Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had a discussion with the US managing editor of the Financial Times, Peter Spiegel, in the context of the Delphi Economic Forum, in Delphi.
The Prime Minister’s remarks follow:
Peter Spiegel: We’re here at the Delphi Economic Forum. Why don’t we start with economics? It’s obviously -I work for the Financial Times- it’s my area of great interest. And the most interesting, I think, the most significant economic event in recent days has been S&P’s decision to upgrade Greece’s debt. And if you read the S&P report, they cite a lot of things we cite in the Financial Times, these big numbers we talk about all the time: two years of above trend growth, reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio, primary surplus. So that’s sort of the top line news.
I’m just wondering, there is also, if you take a step back, there is still the truth that the GDP per capita is still much lower than it was pre-crisis, these inflation pressures right now. So your average Greek citizen may not be feeling the effects of those top line numbers that I like to talk about and the international creditors like to talk about. Are you concerned that that average Greek working class guy is not necessarily feeling the benefits from those top line numbers?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, let me point out that the progress that the Greek economy has made over the past years I think has been significant. As you pointed out, we’re growing at a much, much faster pace than the EU average. We brought down our debt to GDP ratio significantly. We’ve been able to create almost 300,000 jobs. We brought in significant amount of foreign direct investment. And it was exactly this growth that allowed us to support Greek society during the pandemic, but also during the recent energy crisis.
So were it not for above average growth, we would not have the fiscal space to be able to deliver this type of support. Are we concerned about the fact that GDP per capita is still low? Yes, for the simple reason that we have not yet made up all the lost ground from ten years of a profound crisis. And this exactly is our agenda for the second term. How are we going to truly converge with Europe? But there’s only one way to truly converge, and that is to grow at a significantly faster pace than the eurozone average.
How do you do that? You don’t do it through consumption fueled by debt. You have to do it through investment, through innovation, through quality job creation. My number one metric when I look at the performance for the next four years, would be the increase in the average salary of the average Greek employee. My commitment is that I can deliver 25% growth in salaries and of course, close to 25% growth also for the minimum wage. I think this is perfectly doable as the labor market is also tightening. Companies are doing well, so I think they will be sort of forced to also pay better salaries.
And this is something that the average Greek will feel in terms of their disposable income. Last point, when you look at disposable income, you also have to look at taxes. We were extremely consistent in our commitment to reduce the taxes for the middle class, we’ve done so across the board. There’s still room to further reduce taxes, but of course we’re moving towards a period where fiscal discipline is again going to be the rule rather than the exception. And we have to be extremely careful that we don’t derail all the good progress that we have made over the past years.
Peter Spiegel: Let me push you a bit on this, because I have some questions later that I want to talk about in terms of the elections coming up. But when I was in Brussels, there were several eurozone prime ministers who came in, did the hard work of repairing the economy, of doing a lot of the same things you did for the last four years. I’m thinking Enda Kenny. I’m thinking Ireland. I’m thinking Mario Monti in Italy. I’m thinking of Pedro Passos Coelho in Portugal.
And after four years, their voters said “thank you very much” and kicked them out. Just again, to push you a little bit on this, sometimes it feels to me that your average voter doesn’t care about the things the Financial Times writes and doesn’t care about the things that the S&P says. Are you concerned at all that those voters will thank you very much for the work you’ve done and move on from the crisis and look for another path?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, elections, Peter, are always about choices. And in this case, the choice between the two parties competing to run the country is, in my mind, extremely stark. Are we going to continue down a path where we have actually delivered sustainable growth? Average incomes have improved in spite of the fact that there has been an erosion through inflation. We delivered on job growth and all in all, the economy is clearly doing much better.
Not everyone is benefiting to the extent that we could because of inflation, but we all understand that inflation is not a Greek phenomenon. And even when you look at the inflation numbers, we’re doing better than the European average.
What is the choice offered by our main sort of political competitor? A return to the days of promises without any substance. I was looking today at the new program announced by SYRIZA. The previous one, and I’m saying the previous one because they already announced sort of a program a month ago, we estimated to cost us €45 billion. €45 billion over four years. A new one, you’d add another 20 to 30 billion on top of that.
We all understand that this is nonsense, this is never going to be implemented. And if it were to be implemented, it would directly lead towards a new bankruptcy. So I don’t think there is another party that has a clear plan on how to actually grow the economy, but also on how to achieve real convergence.
Are the voters appreciative of what we have done? Of course voters are feeling the pain of inflation, but they also know that we supported them with their energy prices. They see it every month in their energy bills, what is the subsidy provided by the state. And they know that we’ve done our best in terms of supporting them with the prices at the supermarket.
We refused to horizontally cut VAT taxes because we think that this is something that doesn’t work and eventually doesn’t benefit everyone. But we use the fiscal space to offer targeted support to those who were in greater need. So I think overall we’ve done, I think, the best job possible given the context.
And frankly, the sense that I get from my campaigns -I’m not going to refer to polls, the polls indicate that we have a healthy lead over SYRIZA. The sense I get from the country is that the mood of the country is: “keep on doing what you’re doing, move at a faster pace. We want more reforms, not less reforms. And make sure you learn from your mistakes and keep on pushing down the path that we have already chartered”.
Peter Spiegel: Let me stick with the economy before I get back to politics. One of the things you said at the outset, that you cited as positive, is the record for investment that we’ve seen. Obviously, we pay a lot of attention to that as a sort of a measure of how foreign investor confidence is in an economy. There have been record increases, but if you look at where Greece is on sort of the “European league” table, it’s still pretty low. It’s down sort of Bulgaria level. Why do you think that is? Why do you think foreign investors are still relatively reluctant, compared to some of your peer competitors, to invest in Greece?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think, first of all, the progress that we have made has been significant. We go from record to record. And if you look at the quality of the companies that are actually investing, we’ve been able to put Greece on the international investor map. And I’m not just referring to sectors where we have a natural comparative advantage, such as tourism. Tourism is not insignificant, we have significant investments going into high quality tourism and of course we need that. But if you look at the tech companies that have invested in Greece, the pharma companies that have invested in Greece, what do they see in Greece?
They see a country that is part of the eurozone, that is still relatively cheap compared to our competitors, so we start from a low base, but that has a highly, highly talented labor force both in Greece but also outside Greece. People who are actually returning to Greece. So this is not just a country that focuses on one or two sectors. I was yesterday in Thrace and I visited, not many people know about this, but a cutting edge battery factory with 1,000 employees that is actually able to bring people back from abroad.
So these are the types of investments that we actually need. We will be able to attract more investments. And of course, the story needs to get out. I remember when I first spoke to Microsoft, it was in Davos in January 2020. At the time, we were pitching a story that many people liked, but they weren’t quite sure that we could actually deliver. Now they see that we can deliver and I’m sure more investors will come to Greece. Also taking advantage of the broader trends, you know, nearshoring, bringing your supply chains closer to the European market. We have an important role to play in all these global developments.
Peter Spiegel: Let me ask about investment from one country in particular: China. Obviously, China has made significant investments in Piraeus. They’ve done other strategic ports in Europe. They welcome the opportunity to provide 5G technologies here in Greece. You have basically said no, if I’m not mistaken, expansion of Piraeus and other Chinese investments. What would be your message to a Chinese company that wanted to come invest in Greece?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Let me first of all say that we respect the contracts signed by previous governments. The port of Piraeus was privatized at a time when essentially no one was interested in investing in Greece. And I have to be honest, overall this privatization has been a success. But it is the only major Chinese investment in Greek infrastructure. And the Chinese have not been particularly present over the past three and a half years when significant infrastructure projects have taken place.
So what we want is to significantly diversify our investment base. And of course, there are sectors where we are fully aligned with European strategic imperatives, where we’ve taken decisions that certain countries are simply not welcomed, 5G being one of them.
Peter Spiegel: Would you share some of the American concerns? I mean, there’s some countries in Europe that do share these concerns, would you put yourself in the camp that shares the American concerns about…?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: You know, I always get the question about Piraeus, but the Chinese are not going to take the port and leave at some point. I mean, we’re still regulating the port, so I don’t see any particular strategic threat. When it comes to technology, I fully share the very, very valid concerns that we need to be vigilant and not naive about what is really happening in the tech space. And if there is, as it seems to be happening, a real sort of decoupling between two competing technological systems, we know on which side of the fence we’ll be sitting.
Peter Spiegel: One last question on the economy. I spent some time in the last week meeting with Greek businessmen who are mostly fully embracing of the numbers we talked about. The one thing I get pushback on, is still their interaction with the Greek state tends to be “frustrating”, I think is the word they put it. We first met when you were a Minister in the Samaras government. You were working on civil service reform. I know it’s been something you’ve been working on. Is that something that has still need of work? Are you disappointed, I guess, on the progress being able to make on civil service reform, on the judiciary, on some of those things where businesses interact with the state?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: This is a big and important agenda for us. Civil service reform is an ongoing project. I do need to point out that for the average citizen and the small businesses, the interaction with the state has been significantly simplified. I think our gov.gr platform, which has been modeled after the gov.uk platform, has been a resounding success, something that even people that don’t vote for us actually recognize.
There’s much more we can do in terms of digitizing processes, but at the same time the public administration still has pockets of resistance. I’ve made three very clear commitments for my second term. First of all, we can be totally digital by 2027 in terms of all the processes and all the interactions between citizens and state. The second is performance assessment for all civil servants with clear sort of rewards for those who actually perform best. We’ve tried this already in pockets of the civil service and it has actually worked extremely well, delivering results above expectation.
When it comes to justice, we need to bring the timeline regarding justice close to the European average. We’ve made some progress, but this is a very important topic for me. And we need to clearly push harder when it comes to also digitizing justice. We’ve done a lot of work in terms of the legal infrastructure.
I think overall if you ask companies, the interaction with the state is much simpler. In terms of accessing European funds, the RRF has been a great success. I think we’ve probably done better than any other European country in terms of leveraging both the grant and the debt component of the RRF. It was very easy bureaucratically for companies to actually get access to those funds, though overall I’d say work in progress.
Let me also highlight the fact that in terms of European funds we were sort of laggards and now we are champions in terms of how quickly we can absorb the Structural Funds and of course these frequently benefit businesses. So I think we’ve made measurable progress, but of course, much more to be done, especially on justice and on the HR component of the civil service.
Peter Spiegel: Okay. Let me go to politics, because I think that’s what our crowd is waiting for. You got elected rather handily four years ago with about close to 40%. I think at the peak of the pandemic, which you got a lot of credit for handling better than most of your European colleagues, you were topping 50%. Obviously, in the last couple of months, we’ve seen a pretty sharp drop. And I think in my discussions here, it is very much tied to this horrific, horrific, horrific tragedy with the train accident in northern Greece. Now, I don’t want to bring a human tragedy into a political issue, but I guess the voters decide what is a political issue. How concerned are you that you had a well earned reputation for competence and efficiency, that this train accident in some ways undermines that in the voters mind?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: This was a shocking accident and I think it shook us to the core. And I think people were right at the beginning to be emotional and to be frustrated. They expected better from the state. They expected better from us and they were right to actually hold us accountable for an accident that should not have happened. I’m not going to go into the history, whether this sort of surveillance system regarding the track should have been delivered. It happened on our watch, I assumed the responsibility and I said I gotta fix it now. It’s a tragedy that it will be fixed by September and it wasn’t ready before that, but at the end of the day, tragedies happen, mistakes happen. The question is, how do you bounce back and how do you learn from those mistakes?
At the end of the day, an election is about a four year term record and about what you tell people you want to do the next four years. We focus on our record because in our case it indicates a government that was able to stick to its commitments, something which is highly unusual in Greek politics, in spite of the fact that we had to deal with at least four major crises. Because, adding to Ukraine and the pandemic, the migration crisis and the turbulence with Turkey. So we were in constant crisis management mode. At the same time, we were able to deliver on our promises.
So when I present my plan, my vision for the next four years, I think Greeks will probably tend to believe me more than my main competitor because I have delivered what I told them four years ago. So I’m sort of on the campaign trail every day now, interacting with people, and the sense I get -the polls are again looking better than they did a month ago- but the overall sense I get is what I told you before, people want the stability. They understand that we need a stable government because we are in a difficult, in a complicated part of the world. And I think stability is quite important and I think they buy into our agenda.
And again, what I always find interesting is that the pockets of resistance to change are relatively well defined. But if you ask most people the simple question: “more or less reform?”, they’ll tell you more reform rather than less, which is a big change. Why is this happening in Greece and it’s not happening in other countries, such as France? Because we went through our difficult years, we went through the fantasies of an alternative which was never really there, which brought the country to the brink of a disaster.
And I think also the comparison is between a party that essentially, SYRIZA, hasn’t learned anything. They have not forgotten anything, they have not learned anything. They still keep playing exactly the same tune, not really understanding that the world has changed and not being able to deliver, in my mind, an alternative, a credible alternative vision for where they want to take the country.
Peter Spiegel: One last one on this. I mean, you have said here, and I know you’ve said this before: “it’s happened on my watch”. There’s been years, perhaps, of problems in the rail system. “It happened on my watch, I’m going to take responsibility”. Is that, do you think, a way to try to win over some of these voters that may have lost some confidence in your efficiency?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We cannot turn the clock back and there’s nothing else you can do but to make sure that you actually fix a problem. But again, in my mind, an election is about the big choice, and the big choice is the direction of the country and the nature of the government.
Because there’s been a lot of discussion, I’m sure you followed, about whether we’ll have a coalition government, how complicated things are with proportional representation. We have in our audience our good friend, my good friend, personal friend, the president of Bulgaria, and he knows how complicated it has been in Bulgaria to actually form a government and what an important role he has played to stabilize the country. But I’m sure he would also like for an elected government to be formed. And it hasn’t happened yet in Bulgaria.
So in my mind, we know we’ll have a second election with the electoral law that we’ve always tended to have over the past decades. But the first election is going to be the critical one because the first election is going to send a signal which party is going to win and, at the end of the day, who the Greeks would like as their Prime Minister.
Because in a parliamentary system, yes, you’re voting for a party, but you’re also voting for a prime ministerial candidate. And that is why the position of some parties, in particular Pasok, is so inexplicably weird. I mean, what does Pasok tell us right now? “We don’t want either Mitsotakis or Tsipras to be Prime Minister. We want somebody else, but we won’t tell you who”. I mean, this doesn’t really make any sense to me. And eventually I don’t think that this approach is going to be rewarded by the Greek people.
Peter Spiegel: I have a coalition question later. Let me just ask you one more, one that’s a little bit tougher, which is the other hit you’ve had. It’s been a lot of news internationally, including in the FT, was this incident where the National Intelligence Agency was alleged to have been spying on the political opposition. I know you have said that this is not something that you knew about, but talk to me a little bit about lessons learned there. What did you learn as a Prime Minister when you learned about this?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We made our position very very clear. And again, there were behaviors which were inexcusable, and that’s why we had to take action. And that’s why we actually revamped our intelligence agency completely. And we’re actually the only country that has officially and legally banned the sale of illegal spyware. No other countries have done so. So we actually sort of took the lessons to heart. And now we have an intelligence agency that is actually run. It can either be run by a seasoned diplomat or by a member of the armed forces. That was not the case before. We further tightened the process for legal wiretapping. And we’re doing our best to contain the problem of illegal spyware, which of course is a European problem. And I can tell you Europe has not done much on this and we’re not going to have a solution unless we move at the European level.
So again, you can expect in a four year term, especially in times of crisis, for mistakes to take place. If this happens, I think you have to do two things. You have to assume responsibility, but then you also have to do something about making sure that these mistakes don’t happen again. This is what we’ve done, also in this case.
Peter Spiegel: Let me put this in a political context. You’ve heard your opposition talk about this. It feeds some of these stereotypes that are out there, right? New Democracy is an authoritarian party. Mitsotakis, he’s arrogant. All these kind of stereotypes that are out there, they do tend to feed those kinds of narratives. Are you worried that that narrative takes root in the electorate?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: No. I’ll be very blunt. For seven years, the opposition has been trying -they were in the government at the time- to portray me as somebody else, as some sort of authoritarian, sort of incompetency of family politics. And it’s been personal attack after personal attack against me, against my family. Look, I think people have made up their mind. They’ve seen me govern the country for four years. They’ve seen Alexis Tsipras govern the country for four years. The choice in my mind is extremely clear.
I enjoy sometimes when we really take over the progressive agenda when it comes to issues regarding human rights, protecting the more vulnerable, the environment, agendas which should theoretically belong to the center-left. I would argue that we’re being by far more progressive when it comes to these topics than the previous SYRIZA government. So I understand that this causes a lot of ideological confusion. But, you know, at the end of the day, you can’t argue that it’s raining when it’s sunny.
So people know me. I’ve been in politics for 20 years. They know what they’re getting when they’re going to vote with me, with my advantages, my disadvantages.
But I would really sort of encourage the SYRIZA spin doctors to maybe choose a different strategy because for seven years, it hasn’t really worked.
Peter Spiegel: One last one on this, I promise. As a matter of principle, should government intelligence agencies be listening in on the phone calls of journalists and opponents in politics?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’ve never argued that anyone is off limits. But what we’ve done, and I think what is reasonable, is that for journalists and sort of politically sensitive people, you really need to make sure that you have additional filters which also have to be judicial and to be sure that you have a damn good case in order to be able to listen to someone. And that is exactly what we’ve done now. Essentially, we’ve made it incredibly difficult -I wouldn’t say impossible- for the intelligence services to listen to someone using a legal wiretapping, fully recognizing that there’s lots of software out there by non-state actors that is able to do possibly much more without us even being aware of that.
Peter Spiegel: You mentioned your opponent, Mr. Tsipras. He’s still with us. I wonder if you could just talk about your view of him as a politician. I know you disagree with him on policy, but it is somewhat remarkable that this guy took a party that basically almost didn’t exist, rode the wave of the crisis, became Prime Minister, spent a year of chaos, got pretty soundly defeated by you four years ago, and yet here he is, within striking distance of you. What do you think of Alexis Tsipras? Just as a politician, in his political capacity.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, I would question that we are within striking distance, but certainly look, I’ve said many times that I would never, never underestimate my political opponents. Alexis Tsipras is clearly someone who has demonstrated political skills. At the same time, I think he has done a horrible job as Prime Minister. And it’s my obligation to highlight this because again, when you return back to 2015 and it’s not just Mr. Tsipras who is here, we also have Mr. Varoufakis, we have many protagonists of this saga still around.
Mr. Varoufakis is still insisting that we need to replace our euros with “Dimitra”. So this is our new currency, according to Mr. Varoufakis, who Mr. Tsipras would like to have in some sort of coalition government. So that’s why what happened in 2015 is again extremely relevant. So we should not forget that in 2015 it was very easy for the then SYRIZA government to complete the fifth review. They chose to engage in a policy of extreme brinkmanship. They took the country to an unnecessary referendum. They closed the banks, they made a huge u-turn, and it cost us 100 billion. These are facts, and Greeks better remember them, because Mr. Tsipras hasn’t changed at all.
So essentially, he hasn’t said he’s made major mistakes. So in that sense, I think history is going to be harsh with him, because he had a chance to take the country forward and he took it backward. Because at the end of the day, there’s one sort of very basic yardstick when you judge the records of a prime minister. Have you taken the country forward or have you taken it backward? Mr. Tsipras keeps telling us that it took the country out of the program he imposed upon the country. This is like setting your house on fire and then getting credit for calling the fire brigade. I mean, it doesn’t make much sense to me, and frankly, it’s not a very credible sort of line of argument.
Peter Spiegel: But let me push you on that because I must say, much to my surprise, in some respects, if you go to Brussels these days and you ask about Tsipras, they tend to talk about “post-kolotoumba”. It’s the only Greek word I know. That there seems to be a okay, yes, he screwed up that first year, but as you just said, he got the country out of the program. He took the country back into the financial markets. He executed the program, as you said. What would you say to some of the internationals in Brussels..
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Lucky you, because you didn’t have to pay taxes in Greece. Because they don’t pay taxes in Greece, so they can afford to look at the big picture. But for all of those who pay taxes in Greece, and for the middle class that was destroyed by a policy which I think also was class biased, I’m sure they won’t have a very similar view to the one that’s maybe held by some of the Brussels “illuminati”.
Peter Spiegel: Let me turn to my last subject, which is foreign policy, Εastern Med. Obviously, during your tenure, there’s been, I would say, some of the most tense periods between Greece and Turkey that we’ve seen in recent times. We obviously have this odd situation where both you and Erdoğan are running for re-election within a week or two of each other. Just curious. Let’s make the assumption that both you and he get re-elected in May. Is Erdoğan a reliable partner with which τo work with, in your view?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Peter, let me turn the clock back almost four years, when I first got elected. I genuinely and honestly reached out to Turkey, trying to find sort of a new modus vivendi to smoothen out our differences and to really be able to create a more constructive relationship. The truth is that if you look at the record of Turkish policy over those past three and a half years, Turkey has not reciprocated. The sort of “blue homeland” agenda has been dominant. It’s a sort of old sort of imperial revisionism. It has demonstrated itself in Greece, in Cyprus, with a very sort of aggressive foreign policy, with a signing of a completely illegal and frankly, sort of geographically ridiculous delimitation agreement between Turkey and Libya, with a very heated summer in 2020 with the weaponization of migration in March 2020 and with a very adversarial relationship, not just vis-a-vis Greece, but I say vis-a-vis Europe and the United States.
So I think, in my mind, Turkey has to take a profound strategic decision after the elections. Does it want to re-engage οr not with Greece or try to solve the Cyprus problem? Does it have a real interest in engaging with the West and change this approach and act as a reliable NATO member? Or will it continue on a sort of independently-minded foreign policy that’s closer to China or Russia? At the end of the day, this will determine the state of the Greek-Turkish relationship. This will determine whether we can make meaningful progress on the Cyprus issue.
The Turkish economy is in a very, very problematic state. I agree with President Christodoulides when he said that there is possibly a win-win scenario in terms of reengaging with Turkey regarding both Greek-Turkish relations and the final resolution of the Cyprus problem. But for this to happen, Turkey needs to change its approach. With its current approach and with its current revisionism, I’m afraid that one cannot be particularly optimistic.
I get it. Erdoğan has a campaign to run. We saw a map, part of a campaign video that suddenly sort of painted half of the east islands red. This doesn’t help. All this doesn’t help. But maybe, after the elections, reality will kick in. And if reality kicks in I think the Turkish establishment and elites, will realize that they have more to gain and if they reach out again and engage with the West, including Europe, than if they continue on this independent policy, which hasn’t really helped them.
Peter Spiegel: Well, let’s take that optimistic scenario. I’m an American, so let’s stay optimistic. Where is the place -I know you don’t want to negotiate in public- but where would be the place for compromise, particularly on these sovereignty and border issues?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, there is no discussion on sovereignty and borders, full stop.
I want to be completely categorical here. We have one issue and this was always the issue historically, if you go back to the 70s: it was a delimitation of maritime zones. Ιnitially in the Aegean, after that in the Mediterranean. There is nothing to discuss in terms of borders and sovereignty by a Greek government with Turkey and I want to be extremely clear on this topic. So, one has to accept the fundamental premise that we need to define what is really to be discussed.
But, on the other hand, I also want to be clear that there are many positive agendas that we can develop and we have developed. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs is here, he was in Turkey, there are many other topics we can actually cooperate with Turkey.
So, I would argue that there is also a scenario where we agree to disagree, where we agree that we cannot resolve this outstanding problem but we’re not on each other’s throats, we don’t do overflights over Greek islands. But we can work on the positive agenda. Civil Protection. The Minister of Civil Protection was actually the first who went to Turkey to offer help.
Let’s build upon the people-to-people relationship between our two countries and make sure that we enrich the geopolitical agenda with a broader agenda that can be related to trade, to culture, to the environment. We’re sharing the same Aegean sea, we’re, for example, faced with the same problems in terms of plastics pollution or making sure that we protect our marine environment. These are common problems.
We were working with my good friend Edi, the Prime Minister of Albania, on a fantastic project regarding the one river that we have in common, Aoos in Greek, Vjosa in Albanian on how to create a protected river that actually flows through both our countries. These are some of the positive agendas we can actually build upon that will create some more positive momentum.
Peter Spiegel: One more thing on Turkey and this is the role of the US. We have in President Biden someone who, let’s be honest, when you look at two NATO allies, has kind of put his thumb on the Greek side. You were invited to speak to Congress, you were invited to the White House. But it was not too long ago where we had a president of the United States who seemed to put his thumb on the Turkish side. We have an election coming up ourselves, in the country I know best, where you could have the return of a Trump presidency.
I know you don’t want to get involved in US domestic politics, but let me ask you more generally: do you view the US as a reliable ally given some of the political tensions we’ve had?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Absolutely yes. Because I think that the strategic partnership between the US and Greece, of course also the trilateral framework that we have built with Cyprus, is instrumental and vital for US interests. And this transcends the policies of any given administration.
Why am I saying this? If you just look at the work we’re doing on energy, Greece being a regional energy hub for bringing in natural gas, helping Bulgaria during difficult times when the Russians completely cut off the gas. If it were not for gas coming in through Greece, our Bulgarian friends would have been in great difficulty. Making sure that we use the port of Alexandroupoli as a north-to-south corridor that is actually bypassing the Bosporus straits, forging a strategic partnership on the military-defense side that is long-standing and that actually looks decades into the future. We will, I’m pretty sure, receive the final approval for a purchase of 20 F-35 planes, to be delivered starting 2028. These are long-term strategic partnership arrangements.
Of course I cannot comment on US elections. I have a very good, very strong relationship with President Biden but I had also met President Trump and we were able to get along just fine. But I do need to point out that at the level of the Congress there seems to be bipartisan support vis-à-vis the role that Greece can play in the eastern Mediterranean. I certainly got more applause from both chambers at the US Congress than I do in the Greek parliament.
So there’s an indication that when it comes to this part of the world, at the level of the Congress, both the House and the Senate, there seems to be an understanding about Greece’s strategic importance. Which, again, it’s not at the expense of somebody else. This is a relationship that does not need to be defined in the context of what the US is doing with Turkey. It’s a stand-alone relationship that we greatly value.
Peter Spiegel: Some of your colleagues, though, around the European Council table, particularly President Macron, have in some ways correctly argued that if the US is no longer going to be as reliable as we once thought it would be, that we need to plan ourselves for a more European solution to our national security. Do you disagree with President Macron?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Not at all. But are the two really mutually exclusive? If you just look at -we have to be realistic- Ukraine, who has provided the bulk of the military support to Ukraine? I would love for Europe to do more and I will always encourage Europe to do more. And I think there is an argument for a European strategic autonomy that would force us to cooperate more effectively and maybe also be able to execute missions in areas where maybe the US does not have such a vital interest.
Let me give you a real-time example: Sudan. I didn’t really sense that the Americans were particularly concerned with what happened in Sudan. We did a lot of bilateral agreements and we did manage to get our people safely out of Sudan, but I would love to have had more European coordination. This is a very clear example where we could have done something on our own, because we would consider this to be more important than the Americans, and we’re still clearly not there.
Also, when we are looking at our procurement decisions, of course we have a long-standing relationship with the US but when we buy French ships for example and the French ships are identical to the ships that the French buy, it’s one small step towards a common European procurement space, which we also need for our defense industry. I hope we can do more in that direction.
So, as far as the strategic autonomy thesis of President Macron, I absolutely agree. The reason we are so dependent on the US is simply because we haven’t been able to deliver yet on this vision.
Peter Spiegel: One last topic, because we’re running out of time and you’ve mentioned it already. Ukraine. Tragically it’s been several years since I’ve been back here to Greece. But when I was sitting in my office in New York and I thought through the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the things I must admit came to my mind was,“oh, this is going to be tough for Mitsotakis” because this country, what I know about it, does have historical, cultural, religious ties to Russia.
And yet you very early, very quickly and very definitively sided with the Ukrainians when many of the other countries in this region didn’t. Talk to me about that decision and how difficult it’s been for you politically, given some of the cultural and religious ties that Greece does have with Russia.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, we have strong cultural and people-to-people ties and we have no animosity towards the Russian people. But we have a real problem with Putin and with him attacking a sovereign country and causing havoc in the heartland of Europe. So, for us, for me personally, for our cabinet and our party, the decision was very, very clear and there was really no pushback, also within the party.
We will support Ukraine. We did support Ukraine militarily but also politically, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we’re also sending a message to other potential regional powers that could, maybe, in their own thinking, consider doing something similar to what Russia has done. So if Russia wins, where is this thing going to stop? This is not about the strongest defeating the weakest. This is about a rules-based international order.
I think the European Union rose overall to the occasion, and we were able to coordinate and overcome internal difficulties. We didn’t talk a lot about Europe, but I think there’s a lot of reasons why one could be positive about what Europe has done over the past years. The vaccines, the RRF, Ukraine, lots of good things have happened at the European level.
But for me the decision was obvious. And it was not just a decision of principle. I think it was also a decision of self-interest, given the position of the country and the regional threats it will always have to deal with.
Peter Spiegel: One of the narratives you hear is that time plays into Putin’s hands. And one of the reasons is because, as you say, this alliance’s unanimity and unity that we’ve seen, they believe inevitably will disintegrate. We’ve seen some noises, certainly out of Hungary. We’ve seen some noises of the new Italian government, the new Swedish government. How concerned are you in your NATO hat that the alliance will stick together?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We will stick together. I think we know what we can do. We think we’re ramping up our support. I think there are limits to what one can offer. But, at the end of the day, one needs to be honest. As I told you, it’s the US that is driving this. We’re all chipping in, to the best of our abilities.
No, I’m not concerned about a fragmentation in the pro-Ukraine alliance, either at the European level, at the level of the European Council, or at the NATO level. This alliance will hold strong, and it will have to prevail.