Paul Ronzheimer: Mr Prime Minister, you’re in election period and I remember in 2016, there was a politician winning the election at the end, that was campaigning for a wall against refugees. Now there’s a debate about a wall next to Turkey. Are you copying Donald Trump a little bit?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, I don’t have thick blonde hair, so I think the comparison is not particularly relevant. But what we have been doing since the very beginning when I took over, was to impose an aggressive –but I think fair– migration policy. I should remind you that six months after I came into office we were essentially faced with an organized invasion of illegal migrants into Greek, that means European, territory.
I wouldn’t call it a wall, but a protective barrier, a fence. It is one part, not the only solution to the migration problem, but certainly one component that significantly reduces illegal migration.
Paul Ronzheimer: Would you say that because of this wall, less migrants come to Germany?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Because of the wall and our overall migration policy, less illegal migrants come to Greece, which means to Europe. If you look at the absolute numbers, there is proof for what I say. In 2015, 75% of all the illegal refugees who entered Europe came through Greece. Now it’s less than 10%.
Liana Spyropoulou: But the European Parliament recently rejected financing of the wall. It was an initiative of four political powers in the EU. Are you going to pay for the wall or fence?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think there is a general confusion at the European level as to what exactly can be financed with European funds. For example, right now, we can finance the technology around the wall. We cannot finance the wall itself. Regardless of what Europe will, or will not do, I said publicly that we will build our own fence, even if it has to be financed by the Greek taxpayer.
Liana Spyropoulou: Is it fair for Greece to pay alone for this?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Of course it’s not fair. That’s exactly the case I am making. We are a frontline state. We are subject to significant migratory pressures. We expect help from the European Union.
At the end of the day, we need more money for migration and we need more money to support frontline states. So it’s very unfair to, on the one hand, to ask Greece to do the difficult job of protecting the external borders and then pointing the finger at Greece because it’s simply doing the job on behalf of others.
Paul Ronzheimer: Germany is one of the states opposing the wall. Why do you think that is? And is there a way how you can convince Olaf Scholz that it’s the right thing?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, I have a very good relationship with Chancellor Scholz. I think we understand better where each other is coming from. I understand that there are secondary movements into Germany, because it may be sort of natural that potential refugees are chasing the more generous benefits. On the other hand, I think Chancellor Scholz also understands the pressures we are under as a frontline state.
Again, a barrier, fence, wall itself is not going to solve the problem on its own. We need a comprehensive migration policy, which will include: the way we manage secondary flows, a fair burden-sharing when it comes to those we have accepted as refugees, what we do with returns. This is absolutely critical. Those who are not entitled refugee status need to be returned to their countries of origin.
What do we do about legal migration and how do we open up legal pathways to migration? Once, at the European Council, I used a phrase by a colleague of yours, an American journalist, Tom Friedman, he’s a New York Times commentator, and he said: What we need is a big wall with a big door. The big wall is to make sure you protect your borders and the big door is a generous, legal policy to accept either refugees or economic migrants –because we also need human resources to support our economic growth– into our European family.
Paul Ronzheimer: If it comes to walls and fences, Germany, as some people would argue because of our history of walls and barbed wire, at the former German border, it’s unacceptable. Do you understand that Germans have a problem with the idea of building a wall in the Union?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I absolutely understand where Germany is coming from. But this is not a wall within the European Union. It is a wall at the borders of the European Union. So if we want to have a Schengen zone with free movement of people, we need to ensure that we protect our internal space.
Paul Ronzheimer: But then the whole European Union, at least at the borders, needs a wall.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, it depends on how many land borders we have. When you look at the land borders, there are not that many. For example, with Turkey –Ukraine is a special case– if we look at the flows from the south or east, there is one land border between the EU, that is Greece and Bulgaria, and Turkey. That’s it in terms of land borders.
Paul Ronzheimer: So how are you going to convince Scholz and Macron?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think Macron is convinced. But again, at the end of the day, I have an obligation to my citizens to protect my territory and to make sure that we will never return to a situation where anyone could enter without any respect for the rules of my country. That’s what I’m saying. I will lobby the European Union for maximum support. If that is not possible, we will build the fence using national resources. It’s expensive, but it’s perfectly doable for a country such as Greece.
Liana Spyropoulou: In this field, there are several accusations, not only from NGOs, but voices inside Europe, regarding pushbacks from the Greek authorities. What is really happening?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We don’t do pushbacks. But we do intercept people at sea. I am very clear about that and we firmly believe that this is within the scope of EU regulations. But at the same time, we have also saved thousands of people at sea in risk of drowning. I want to be very clear about this and I also want to explain it to your viewers: the fewer people you have at sea, the fewer chances there are of people actually drowning at sea.
Paul Ronzheimer: But there’s many accusations, from many organizations, saying that the Greek Coast Guard are doing these pushbacks. There’s even accusations from refugees that they took money from them, they took stuff from them.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’ve also seen those accusations. What I can tell you is that we have not been able to document any incident that this has actually happened.
Paul Ronzheimer: There’s many debates about migration in Germany. We’ve talked a lot about stopping refugees at the border with a fence. In Germany we also have the debate if the social benefits system in Germany makes refugees come in a higher number to Germany. We also have a debate saying that only people with positive asylum decisions should enter Germany, which would mean Greece would have a bigger problem. What is your opinion?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: If someone is granted asylum in Greece, I would like for these people to actually stay in Greece. And if they want to build their life in Greece, we would welcome them. Are we able to offer the same benefits as Germany? No. We’re not as rich as Germany. And I cannot offer to refugees in Greece more benefits than I’m offering to Greek citizens. I think this is perfectly understandable by anyone.
Paul Ronzheimer: Thank you very much, Mr Prime Minister.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: And I thank you.