Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview on CNN, with journalist Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour: Prime Minister, welcome back to the program.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you. Thank you, Christiane. Thanks for having me.

Christiane Amanpour: So can I just ask you, because I don’t know whether you were surprised, but everybody else was surprised that not just that you won a majority, but a thumping majority. Were you taken by surprise?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, I was expecting a victory of my party. We’ve done probably better than many people expected. We still have not won an outright majority. That is why we will require a second election on the 25 June with another electoral law. But I think the results have been extremely encouraging. We’ve delivered on our main commitments, which I undertook four years ago. And I think the Greek people have rewarded us not just for the progress that the Greek economy has made, but also they bought into our plan for our future. For a Greece that is much more prosperous, that is going to get closer to Europe when it comes to wages. And overall, it has been, I think, a convincing electoral victory on our side. And of course, I’m very happy about it.

Christiane Amanpour: So despite what everybody’s calling a success story and the growth that we talked about in the economy and all that you’ve put into motion on a granular level, according to EU statistics, almost a third of Greek people still are at risk of poverty. You obviously know that. What will be your if you get a second term -which you expect to- what will be the way you will make the macroeconomics actually trickle down to actual people’s livelihoods?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, Christiane, we have to realize how painful the crisis was for Greece. We lost 25% of our GDP and it is not easy to make up for all this lost ground. I’m very happy that the economy has been growing much faster than the Eurozone average and it has been growing faster on the back of a significant increase in investment, in productivity, in exports, in innovation.

And of course, in order for us to bridge this gap with Europe, we need to deliver even faster growth than what we have achieved so far. I think we know how to do it. We have turned Greece into a very attractive investment destination. We have lowered taxes, we have brought down unemployment by more than six percentage points. We have leveraged the country’s significant comparative advantages, and I do intend to continue down that path, should the Greek people place their trust in us again.

For us, the most significant priority is to bring up wages. I fully understand that wages are still low in Greece. The cost of living crisis has taken its toll. Yes, we have lower inflation in Greece than in most other European countries, but we still need to do more to support disposable income.

But we cannot do that by mortgaging our future. And that is why it is particularly important for us to remain on a path of fiscal sustainability. I’m really proud about the fact that we have delivered high growth rates while at the same time bringing down our debt as a percentage of GDP. And that is why nobody, Christiane, today is talking about Greece as being a problem within the eurozone.

If you look at the way our bonds have been trading, we still have not reached investment grade, but our bonds are essentially trading as if we are already there. And I do expect to be able to deliver the investment grade milestone to the country, assuming we have a strong government after the elections of the 25 June.

Christiane Amanpour: So let me talk about that, because you have to get through, I think, a few hurdles before the 25 June. First and foremost, it is clear that your migration policies resonated with the people in your country. However, it has probably not escaped your attention that the EU, the Commissioner for Migration, has sent a message to the Greek authorities for a full and independent investigation of what was broken by The New York Times, which is the allegation that your government basically illegally allowed the sort of setting adrift some migrants in the Aegean. And I want to play a video that I know that you have seen, which is what the EU sorry, the New York Times got exclusively from the actual aid worker in question, which shows migrants, these migrants being put onto a truck and then being put onto a boat, then onto a Coast Guard boat, and finally being set adrift on a raft in the Aegean. So my first question to you is will you order your government to make a full and independent investigation of what happened?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I have already done so, Christiane. I take this incident very seriously. It is already being investigated by my government. So that’s a very straightforward answer to your question. But I want to also make a broader point about migration, which I think will be of interest to your viewers. Back in 2015, 75% of all the illegal migrants who arrived into Europe came through Greece. We essentially had an open border policy, and this put the whole sort of Schengen zone in Europe under tremendous pressure. I’ve been advocating since I came into power for a tough but fair border control policy.

And I can tell you that the less people we have at sea, the less risk we have of people dying at sea. And I’m very, very happy that we have significantly reduced the business, we have essentially killed the business model of the illegal smugglers. We have fewer people, significantly fewer people arriving on Greek islands, but at the same time, we also are able to shelter them in humane facilities. We have significantly accelerated our asylum procedures and we have also addressed a very painful problem, which was the issue of unaccompanied minors, which we also inherited when we came into power four years ago.

So I think we have an overall comprehensive migration policy. And I think we’ve also made the case to Europe that you cannot have a comprehensive European approach to migration unless you control your external borders. At the same time, you need to open legal pathways to migration, but you need to crack down on the smugglers. They are the ones responsible for putting people at risk at sea. And frankly, this is something that my government simply cannot tolerate.

Christiane Amanpour: Can I just be absolutely clear that you do not approve, or whatever the correct word is, your government does not willingly engage in setting these vulnerable people adrift in the sea, including children?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Absolutely not. I want to be absolutely clear about that. I’ve made numerous times the distinction between what you showed, which is a completely unacceptable practice, and between our obligation, which we feel is within the scope of European regulation, of actually intercepting people at sea on our sea border with Turkey and then asking for the Turkish Coast Guard to actually come and pick these people up.

So I know that Greece has been getting its fair share of criticism when it comes to pushbacks, but very few people are actually addressing the issue of “push-forwards”, and that by “push-forwards” I mean the activities undertaken by Turkey, by the Turkish Coast Guard to aggressively push people, desperate people, on basically inflatable boats that should never be seaworthy, to sea and pushing them into our territorial waters.

Christiane Amanpour: So then let me ask you about Turkey, because clearly there have been frosty relations between you and President Erdoğan, who also is in the midst of an election campaign and will also face a second round. Not so long ago, the two of you, you know, about a year ago, after an argument about weapons sales, he said about you, ‘he no longer exists for me’. You have admitted to quote, ‘very, very difficult moments’ with Erdoğan. You immediately rushed to help after the earthquake. Have relations been normalized between you two?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, let me point out, as you said, that we were the first to send our help teams to Turkey after the devastating earthquake. And I think it is very important to preserve the good people-to-people relationship. And I think this gesture really helped us a lot to build some positive momentum between our two countries.

I cannot comment on the outcome of the Turkish elections. They’re having a second round. We’re also going to be having a second election. But I also know that the Turkish foreign policy is not going to change from one moment to the next.

Turkish foreign policy over the past years has been revisionist. What they call the “Blue Homeland” doctrine is clearly threatening Greek sovereignty and Greek sovereign rights. And we have an obligation to defend the sovereignty and our sovereign rights.

At the same time, I will be the first, Christiane, to always make a gesture of goodwill towards Turkey, hand out my hand in a gesture of friendship. I think there is a way of resolving our main issue, which is a delimitation of our maritime zones in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean, as long as we adhere to International Law.

We’ve been able to delimitate our maritime zones with Italy, we did the same with Egypt. There’s no reason why we cannot do the same with Turkey as long as we agree that we need to adhere to good neighborly relations and use a toolkit of international law to solve our dispute. So I would hope that if, after the next elections, President Erdoğan continues, and I also have the honor to serve my people as Prime Minister, that things could continue to improve. But at the same time, I am not naive, and I know that the foreign policies of countries don’t change from one moment to the next.

Christiane Amanpour: Can I ask you again? It’s an issue that, I think, affects both Turkey and Greece, particularly especially around migrants. So, as you know, for many years, the EU gave Turkey a bit of a pass and also a lot of money to keep Syrian refugees and others there rather than let them come into Europe. It is said that the EU has also created so-called “the Mitsotakis exception” regarding migrants coming into your country because you’re stopping them coming from further into the EU. Do you see it that way? I mean, you’re doing certain things that maybe other countries might not have been so praised for, and yet your country is.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well Christiane, I have an obligation to protect my borders. My borders also happen to be the external borders of the European Union. And if you turn the clock back to March 2020, when President Erdoğan willingly tried to instrumentalize a plight of tens of thousands of migrants and tried to push them into Greek territory, we defended our border. And two days later, we had the entire leadership of the European Union at the Greek-Turkish border applauding what we did. Because at the same time, we’re not just protecting the Greek border, we’re also protecting the European border.

And I think there has been a gradual change in European policy at the level of the European Council, recognizing that we need to protect our external borders if we want to have a zone of free movement of people within the European Union. We simply cannot live in an environment where we let anybody come in, because then eventually what you will see is what happened in 2015, and you will see border closures within the European Union, which is exactly what happened.

I never want my country to be facing a similar situation again. So I think there has been a change at the European level recognizing the need to protect our external borders while at the same time making sure that we streamline our internal migration policies, that we work together to send people back, those who have entered the European Union illegally. But also, I will stress this because this is for me, extremely important to make sure that we have legal pathways for migrants who want to come to work in the European Union.

Let me just give you an example. In Greece, we’re bringing down our unemployment very, very quickly. We are already in need, for example, for agricultural workers. And I much more prefer to have bilateral arrangements with countries of origin where people could come to Greece and work legally without having to undergo the torture of a very treacherous trip. So they come to Greece legally, they work here legally, they’re insured, they can return to their country. This is a win-win proposal, and we need to work much more towards that goal.

Christiane Amanpour: I want to ask you about your second term priorities, because the train crash was tragic. The loss of life was just tragic. It also, for many people, highlighted some of the major infrastructure issues. You’ve done a lot with apps and reconfiguring people’s relationship with the government, but they say, hang on a second. Underneath there’s a lot that needs to be done, whether it’s in schools and the inequality piece. What is your domestic priority for a second term, should you get one?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I have big ambitions for our second term, and I know that in order to transform a country such as Greece, you need at least two terms in order to be able to do that. We need to continue to have growth rates that are significantly higher than the eurozone average, which means more investment, more job creation. But at the same time, I’m also very much advocating a very progressive agenda when it comes to public health, public education, and the reduction of inequalities.

If you ask me what is sort of my one overarching priority, it would be to deliver higher growth rates by reducing inequality at the same time. And we have actually reduced inequality over the past two years because we have offered targeted assistance during the pandemic and during the cost of living crisis to those who required it the most.

At the same time, I am really pushing our green and digital agenda, and of course, the modernization of the state, as you pointed out, is a big priority for the second term. I think we’ve done incredible things when it comes to facilitating the interaction of Greek citizens with the state in terms of using technology.

But we know that there are still lots of issues when it comes to the hardcore public sector that we need to address. And this will certainly be one of my priorities should I have the opportunity to serve for a second term as Prime Minister.

But I think what is important to understand, when it comes to the Greek election, is that we have basically been able to defeat the populist opposition for a second time in a row. And I think it is proof that at the end of the day, if you deliver results for people, the populist narrative, the fantasies of easy solutions over tangible results, that this is, I think, an encouraging message for everyone, certainly in Europe, that if you can actually deliver real change for people, people will reward you in the ballot box.

And for me, this has been the most encouraging message of this election. Not only did we increase our vote, our share of the vote, our absolute numbers of votes, but also the opposition, the populist opposition was essentially destroyed at this election. We have a 20 point margin. We gained twice as many votes as they did. So I think there’s something that happened in Greece which I think will resonate across other liberal democracies when it comes to this sort of inherent fight between people who are focused on offering solutions and those who are just engaged in the lovely politics of offering empty promises.

Christiane Amanpour: All right, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, thank you for joining us, and we will hopefully have this conversation again after the next round. Thank you very much indeed.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you, Christiane.