for the fact that the country almost went bankrupt. But what happened since was that we elected into power a populist government which essentially was a government with no ideological cohesion, because the extreme left government with the extreme right that promised very simple solutions to complicated problems. And we ended up prolonging the crisis unnecessarily for four additional years. So I think what we also have learned is that when you elect populists to power, you usually suffer the consequences, because in terms of actually solving the real problems and addressing the reasonable grievances of people, usually they do not have the solution. There’s always a risk of democratic institutions being eroded when that happens. But Greece proved to have very resilient institutions. So our courts were strong. They ruled against attempts for the previous government to intervene in the media landscape. And of course, our functioning democracy is based on the premise that if you lose your election, you step aside and you let the next government step in, which is exactly what happened in 2019. But the one lesson that I drew was to make sure that we should not live in our liberal sort of intellectual elite bubble.

The grievances that fuel the resentment of societies are very real. We cannot afford to just ignore them or not to assign the proper degree of attention, that income inequality is a real issue, cost of living is a real issue that needs to be addressed. So as long as we don’t address the underlying root causes that lead to this resentment and the toxicity of the public debate, we will have failed to address what is causing this intensity in the public debate in the first place.

David Ignatius: Just one question more about this, because your remarks, I think, have special resonance for us in the United States where we’re having difficulty in some areas of our politics. By your description, what your party New Democracy did after this period of populist explosion was to rebuild a center in Greek politics, and that’s proving quite difficult in the United States and also in other democracies. Say just a few more words about how you went about that.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think your observation is very relevant. Indeed, I have the privilege of leading what is the traditional center right conservative party since 2016. From the moment I got elected, I started working on my pledge to renew the party, move it more towards the political center. The political center being defined as a space of political moderation. Political pragmatism makes the debate less ideological than it used to be, because in Greece we’re always very passionate about politics as we know and focus on real solutions to real problems; we managed to bring in lots of new talent into the party. And when we won with an absolute majority, I was, I think, bold enough to offer government jobs to talented people who are not members of the party.

So I expanded the government. The government right now is broader than the footprint, the political footprint of the party. So, yes, I think it is important for me to govern from the center without forgetting that I represent a traditional center right party. We hold our values very dear. But I think governing from the center is a solution towards addressing the extreme polarization of politics because by nature, it is a more consensual form of government. You try to reach out across the aisle to see whenever you can form necessary alliances.

Unfortunately, in Greece the Syriza opposition now has zero interest in engaging with us politically, but that is their choice. My obligation is to try as much as I can not to add additional tension to the public debate. We have enough problems as they are, and I think also people from my at least experiencing ιν Greece, really, they switch off when they see people be very aggressive in terms of the public debates. Unless you really talk to the die- hard supporters of the party, μost other people who are by nature more moderate are not going to follow a debate that is going to be very polarizing and very toxic.

David Ignatius: I’m going to turn in a moment to the war that’s literally almost at your doorstep. But I want to ask a couple of questions about human rights issues. Τhe World Press Freedom Organization issues an index that’s taken seriously by folks in my business. And the release that they published a couple of months ago ranked Greece as the lowest among EU countries in terms of press freedom, replacing Bulgaria, which would add that spot. And I’m sure those numbers probably tell us why that’s so and what you’re doing about it.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, if you’re referring to an index published by a French NGO, I disagree in the most emphatic way with the conclusions and the methodology of the specific rank. We are a free democracy. If you just look at the front pages of newspapers in Greece, you will realize that most of them are very critical of what we are doing. This is a country where anyone can publish anything and not be not just prosecuted for it, but has complete freedom to express their pain. So I fundamentally disagree with these assessments. And if you just take a look at what is happening with the media landscape in Greece, I think it will support my claim.

What we did do, was during the pandemic, we tried to legislate a framework to limit the spread of fake news related to the pandemic. It was not very successful. I would be the first to admit this, because these types of techniques, especially when it comes to the pandemic, have an ability to just spread beyond control through social media. So if I were to do it again, I probably would not initiate this legislation. But beyond that, again, I will repeat that Greece is a very vibrant democracy where everyone has the freedom to write or say anything they want and by nature, I’m a moderate politician and I always take criticism very seriously. And I know that if you’re in the public sphere, you will be criticized. And when the criticism is right and when it is substantiated with facts, that’s the real purpose of journalism, to make us better.

David Ignatius: Thank you for that answer. It was indeed the issue of the legislation criminalizing fake news that led to this attention reported. Just to ask about one more report. This was issued by the State Department Human Rights Unit. They issued a report March 30 mentioning a case of a man named Andreas Georgiou, who was head of the Hellenic Statistical Authority. By the State Department account, he had been cleared three times on charges of falsifying budget data. But as of the end of last year, he was not officially cleared. The State Department has expressed concern about that. Can you just give us a sense of where that case is.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would never comment on cases that are open in front of justice. That would be an intervention in the independence of Greek Justice. I’ve been on the record saying that I would like to see this case being resolved sooner rather than later. We have a systemic problem in Greece and that has to do with the fact that it takes way too long for courts to make the final decisions. And I’m afraid that this is a case that actually demonstrates the fact that this is a structural problem that we need to address. We’ve worked on that front over the past three years. We have passed numerous legislative measures to make it easier for courts to reach decisions quicker, but we don’t do people justice when we are unable to offer them a final decision. And I’m afraid that this is a case to demonstrate this problem that we still have.

David Ignatius: Let’s turn it to Ukraine. As I said, the war on your doorstep. Give us your sense as head of an important NATO country, as somebody who’s watching this at very close range. First, how the war is going today based on what you see and second, how do you think it will or should end?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: What is happening in Europe today is inconceivable. I remember when I graduated from University in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall had collapsed, at the beginning of what we thought was an era of prosperity and peace. And unfortunately, many of our assumptions proved to be wrong. We did not see the warning signs or we did not pay enough attention to them. Having said that, as a European leader I’m proud of the response that Europe has put up, in terms of imposing sanctions which are the harshest ever imposed on a G20 country. And of course, the invasion of Ukraine has re-strengthened the transatlantic relationship, which I consider to be the pillar of global geopolitical stability. And, if anything, Putin realizes that he’s already finding himself with an alliance, and I’m referring to NΑΤΟ, that is stronger and with a new sense of purpose. And this alliance may now very soon have two additional members that will add significant capabilities to NΑΤΟ. So, clearly things have not turned out as Putin expected. This could be a protracted war, a protracted operation. I do still think that channels of communication need to be open and there are European leaders that try to speak and engage with Russia, in order to see whether a negotiated solution can be achieved. But at the end of the day, it’s also up to the Ukranians to define what is an acceptable solution to them. Our obligation is to help them, provide them with material support, as we have done. For a country such as Greece, many may think this was not necessarily the obvious decision.
We have no animus against the Russian people. We have very strong cultural and religious ties with Russia. But as a country that has fought a War of Independence, we know that you have to stand up to a bully in case your sovereignty is being compromised. And this is exactly what the Ukranians did.
We offered them support and there’s an additional reason why we did it. We always believe that international disputes need to be resolved through international law. A rules-based international system only works if you stick to the rules. We are in a complicated neighborhood, we have complicated issues with our large neighbor, meaning Turkey. So we will always defend the rules-based international system, and not just through words but also through actions, as we have done in the case of Ukraine.

David Ignatius: You’ve mentioned, Prime Minister, a fundamental change that appears to be approaching for Nato with the admission of Finland and Sweden. The Russians have expressed their unhappiness, and no wonder. If you wanted a sign of how their invasion has backfired, there it is. They’re going to have a much stronger Nato than before. But interestingly, your neighbor Turkey, President Erdogan has said that he doesn’t hold positive views about Finland and Sweden joining NΑΤΟ. Let me ask you, as you’re an experienced Erdogan-watcher, what do you think he’s after? Is he seeking concessions? Do you think he’ll actually try to block Finnish, Swedish entry and if he does that, what do you think is an appropriate response?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I expect this issue to be resolved sooner rather than later. I do not see any momentum from any country to block the entrance of Sweden and Finland into the Alliance. One needs to realize what a momentous change this is for the architecture of Europe. Look at Sweden. This is a country that has been sitting on the sidelines for more than 200 years and did not fight in the Second World War. Yet it chooses now to join the Alliance, because it understands that the geopolitical map of Europe has been redrawn. So, I don’t think this is really the time to use NATO membership of two friendly countries as a bargaining chip. I think this is going to backfire if Turkey goes down that path. I think it is wrong as a matter of principle. I think it’s also wrong in terms of tactics. So, I just don’t see this happening.

David Ignatius: I’m trying to make this, not specifically about Turkey, but if, if a NATO country did oppose this move, to strengthen NATO by adding these two crucial countries, does that country that’s objecting belong in NATO itself?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, there is no way for a country to be removed from NATO. This is, you know, the problem. One of the issues of the Alliance, one can only withdraw voluntarily, but if you belong to an Alliance, you need to agree to the basic rules of the Alliance. And unfortunately, what we have seen in our rules-based international world is that large super-national organizations, be it NΑΤΟ or the European Union, are dependent on unanimity. This is a problem we also have in Europe today. You can have one hold out blocking an important initiative that is happening rather frequently in Europe over the past years.

And there are very specific culprits that put us in a very difficult position. But when you talk about a military alliance, I think what one needs to understand is that what binds us in common is much larger than whatever differences we may have. When I look at the southeastern flank of NATO, the message I want to communicate is that certainly now that we are all involved with the Ukraine problem, the last thing that NATO needs is another source of tension between Greece and Turkey. And that is why I’ve been very, very honest and open with President Erdogan when I saw him the last time in Istanbul. I said this is not the time for aggressive moves. This is not the time to project revisionist views of history in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Let’s find a framework, a dialogue framework to address our issues, but certainly let’s not engage in activities that provoke each other. And I want to be very clear here with you. We’ve had incidents over the past weeks of systematic overflights over Greek islands. These are completely, completely unacceptable. We cannot have, you know, a NATO member violate, systematically violate the airspace of another NATO member. So these types of behaviors need to stop.

There is a lot we have in common with Turkey. We can work on positive agendas. We can even agree to disagree and it’s okay to agree to disagree. And if that means that we agree not to address our substantial difference, which is a delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, let us also agree that we will not provoke each other. And I’m speaking with a confidence of a country that has not provoked Turkey, but at the same time that has the capability and the armed forces to present a credible deterrence and a very clear commitment to defend our sovereignty and our sovereign rights.

David Ignatius: Prime Minister, your spokesman said Friday, I think before you left Greece, that you intended to raise with President Biden in your meeting, I think later today, this issue of the provocative Turkish overflights. I want to ask you if that’s so and this is something you want to bring up with President Biden and more generally, what issues you’d like to raise in that meeting with President Biden and his advisors?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Τhis is a meeting to strengthen our bilateral relationship. I’m not defining Greece’s interest against anybody else. I want to be very, very clear here. I’m here to speak about Greece and about how Greece can work with the US to further strengthen what I think is an exceptionally strong strategic partnership. Greece is important for the US, because it is a stable democracy in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is the largest economy in the Balkans, it is a natural entry point for energy into Europe. It is a key pillar in our strategy to diversify our energy requirements away from Russia. If you just look at how dependent we are on Russian gas and how quickly we want to move away from Russian gas, where are we going to find this gas, which we will need as a transition fuel? There are gas findings in the Eastern Mediterranean. Eventually they will have to come through Greece to cover the needs of the European market.

But of course, Greece is the entry point for liquified natural gas, not just into the Greek gas system, but also into the gas system of the Balkans. Theoretically, gas could reach Ukraine from Greece. So this north to south energy corridor starting from Greece, covering the needs of the Balkans and Eastern Europe is of particular importance to the US. Greece is also a country that has a strategic relationship with Cyprus and Israel. We have the 3+1 partnership, excellent relations with the UAE -I was there a week ago- with Saudi Arabia, with Egypt. So if you look at the security map from the US perspective, moving from the Pacific into the Middle East, and then into Europe, we have a role to play.

And of course we’re also a country that has changed a lot, as we discussed, over the past three years. For the first time, we have significant American companies investing in Greece. This is also an opportunity for me to make the case that Greece is open for business, to highlight the success stories of the great companies that have already invested in Greece and to make the case that Greece is an attractive investment destination, not just because of its geographical position, not just because it’s a fantastic place to invest in tourism or renewable energy, but also because it has an excellent and highly-skilled labor force, many of whom have been educated in the top American universities and who want to come back to Greece and help the country grow. So this is what we will be talking about with President Biden. You know, there’s always this talk amongst Greek journalists who cover these visits, and they think that this visit is only about defining ourselves vis-a-vis Turkey. No that is not the case.

We have issues with Turkey. They may be discussed with the President, but to cover issues with Turkey, I can discuss them with President Erdogan face to face. I think the US understands who are the reliable partners in the region. And again, we never want to, our goal is never to exclude or isolate Turkey. I want to be very, very clear on that. Turkey will always be there. This is the fate of our geography. The more we find ways of constructively engaging with Turkey and bringing them along, provided they follow the rules, the better it will be for everyone.

David Ignatius: I should just ask whether you have any current plans or would like to share with us a new plan to propose to meet with President Erdogan to talk about these issues?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’ve met with President Erdogan four times since I became Prime Minister. And I’ve openly said that it shouldn’t be news when we meet. We should be able to meet, talk, discuss. It’s always good when we meet to have a framework that is conducive towards having these meetings. So the more tension there is, the more difficult it is to have constructive meetings. Summer is always an opportunity to dial down the tension. Again, I want to point out that we’re never sort of provoking, but it’s sort of inconceivable that Turkey may express a sort of resentment when a Greek official is visiting a Greek island in the Eastern Aegean. This is natural. This is obvious. This is not something that should elicit reactions from Turkey. So let’s hope that the summer is going to be an opportunity to dial down the tension. We have a positive agenda we’re pursuing on the economic front. We’re open to continue pursuing it. There are issues we can discuss. We have a big trade relationship with Turkey, and I always want to work on positive aspects of this relationship and I will continue to do so.

David Ignatius: So I want to ask you to return to the question of the Ukraine war and the ways that pressure can be brought on President Putin to end this invasion. And obviously one of the areas of intense focus is some kind of energy embargo that cuts off Russia’s fundamental flow of external revenue.

That’s tough for European countries. It’s tough for Greece, and it also could have blow-back effects on the global economy that I know worry members of the Biden administration. Could you just summarize for this audience, what Greece’s current position is on moving towards a full embargo on Russian oil and gas. Is that something that you’re committed to do, can do? Just give us a sense of how that’s playing.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: When it comes to gas, it simply cannot happen, and it cannot happen because we will be shooting ourselves on the foot. The truth is that Europe is still heavily dependent on Russian gas, and that’s not going to change from one day to the next. We simply cannot replace Russian gas within a month, or even within a year. We have committed at the level of the European Council to rapidly diversify away from Russian gas.

But right now, I think there will be no consensus from the European Council to impose any sanctions that are related to gas. Oil is a different story. That again, I would be ready to move in that direction. Again, we need to take into consideration the sensitivities of certain Member States. I think this is something that can be done, and it’s essentially the next frontier for us to agree amongst ourselves and to find a solution with those countries that are currently not on board.

But what this crisis has taught us is that the energy transition is not just an obligation towards the next generation in terms of climate policy. It is an absolute geopolitical priority. Every time we install an additional gigawatt of renewable energy in Greece, we reduce our dependence, essentially on Russian gas.

If we build up an electricity interconnection, as we intend to do, that will connect Greece to Cyprus, Israel and Greece to Egypt, we will be importing cheap electricity from Egypt. We are replacing Russian gas that we use to produce electricity. So this is a wake up call to accelerate the green transition, especially for a country such as Greece, which is endowed with wind and sun, but also to make sure that in the short to medium term, we get gas from different sources. And there, I think we can do much more to work with the US together. I’ve been a big proponent of imposing a cap at the European level on the wholesale price of gas. I’m making this argument because right now, if you look at the gas market, the prices don’t reflect the fundamentals of supply and demand.

In order to do that we need to use our powers as large customers. And we also need to work with the US to look at the global gas market and make sure that it keeps on functioning in the proper way.

I do expect some progress to be made at the European Council, but there is one risk, which we need to point out, in terms of whether we will have continued support at the level of our societies. Right now, European societies are coping with very high energy prices. And this is a problem for all of us. It’s a big political problem. We are using a lot of public funds to subsidize our households. We just announced a new program in Greece to intervene in the electricity market, but we need to pool our European resources, as we did with COVID to offer, in the short term, relief to our citizens.

Otherwise we will be placed in a position where our citizens will get angrier and angrier. And they won’t see the logic and the importance behind defending Ukraine, because they will be concerned with the cost of living. So it will be an opportunity to also discuss with the President how we can work together. And I’m speaking as a European here, not just as a Prime Minister of Greece, how Europe and the US can work together to alleviate what I consider to be a gas market that is essentially not functioning properly.

David Ignatius: So Prime Minister, we will be watching your meeting this afternoon at the White House, your speech tomorrow to the joint session of Congress with great interest. Thank you for your candid comment to this audience. Thank you very much.