Kevin Featherstone: The first question I’ve got to ask you is a question my wife posed, insisting that I asked you this evening. And she said it in that way that you can’t resist a wife’s exhortation: if the British were to give the Parthenon marbles back to Greece, would you be willing to be Prime Minister of the UK?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, it’s a real pleasure to be here with you. And let me congratulate you on 25 very successful years. I think the Hellenic Observatory has made a tremendous contribution to the study of modern Greece. And a lot of this is due to your commitment. What many of you probably don’t know is that I was at the LSE 35 years ago, as an exchange student. During my fall semester, I decided to leave Harvard for a term at the LSE, where I took my first courses in public choice. And I still have very, very fond memories. At the time, this building did not exist. But I’m very happy that the school has made tremendous progress.
So, back to your question. Obviously, the question of the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures is very close to my heart, and I think a cause that all Greeks would very much like the government to work towards achieving. Is it doable? Potentially, yes.
Kevin Featherstone: And you’ve seen progress?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We’ve seen progress. I don’t want to speak publicly about the discussions that we have had. But I think there is a better sense of understanding that maybe a win-win solution can be found that will result in a reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Greece, while at the same time also taking into consideration concerns that the British Museum may have. So I don’t want to say anything more in public about this at present, but again, I do sense the momentum. I know that British public opinion, I think, is supportive of the idea that the Parthenon’s sculptures should be -and again, I use the word reunited rather than returned on purpose because we are talking about a monument that essentially was broken up in half. And we all appreciate the value of observing these treasures in situ, right next to the Acropolis, in our marvelous Acropolis Museum.
Kevin Featherstone: That’s great. So, as announced, I’d like to talk about the challenges facing Greece and facing Europe. And I was trying to think of a coherent theme. I think the connecting theme might be in terms of the future for liberal values, liberal principles. And if we start with Europe, we’ll come on to talking about Greece later. I was thinking last week that if we look at Europe today, I wonder whether when future historians look at these times whether they would describe this as a period in which we were moving towards or from liberal principles and values in Europe. Of course, I have in mind the challenges the European Union has in terms of Poland and Hungary. The idea that the European Union has to try to persuade countries to respect democracy, human rights, the rule of law. Recently we’ve had the election in Italy with Prime Minister Meloni. I wonder other reasons for optimism, pessimism in terms of what the European Union stands for in terms of liberal principles.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, I think that the basic principles of the rule of law for all members of the European states are non negotiable. And as you know, there is a sort of gold standard in terms of the assessment, the official assessment by the European Commission regarding the state of the rule of law in all member states. And this is what we all observe. And I think it is probably the only really independent assessment of how well we rank when it comes to these issues. Of course, in my mind there’s a need for constant improvement when it comes to these topics. And as far as Greece is concerned, we take the observations very, very seriously and we constantly try to improve. Now, have we seen sort of a retrenchment when it comes to the values of liberal democracy? I don’t think this is just a European trend. I think that liberal democracy is facing serious challenges on numerous fronts, including the rise of populism. And when I speak about populism, I’m referring to both the populist of the left and the populism of the right.
We’ve had our own experience with populists in power in Greece, while at the same time, we are constantly in need, I think, to reinvent what modern liberal democracy truly means and to convince everyone that at the end of the day,
apart from the fact that we think it is a morally superior form of government, it is also a more effective form of government in terms of delivering real results for our people. But this struggle between – in a simplified way – between democracies and autocracies at the end of the day is not just a moral struggle. It’s also a struggle about which form of government is at the end of the day most effective.
Kevin Featherstone: But there seems to be a credibility problem, doesn’t it, that if the European Union has to threaten to withhold funds, money from Hungary and Poland? How the hell did we get into this kind of situation where there seems to be a credibility challenge for the European Union? What do we stand for?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah, but at the end of the day we are dispersing European funds, money that is given to European institutions by European taxpayers, and there is a certain conditionality attached to those funds. And part of the conditionality involves respecting fundamental premises of the rule of law. And I can tell you this is big in terms of carrots and sticks. This can be a very important stick.
Now, we could spend a lot of time talking about the state of the rule of law and this concept of “illiberal democracies”, which frankly is also rather disturbing to me. I should point out that when you look at Hungary, for example, I was one of the proponents, when I was still leading in the opposition, that Fidesz should not be part of the family of the European People’s Party and at least should be suspended until we see progress on that front.
But one needs to be aware of the fact that there is always significant conditionality attached to the disbursement of European funds. And if you look at the most recent financial instrument that we have put in place, the Recovery and Resilience Fund, the rules are extremely strict, as they should be, because we’re talking about significant sums of money.
We need to be very, very consistent in terms of convincing the European Union that a) we adhere to our plan, that the funds will be used for what we told European institutions that they will be used in our case for significant reforms, and b), that there will be full transparency in terms of how the funds are used.
Kevin Featherstone: I suppose the other credibility test at the moment, of course, is the European Union’s response to Ukraine. And again, some of the same governments, particularly Viktor Orban in Hungary, has been seen in the international press at least as being ambiguous in the response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Do you think it is a credibility test and do you think the European Union is passing the test?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think it is passing the test of unity and resolve in terms of supporting Ukraine materially. We should not forget that we’ve agreed on eight packages of sanctions against Russia. These require unanimity, and they have been agreed after systematic negotiations. But that is the way the European Union works, sometimes we have to sort of exhaust ourselves in daylong negotiations until we reach an agreement. We all support Ukraine. I think most, if not all, European countries also support Ukraine militarily, as does Greece. So in terms of our commitment to Ukraine, I think we have passed the test and the European Union is geopolitically much more united. Where I have more doubts is in terms of our response when it comes to energy.
We’ve seen Russia systematically weaponizing gas to put pressure on European societies. I’ve been making the case for many months now that we need a much stronger and much more committed European response to this blackmail, because that is essentially what Russia is currently doing. We’ve made some progress when it comes to coming up with the European energy strategy, but we’re clearly not there yet.
We’ve been advocating for a cap on price regarding Russian natural gas that is sold to Europe through what we call the TTF index. Again, some progress has been made. Hopefully we’ll be able to agree at the level of our ministers before the next European Council. But clearly, national priorities when it comes to energy in what is still a fragmented European energy market has made our lives much more, much more difficult.
Kevin Featherstone: I suppose the other big credibility test is Turkey and President Erdogan and I wonder if we see the European Union as a system of liberal principles and values, then how far is the European Union displaying those in terms of response to Turkey? Have in mind things like the 2016 agreement the European Union signed with Turkey about the refugees, allegations in the press that Turkey is pushing asylum seekers into Greek territory, responses in terms of Turkey’s clamp-down on human rights, etc. So if you wanted to have one test of “what does the European Union stand for”, is it passing the test with President Erdogan?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, it’s very clear to me that the relationship between the European Union, not just Greece, and Turkey has become much more complicated over the past years. Turkey is very clearly pursuing a revisionist agenda abroad of projecting sort of old imperial ambitions and thus causing problems with all its neighbors, including Greece. We have been, on the one hand, clearly committed to an open dialogue with Turkey. At the same time, we made it very clear that we will defend our sovereignty and our sovereign rights and that we will not accept any fait accompli when it comes to our region.
At the same time, of course, there are also issues when it comes to human rights, the human rights situation in Turkey. There are issues which are also close to our hearts. For example, with the conversion of the Hagia Sofia monument, which was built as a Christian Orthodox church, was later converted into a mosque, was made into a museum to celebrate the history of the monument, again reconverted into a mosque. I think a mistake in my mind and an indication of how religion sometimes is weaponized by the Turkish leadership.
Αnd, of course, migration. We were faced with a very open instrumentalization of the refugee problem back in March 2020, when Turkey openly and publicly pushed tens of thousands of desperate people and encouraged them, facilitated them to cross into Greece.
We made our position very clear at the time. We defended our border. The European Union supported us and we also told and encouraged Turkey to return to the spirit of the 2016 Migration Agreement and not weaponize desperate people. Unfortunately, the situation is still continuing. We have people trying to cross into Greece every day on very dangerous inflatable boats. These people could be stopped on the Turkish coast. Quite frequently they’re stopped by our coast guard. Sometimes they’re picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard, as they should be doing. Other times they’re actually nudged -and I’m using a very careful word because it’s happening much more aggressively. They’re being pushed into Greece by the Turkish Coast Guard.
Kevin Featherstone: I’d like us to talk about migration a little bit later, but I wonder. Questions of Greek territorial waters, infringements of the Greek air space, etc. I just wonder whether the European Union, in your mind, is actually offering you the support that the liberal system should be expecting.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: The response is that we’ve made significant progress in terms of convincing our European allies, but also our transatlantic allies, that what is at stake here is not just the sovereignty of Greece, but regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. And the last thing we need at a time when we’re faced with an open war in the European heartland is another source of conflict and tension in the eastern Mediterranean. And I think this argument actually resonates.
At the same time we have demonstrated, as a country that adheres to a rules-based international order, that we can respect international law and resolve these types of problems with other neighbors. For example, we have signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Egypt, after 15 years of negotiations. We’ve signed a similar one with Italy. With Albania, we’ve agreed to disagree but take our difference to the international court, which is another way of resolving these differences.
What you cannot do is you cannot resolve these differences by force. That is simply not acceptable. And, at the end of the day, this is our major difference with Turkey: the delimitation of maritime zones. It is technically a complex problem because of the geography of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. But it is a problem that could be solved if there were real goodwill and a willingness to engage in honest negotiations.
But, of course, when there’s constant finger-pointing on behalf of Turkey; Greece being portrayed as the aggressor; threats to the sovereignty of our islands. These are simply unacceptable arguments that make it very difficult to sit down and have a reasonable dialogue.
Because I don’t think many in the audience -and I’m not speaking about those who are Greek- many of those neutral observers of our region, not many people believe that the Greek islands are a threat to the Turkish mainland, but quite a few people would believe that the Turkish mainland is a threat to Greek islands. So, what we’ve done, in a nutshell, is keep the door for dialogue open, but at the same time make sure we strengthen our deterrence capability, invest in our armed forces, and build a strong network of alliances that makes peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean a central pillar of ours, of common understanding of what should happen in our region.
Kevin Featherstone: If we turn to economic policy for the European Union, then of course, Greece has been through a very difficult debt crisis, and the European Union is now tackling the post-Covid period. I wonder, what do you think Europe has actually learned from the Greek debt crisis? How has Europe adjusted or changed in response to the Greek crisis?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We could probably spend many hours debating the mistakes that were made during the European debt crisis, both by Greece but also by the European institutions. But I think we have learned our lesson, certainly in Greece. I think the one lesson that we’ve learned, and maybe we’ll touch upon it as the discussion proceeds, is that we need real ownership of meaningful reforms.
Kevin Featherstone: I suppose at the European level what I had in mind was that when we think of the Recovery in Resilience Fund…
Kyriakos Mitsotakis:But I think what we learned at the European level is exactly that. That at some point we need to leverage the collective strength and credibility and credit rating of the European Union, raise money at the European level, and then be sort of willing to offer this money to the weaker states, not just as loans but as grants. But to finance real investment in those areas which are critical for the wellbeing of the union as a whole.
So, if you look at Greece €31 billion in total out of the RRF envelope, the biggest percentage of any country as a percentage of GDP, directed towards the green transition, the digital transition, skills, competitiveness of industry. Areas that have been identified by us, not by the Europeans, as being critical to making sure that Greece stays on a high growth trajectory.
Kevin Featherstone: Yes, at the European level, it seems as though there’s a shift, much lighter monitoring, much lighter conditionality and lots of money…
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I’m not sure about that. First of all, when you looked at the programs in the past, a lot of it was very strict conditionality, in retrospect excessive austerity, really pushing, almost in a punitive manner, a country on its knees. Big mistakes in terms of the fact that the debt problem was not addressed in the first program but was addressed in the second program. And, at the end of the day, no real ownership of the reforms. At least, I would argue, by the governments of the left, certainly by the Syriza government.
I think right now what you have is you have a reform program that is owned by the country. We have the privilege of having Professor Pissarides in our audience, who actually was one of the authors of a very important study that identified the important reforms for the next decade for the country. And we are really trying hard and implementing these reforms. But these reforms are also a conditionality for the RRF. So the conditionality is still there. I would argue that the disbursement of the RRF funds is actually stricter than the disbursement of the usual structural funds that the European Union has been handing out to member states for regional policy.
And I think it’s the right approach. Greece is one of the first countries to receive. We just received approval for our second tranche from the RRF funding, which means that we are ticking the boxes. But again, those boxes -and this is very important- they were not imposed upon us by the European Union. We went to the European Union. We told the institutions “this is what we want to do. This is why these reforms are good for the country. Give us the money to implement them”.
I suppose, crudely, Europe has gone from a paradigm of ordoliberal principles to something which is rather more Keynesian of spending the money to boost growth. And I wonder, given the heterogeneity of the European Union. What if it fails? What if a German voter feels that all of this money has actually been wasted by governments who are not investing in the future, but consumption? And I’ve been reading before our conversation that some have suggested that Greece is spending some of the money, more of the money on consumption than investments. How would you see that?
Well, first of all, for a monetary union to function, we need consistency in terms of policy. We are all tied to the same currency, to the same interest rates. And the weaknesses of having a monetary union without joint fiscal capacity and without an ability to impose common rules was, at the end of the day, at the heart of the eurozone crisis back in 2009 – 2010. Βut it did start in Greece. And in Greece we clearly went through a period where we borrowed to spend. Αnd I think we’ve learned our lesson.
We have spent a lot of money in Greece during COVID, as most governments did. But I think we did it in a smart way. Our emphasis was always to preserve jobs and to make sure that we don’t push unemployment up and to support businesses. And frankly, if the markets were really concerned about the behavior of the government, you would see the Greek spreads widening very, very quickly. The fact that it’s not happening is testimony to, in my mind, the general understanding that we are pursuing what is, at its heart, a prudent fiscal policy. We will be having a primary surplus next year, and we’re bringing down our debt- to-GDP ratio faster than any other European country.
And at the same time, we’ve been able to move the country into a high growth trajectory. I mean, Greece will grow at almost 6% this year. Compare that to many other countries, which means that we’ve done something right in terms of addressing structural deficiencies of the Greek economy.
Kevin Featherstone: Much lower growth next year.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah, but still three times higher than the eurozone average.
And I would argue that next year we may have a recession in many European countries. It’s an energy-driven recession. The cost of energy has gone through the roof. But still, how are we compensating? I need to stress that primarily not through consumption, through investment. And a lot of this investment is private investment.
Kevin Featherstone: Okay, so in Greece you’re planning to continue to use coal. That’s not a very green policy. There’s also those who criticize your actions in terms of the tourism sector, allowing buildings in zones where the environment could be threatened by development, etc. So there seems to be two tacks here. Where is the green economy for Greece? You’re relying on coal. Αnd you’re allowing tourism developments without adequate restriction.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I disagree with both these premises. So let me explain what I mean. When we came into power back in 2019, I was very explicit and said we want to move away from coal as quickly as possible. Which we did. We were producing out of the 60 terawatthours of energy that we require in Greece, approximately five came out of coal. What we did as a short-term measure was to ramp up a little bit our coal production, because we cannot be totally reliant on natural gas, which was a transition fuel, as we moved away from coal.
There was a fantasy in the mind of many of those who were talking about the green transition that miraculously you could move away from fossil fuels into renewables without anything as an interim solution. And that is clearly wrong. Natural gas is an interim solution; nuclear is an interim solution, maybe also, in my mind, part of the long-term solution. And renewables is the way to go. So, to those who argue that we don’t have a green agenda, I would counter that we have 10 gigawatts of installed wind and solar, which makes us one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of electricity production.
In October we hit a very important milestone: on a sunny and windy day with limited energy consumption, because it wasn’t too cold and not too warm to use air conditioning, we powered the entire country for six hours from renewables. This is an image from the future. We’re significantly adding to our renewable capacity. But in the meantime we want to leverage our position as important players in the natural gas world, which is going to be with us for the next 20 to 30 years.
Now, about building, because this is very close to my heart. If anything, we have made restrictions regarding buildings much more applicable in Greece. And if you look at the tourist development that is taking place in Greece now, it’s almost in its entirety focused on upscale developments with very environmentally-friendly standards. Not simply because this is the way to go, but this is what the market demands. If we want to move our product up-market, we need sustainable tourism. And for me this is non-negotiable. This would mean further restrictions in terms of zoning and in terms of building, a real focus on protecting the more sensitive environments such as our islands.
We are making huge progress in terms of decarbonizing our islands much faster than we are decarbonising our mainland, teaming up with many international companies to offer tailor-made solutions for our islands. This is being noticed by the discerning travelers and I think there will be a premium to be extracted if you actually go green, but in a meaningful manner. So, sustainable tourism, and by sustainable tourism I mean not just sustainable building, I mean the way you source your raw materials, the connection between the agricultural sector and tourism, how we preserve our cultural heritage, all this is part of one package. This is a one-way street. There is no going back and there is no way we’ll compromise on this.
Kevin Featherstone: Okay, people recognize your economic liberalism but question your social liberalism and they say, for example, in relation to citizenship rights, migration, which you want to come onto later, law and order, relations with the Church, promoting the rights of women, promoting LGBTQ rights. No same-sex marriage.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Oh my God. You make us look like we are sort of really backward country.
Kevin Featherstone: I thought I’d have a little rhetorical flourish, but you get the point. There’s a theme here in terms of being economically liberal, but not socially liberal.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would argue that this government has been more socially progressive than many governments that came before us that theoretically were from the center-left that didn’t really deliver on many issues.
If you look at topics, such as LGBTQ rights for example, short of the marriage question -which, I think, at some point we will be going in that direction- we’ve made huge progress on these topics. Issues regarding, for example, handicapped Greeks, having a strategy for people with handicaps that we are really pushing through on all fronts.
We have a strategy for women’s rights and we’re addressing sort of the #MeToo problems head on, violence against women. We were the first to set up dedicated units in our police stations to address these issues and to openly speak about them. And even in terms of the relationship between the Church and the state. As you know, Greece has an official, constitutionally-protected religion, but freedom of religion is perfectly respected in Greece. And I would argue that the Church, in its own way, is also sort of maturing and progressing.
Kevin Featherstone: But of course, at the moment these days there’s a lot of attention on the issue of the “Κιβωτός του Κόσμου”, the Arc of the World, and the monitoring by the state of private charity organizations. And I wonder whether there are zones where Greek governments fear to tread.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Maybe that was the case, maybe it still is the case. Anyhow, it is. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we have enough evidence to forcefully move and use a piece of legislation that we passed to actually change the board of directors of this charitable organization.
But the problem, there, is much deeper. We have still too many kids who are in these types of institutions. We still have not pushed adoptions as quickly as we want. And yes, we recognize that sometimes there’s an economic interest in keeping kids within these institutional arrangements, which is clearly not good for them.
So this is a real problem. We’ve addressed it head on because we have many kids actually that live within the confines of Kivotos and we’ve put in place a board of directors which certainly does not lack credibility. Very capable people, very well-respected people, who will do their best in the interests of the kids that actually live there.
Kevin Featherstone: OK, probably for the last year, or two years, there have been two big issues which have dominated the international media when covering Greece. One of them is the refugee situation and the other is the recent phone tapping scandal. Let’s start with the immigration. We’ve had the BBC, the New York Times, Amnesty International accusing Greece of pushbacks. And you’ve been very firm in saying there haven’t been pushbacks. So could you explain to the foreign audience here what you define as a pushback and how do you know that Greece isn’t doing them?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, because I’m in charge of the country. But look, we want to be very clear. The previous government had an open-door policy. Essentially, anyone could enter Greece as they pleased. And we’ve said that this is, in principle, not acceptable to us.
Our country has borders and borders need to be protected, whether these are land or sea borders. What does this mean at sea? I want to be very clear. It means that if there’s a refugee boat coming, we are entitled to stop it on what is a sea border and then call the Turkish Coast Guard to pick them up and return them.
If any life is in danger or if people cross into Greece, they’re welcomed, put into modern facilities, entitled to apply for asylum, and if they’re granted asylum, they’re welcome to stay in Greece. If you look at what happened in the islands of the eastern Aegean, before we came into power, horrible situations. Moria was horrible indeed. Moria no longer exists. It’s been replaced by an ultramodern facility financed by the European Union. The same is true in Samos. The same is true in Chios, where these facilities are (being) built. In Samos it has already been built.
And of course, also processing asylum applications very, very quickly and clearing the backlog that we inherited. But let me point out that international media is not always objective when it comes to these issues. And I will give you a very specific example.
Back in the beginning of August, we faced a barrage of articles by international media about 38 refugees, migrants, apparently stranded on our islet, on a river which constitutes the border between Greece and Turkey. We went looking for them, we couldn’t find them.
More articles about these people are there. Why are you not picking them up? There is a dead little girl that’s been buried on this island. Finally, ten days later, indeed, a group arrives in Greece, they are being welcomed in Greece. And when we dig a little bit deeper, we realize that these people were, a) never on Greek territory, so they could not have been picked up by our Greek border patrol and b) there never was a dead girl. But Greece was, I mean, we received tons of bad press for two weeks. And some of the international media that drove these stories, they didn’t even dare to apologize. But they did take down the stories, and I’m going to be very open.
Spiegel that made a big issue out of this story, when we gave them all the data, suddenly – three months later – the story has been taken down. But they did not have the guts to apologize to us and so they simply removed the story from their website.
So allow me to be a little bit skeptical, when it comes to international media on this issue and to also recognize that there is an information war taking place on behalf of Turkey with very carefully-crafted stories about how horrible Greeks are in terms of treating refugees.
And I would urge international media who look into the story to make sure that they check their facts and get it right. Because I know how difficult it was for us to refute the story, which we clearly knew was not true. And then when the story disappears, nobody will notice, but the damage is done in terms of the public perception.
Kevin Featherstone: So the big story this summer was the phone-tapping scandal. And, for the non Greeks in the audience, there’s reports that Nikos Androulakis- please be sympathetic, as I’d forgotten his surname – Nikos Androulakis had his phone tapped whilst being a member of the European Parliament, and it’s become a very big scandal in the international press. What is the phone tapping scandal a failure of?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, let me distinguish between the legal wiretappings, which was the case of Nikos Androulakis and the operation of illegal software, which is frequently used, unfortunately, in many European countries by state and non-state actors that can actually have access to your phone and extract information. In the case of Nikos Androulakis, we recognized that although the wiretapping was technically legal, it should not have occurred.
Kevin Featherstone: How can it be that a leading politician can legally have his phone tapped?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, it should not have happened, and that’s why people left their jobs and that’s why we were bold enough to recognize that this was an institutional mistake. Why was there an institutional mistake?
Because there were not enough filters to check, to make sure that other people are asked beyond the one judge who took the decision. And now what we’re doing to rectify this problem is to introduce a bill, which, on top of the two judges that need to sign off for legal wiretapping, we also have an additional political filter and we need the approval of the Speaker of the House, of the Speaker of Parliament.
Kevin Featherstone: If I may, there’s been quite a lot of debate in the Greek press about this. Is the Speaker of the House an appropriate person to be involved in signing off the phone tapping of another member of parliament?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, he’s certainly more objective. Look, even in the UK, there is always a political filter for all four topics.
Kevin Featherstone: In the UK, I could explain that, in the UK, it requires the signature of two ministers and a specially appointed judge.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, in our case, it would be two judges, and rather than having the Minister sign off. I do think – and there was a lot of debate in this – but I haven’t heard a better solution.
So we’re always open to better suggestions. But there seems to be a consensus that the Speaker of the House, as someone who presides over the entire Parliament, is probably more objective than a minister authorizing the wiretapping of a politician. This is special for politicians. So what we are doing is adding an extra layer of protection in rectifying what was essentially an institutional mistake. I do need to point out that in the past we needed two judges to sign off and this law was changed by Syriza to require only one judge to sign off.
It’s not an excuse, although we have sort of indications, not indications, we are pretty certain that sort of the illegal spyware has been active in Greece for quite some time, even before we came into power. But this is also a very difficult problem. I can tell you openly that all my colleagues, heads of state and government are always concerned about the safety of our communications and we need to take our measures.
What we are doing in Greece is we’re going to be the first European country to completely ban the sale and use of any illegal software that gives you access to your phone without your permission. Is this going to completely solve the problem? No, but if someone is caught using the software in Greece, he could face jail.
Kevin Featherstone: Okay, but going back to the previous point, the phone tapping scandal is not a failure of the system, it’s a failure of the people you appointed.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It’s both. And that’s why we need to address both aspects of the problem. Bad decisions were made in an institutional framework that did not allow for the right checks and balances. So you need to address both issues.
Kevin Featherstone: Okay. I’m conscious of the time. We’re heading towards elections next year. Because of changes to the electoral system, everyone expects two elections or many people expect two elections next year. And in that context, you may be faced with choices about coalition partners. And I wonder, as Greece’s leading liberal politician, who would advance your agenda better? Pasok or the extreme right?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, because I don’t want to dodge the question, I will tell you that the extreme right is certainly out of the question. So I want to make that very clear. Having said that, and to explain to your audience – who may not be completely familiar with the intricacies of Greek politics – why we may have two elections. Greece has traditionally had an electoral system which gives the first party a bonus. So, if you reach a 37%, 38%, 39% threshold in terms of the popular vote you can form a government on your own, you don’t need a coalition partner. SYRIZA changed that electoral system to a straightforward proportional representation system, which means you need to get to 45-46% to form a government on your own. Very difficult, practically impossible. We changed the electoral law back. But because of our constitution, the change in the electoral law only kicks in after the next election. So the first election will take place with a straightforward proportional representation system, making it very difficult to form a government. In the second election, we would need to get to 37-38% in order to form a government on our own. Is this doable? I think absolutely. Why am I advocating for the ability to form a government on our own? Because I know that coalition formation in Greece is a very complicated scenario. We need a government that can take decisions quickly. I see a lot of my colleagues involved in very long, very prolonged coalition discussions with their coalition partners. At a time when we’re faced with constant crises. I do believe that it is better for the country to be run by a single party government. A single-party government in our case does not mean that we’re not reaching beyond the aisle to recruit talent from other sort of political…
Kevin Featherstone: But what I’ve heard is that when you’re looking around for partners, you’ll be looking towards the political center, not the right.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I made it very clear that we would never contemplate an alliance with the extreme right. At the same time, I also make it very clear that we are aiming for an absolute majority in the second election. But it’s up to the Greek people to decide whether they want us to govern on our own, should we win -and I think we have a reasonable chance of winning- or whether they will essentially tell us: “look for a coalition partner”. At the end of the day, it’s the people’s decision. They know what is at stake and they would be the ones determining how the country will be governed after the next election.
Kevin Featherstone: As I say, I’m conscious of time. I’m also conscious that many people in the audience will be students who’ve wisely chosen to come to the LSE from Greece. Because they’re students of the LSE, they’re looking forward to a bright and highly successful professional career after they graduate. But, of course, it’s the question of the brain drain. And before you came to power, you emphasized the importance of keeping talent back in Greece. Brain drain is still a problem. If you’re reelected, what are you going to do to persuade these people to go back to Greece?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I was also someone who studied abroad, worked in the United Kingdom, and at some point took the decision to return, back in 1997. Seems like ages ago. When our first daughter was born -she is probably somewhere in the audience because she works here, I haven’t spotted her yet. But we took the decision to return and I was willing to take a lower-paying job because I wanted to return to Greece, because I believe the country was moving in the right direction. So I think when you talk to young people who have left, they’re looking for good jobs, and a belief that it’s worthwhile returning to Greece, because they can build their career or their personal lives in Greece. Do we tick the boxes? Certainly we’ve created many jobs. And if you talk to the big recruiters in Greece and you ask them: “Do you receive CVs from Greeks abroad”, they will tell you they receive many CVs from Greeks abroad. Is the country moving in the right direction? I firmly believe that the country has turned a corner and that we are at the beginning of a good period for Greece. We’ve delivered in terms of our commitments. The economy is growing, unemployment is coming down. And we also give some substantial incentives for those who return in terms of paying lower taxes for a certain period of time. So, this is a good time to return to Greece. Having said that, I failed to convince my own kids to do that. So I recognize it’s not an easy sell.
Kevin Featherstone: As a father, I sympathize with the difficulty of persuading children to do anything that parents advise them to do. On that criterion, I’ve failed repeatedly. Time for some questions.
Question from the audience: Thank you very much. Mr Prime Minister, you are deservedly proud of your success in e-governance. And my question is: as a very young politician and Minister you served in the New Democracy government 2012-2015, in the Ministry of E-governance and Administrative Reform. What did you learn from that experience that allowed you to launch the successful so far e-governance campaign?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, thank you. That’s a very interesting question indeed. I was Minister for Administrative Reform and E-government, but that was my official title. I had no control over e-government while being the Minister of E-government or e-governance, because simply all the responsibilities and all the data was dispersed in various ministries.
And at the same time we realized that this is not just about data, it’s also about processes. So, when you actually want to digitize the state, you also have to look at simplifying processes and bureaucracy. So what we did is create a Ministry, we did it very quickly, before other ministers really realized what was happening. We gave them the data, the ownership of the data, we gave them control over the processes. And once they started delivering, we created a virtual cycle where now every Ministry wants to team up with the Ministry of E-government because every service is digitized. Essentially, you have the Minister of E-government plus the competent minister, who’s getting the credit for making people’s lives easier. So this has been a success, but I would argue it has been a government success as much as a technological success, because we took good care to design this Ministry a long time before we came into power. So, it always pays to prepare for these decisions. You just cannot design these types of policies once you’re elected. You need to do the work beforehand.
Question from the audience: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. My name is Michael Russo, and I’m a master’s candidate studying international development. In recent years, human rights groups and journalists have raised some concerns about freedom of the press in Greece, including one assessment from Politico earlier this year that called Greece the worst place in Europe for press freedom. Could you please talk to us about what steps your government is taking to make sure that the freedom of press remains the right that’s enjoyed by all Greeks?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, thank you. Thank you for the question. I was hoping that you (Professor Featherstone) would ask it. Because I do think that there is no issue in terms of freedom of press in Greece. And I think for those, at least, the Greeks in the audience know that we have a vibrant press. You can write anything you want in Greece. We have many TV channels. There’s always two views presented, the government view, the opposition view. There was one report by a non-governmental organization that ranked Greece 108th in press freedom, behind many dictatorships. Chad was 105th. Sorry, but that is just crap. Excuse my language.
I’m not saying that there are no steps we can take when it comes to further fostering a vibrant civic society, but I can tell you that freedom of the press is not an issue in Greece. If you just look at the daily newspapers, probably three quarters are against the government, very harshly criticizing the government, as they have a right to do. So I really don’t think that there is an issue regarding the freedom of the press in Greece that’s sort of worth really discussing in significant detail.
If anything, I would argue Greece has rather weak libel laws. I’ve personally never taken any journalist to court as a matter of principle. I’m not doing this. But some of the things that have been written in Greece about me and my family I mean, if you tried to write these in the UK, I could tell you, you’d be in serious trouble.
Question from the audience: Hello, I’m studying economics and management, for my master’s degree. The Greek economy has achieved strong growth over the past few years. What can be done to sustain this growth in the coming years in a high inflation environment?
Question from the audience: Thank you. I’m a lawyer specializing in international law. Greece has been quite vocal about climate change being a pressing issue of today. And I’m sure you’re aware of the Republic of Vanuatu initiative, seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on climate change. Given Greece’s vulnerability to climate change I was wondering what your position would be on this matter.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yes, I don’t know the details of the initiative. I’ve read about it, so I’m a little bit reluctant to comment in public about the legal implications. What I can tell you is that the Eastern Med is a hotspot for Climate Change. We take issues of mitigation and adaptation very seriously. We’ve made a commitment to climate neutrality by 2050. We’ll meet our targets for 2030, maybe even earlier than we had anticipated. A lot of it is driven by changing our power mix and moving towards renewable energy, while, at the same time, we know that we also need to invest in adaptation, especially when it comes to protecting our forests from wildfires and the real extreme weather events associated with the climate crisis.
Now, on the question regarding growth, I would argue just continue the path of reforms, making sure we continue to attract investment and make the economy as extroverted as possible. There’s one statistic you should remember, I think, which is worthwhile noting, is that in 2010, 20% of Greek GDP was exports of goods and services. Now we’re at 40%. So the economy is really becoming more competitive, more extroverted, and this is the path we need to take.
And if we are reelected as a second term government, I think we have learnt a lot about -I know this is an issue that you care a lot about- how should a prime minister’s office work? What does proper centralized governance mean? I really believe that we have a model that has worked better than other models in the past in terms of driving policy, but also holding our ministers accountable. So I think we’ll be better and more effective, hopefully with less crises to deal with and focusing more on day-to-day business.