Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview on Politico’s podcast “Power Play” with journalist Anne McElvoy

Anne McElvoy: Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, welcome to Power Play.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, thanks for having me.

Anne McElvoy: Someone said to me you’re trying to lead Europe south in climate matters in that sense of that group of countries in the south who are more strongly affected, at least in the short term, by climate change. You’re banging on the door of France, Germany, and the EU to—I have to put it bluntly—to pay more. Do you still feel that you’re asking for more? What are you not getting?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, we need to be fair in terms of our assessment of what the EU has done and where it still is demonstrating shortcomings. It is true that the Mediterranean is mostly affected by climate crisis. It is a hot spot. And it is also true that when we look at the total amount of money that we have put on the table to fight climate change, the overwhelming percentage is directed towards mitigation. How will we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and how will we become climate neutral by 2050?

And of course, this is a laudable and imperative medium to long term goal, but we should not forget adaptation. There’s not enough money when it comes to adaptation. This was very clear when we asked for European support and we realized that the Solidarity Fund for this year is already completely depleted. We managed to repurpose European funds from the RRF and this was certainly very helpful for Greece.

But in the revision of the MFF, I am making a very strong case that we need to strengthen the solidarity fund in order to cope with these natural catastrophes at a European level. We’re asking for two and a half, the Commission is actually asking for two and a half billion. It is a relatively small sum given what is at stake.

Symbolically, it is very important because it’s very difficult for me to convince my citizens that they need to make tough choices in order to decarbonize in the short term, tough choices, sometimes economically painful. At the same time, telling them that Europe is not standing by their side when they see their property being destroyed by floods.

Anne McElvoy: In one sense, they have made a choice, you were re-elected with a handsome majority, a good margin, and you’ve been very open about the fact that you see yourself as a reform-minded leader of Greece and that you see that as your biggest task, that there are changes that you want to make in your country. At the same time, you have an awful lot of potential areas in which you need to reform. What matters most to you? And how do you then go about perhaps correcting this impression that Greece at the top table, at these international gatherings, is smooth, outward-looking, very much part of the community of nations looking forward.

And then there are so many problems that you have to resolve at home, in the public services, in the aftermath of the terrible train crash. What have you learned?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Quite a lot. But first of all, I think it is important to take stock of the progress that we have made over the past four and a half years. Greece is now one of the best performing economies in the Eurozone. We have managed to reduce our debt as a percentage of GDP at the fastest pace of any country in the world. We will have a primary surplus this year and a primary surplus next year, while at the same time we’ve managed to bring down unemployment and regain investment grade.

I feel quite proud as a Greek representing my people because this has been a collective effort. This is not just a government that has succeeded in putting Greece in this position. When I present myself in Brussels and Greece is no longer the problem child, but a lot of people actually applaud the progress that we have made, I think this is important for the country and it’s also important, I think, for our collective psychology, because we have been receiving quite a fair share of international bashing over the past decade. And the fact that Greece is back now, I think, helps us with what we need to do going forward.

Anne McElvoy: Did you feel that personally? I mean, obviously you weren’t in power for some chunk of that time. Has it felt that Greece is on the naughty step of the European Union?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Of course. Don’t forget, Anne, that I was also Minister at a time when I had to negotiate with the troika during very difficult times. We’ve flirted with disaster. Greece is a country that lost 25% of its GDP, unprecedented in the history of modern economies post World War II. And we’ve managed to survive. We’ve proven that we’re resilient. And now we’re essentially on our way to what I think could be a remarkable comeback.

But there is still a lot of work to be done, of course, and that is why I’m so focused on the reforms of my second term. But also let me point out the fact that the Greek people rewarded us by reelecting us to power with a higher share of the vote than they did in 2019. This is extremely unusual for incumbent governments that had to deal with a severe crisis. So we managed to go against the trend. We defeated the populists, and we’ve proven that a center-right, liberal, progressive government that really tackles people’s problems and focuses on important social issues can actually deliver real change and can succeed in getting re-elected.

Anne McElvoy: What do you make, Prime Minister, of the robustness or otherwise of the EU response to what is happening in Gaza and that delicate balance of support for Israel, but also concern for the mounting the awful humanitarian situation in Gaza. It’s harder than it was for Israel’s allies in this crisis, isn’t it?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think the European Union has been very clear from the beginning, recognising Israel’s right to self-defense, in accordance always with International Law and, in particular, International Humanitarian Law. But I think as the days have progressed, we have expressed an increased concern over the plight of innocent civilians and about the horrifying scenes that came out of Gaza. And I think while we recognise that Israel has the right to defend itself, how it does so actually matters. And it matters considerably.

And that is why we have also been at the forefront -by we, I speak about Greece-, recognising the need for a humanitarian pause in order to be able to get humanitarian aid into Gaza to facilitate with the hostage negotiations, but also to allow for people who are currently in Gaza, who want to leave and who have the capability to leave -and I’m talking about foreign nationals. We still, for example, have a few Greeks who are in Gaza. We’ve been able to evacuate quite a few of them, but we still have a few who are in Gaza, who could potentially like to leave, to do so in conditions of safety.

I think as time progresses and as Israel continues with this very, very aggressive military campaign, yes, there will be an increased concern about the proportionality of the Israeli response.

And I’m speaking as a friend of Israel. I think that sometimes friends have to speak in hard truths to friends. That at the end of the day, we should not undermine what is a strategic goal to defeat Hamas, but we should also try to think about the day after, what is going to be the arrangement that will govern Gaza the day after, and not to drive these divisions in such a way to make it inconceivable the day after to talk about a political solution to the problem.

Anne McElvoy: You’ve been seen as a strong ally of Israel, also in the wake of the attack when you went there and offered your support and condolences. Are you suggesting that that proportionality is now in doubt to some extent? When you use the word like aggressive of the Israeli counter-offensive in Gaza, are you saying that Israel may have stepped over the line of what you consider acceptable? Certainly, Spain’s acting Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, clearly thinks that because he’s called for a ceasefire. He’s the first, I think, of the EU family to break ranks on that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I will stick with my call for a humanitarian pause and continue to express my deep concern about what is happening and to call upon our Israeli friends to show as much restraint as is possible. I think that Israel also needs to listen to these countries who clearly, I think have a more maybe, are friends of Israel, but also have an objective position when it comes to what is currently happening in Gaza.

It is not my job to interfere with operational issues, and no one, I think, can give very clear military advice on how Israel is going to fight this war. But we’re looking at the consequences, and the consequences are tragic. It’s a fact. Thousands of innocent people, children, women, have lost their lives. This is something which is of significant concern to all of us.

Anne McElvoy: I know you’re being very measured in the words that you’re choosing, but it sounds to me like you are more concerned about the nature and the sweeping strength of the Israeli action in Gaza than you would have been a couple of weeks ago. Am I right about that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yes, because more innocent people have lost their lives and we have a significant number of casualties. If this continues, I think the call for a humanitarian pause will only get stronger. I think at the end of the day, this is really a question about being able to restore humanitarian aid to people who need it the most to make sure that at least some of the hospitals are functioning and to ensure that one will not be faced on a daily basis with these horrible scenes.

Because at the end of the day, one needs to recognise what is the price that one has to pay in order to defeat Hamas. It’s a very delicate balance. I understand, and I understand also where Israel is coming from. What happened on October 7th was beyond horrific. But I would also repeat what President Biden said, that the urge for revenge… it doesn’t necessarily turn into good politics.

Anne McElvoy: What about Greece’s position here? Of course, you have a strategic port for American presence at Souda Bay in Crete. Are you concerned about Greece being further drawn into this conflict, as you say, as the delicate balance, but also the risks rise?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We are honouring our defence cooperation agreement with the United States. We don’t go beyond that. I will leave it at that because these are operational issues. But again, I do want to highlight that Greece can be seen as an honest broker. We are well respected in the Arab world. We’ve had traditional relationships of friendship. I think we are as objective as one can be in this very difficult situation. That is why I was present in Cairo. I will also be going to Paris on Thursday to meet with President Macron and many Arab leaders who are invited in a High Level Summit regarding humanitarian assistance.

Because of our geography, if we can deliver humanitarian aid in an organised manner and ensure that this aid reaches those who actually need it the most, we would be happy to do so. We just had a plane that landed in Egypt delivering humanitarian aid. And if we can explore the possibility of a sea corridor, which would, however, need the full protection of all the relevant parties to ensure that ships could safely access Gaza, I would also be interested in participating in such an initiative, but we’re clearly not there yet.

Anne McElvoy: I’ll just jump in there, Prime Minister, to say I actually asked Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, the guest before you on this podcast, exactly about that sea corridor. I think that idea was still coming together. So am I right in seeing your answers that Greece would be involved in that push, which I think involves the UK, France, perhaps other European powers to push for a sea corridor to get more aid into Gaza? Then that would, as you point out, also occasion a temporary ceasefire.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yes. The advantage of a sea corridor is that you can pack much more humanitarian aid in a ship than you can in a truck. So, if the logistics work and if it is actually convenient to do so rather than transporting aid by plane and then putting it on trucks, if that is something which is doable and it can be done with the maximum amount of safety, I would be very happy to participate in such an initiative.

Anne McElvoy: I would never try to compete on expertise on ships with a Greek guest. Last question for you. We’ve had the British Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, rather outspoken British politician, visited Greece at the weekend. She said she was there to learn from Greece about how to deal with migrant crossings. She was quite widely photographed here and on television pictures next to a steel barricade. So I think that sent quite a strong message. What kind of advice do you think that you would be offering the British Home Secretary. She’s, after all, in favor of leaving the European Court of Human Rights. She wants the “Rwanda Plan” to move the handling of some asylum claims away from the home country. Are they the kind of ideas where you see eye to eye, to make common cause?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: No, not necessarily. Greece has been implementing a tough but fair migration policy. Since I took over as Prime Minister, the result has been a significant reduction in illegal crossings from the Turkish coast to our islands. We saw a significant uptick during the summer. We’ve again been able to manage the flows much better in October, we also have significant facilities on our islands. Reception centres were very quick in terms of processing asylum applications, but we also make it very, very clear that it is not up to the smugglers – It should not be up to the smugglers to determine who enters the European Union and that we have a right to protect our sea border, always with full respect to International Law. We believe that protecting your border is essential for an overall coherent migration policy.

Anne McElvoy: But you don’t see the ECHR as a block to you in that aim?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We feel that we act within the scope of European regulations when we are actually intercepting boats at sea. I’ve been very clear and very unapologetic about our practise. At the same time, I’ve also been very clear in terms of ensuring that my Coast Guard always, always saves people who find themselves at danger at sea and then takes them, of course, back to the Greek….

Anne McElvoy: Yeah, in fairness, you have had to maybe tighten up that message, haven’t you, about your Coast Guard?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, look, we’ve been very clear about what we do. But it is also, in my mind, borderline absurd to place the blame on the Coast Guard trying to do a very difficult job and not to address the underlying problem, which is that there are people who profit from human suffering and make tons of money. I want to eradicate the smuggler’s business model. The way to do it is to ensure that the minimum number of boats actually reach the Greek coast.

Anne McElvoy: You’re not attracted to something like the “Rwanda Plan” of processing some asylum claims, the more irregular or apparently irregular ones, further away. I think Austria is signalling some interest in this?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I don’t think there would be a majority for such an idea at the European Council and we’ve already made significant progress in terms of the asylum migration pact. Let’s not make our life more complicated than it already is. But I will continue to advocate for more European funding for our facilities. We’re spending a lot of domestic funds to support our infrastructure as a country which sits on the external border of the European Union. Of course, we are getting a lot of European assistance, but it is important for this European assistance not to dry up over the next years.

Anne McElvoy: Looping back to our previous discussion in Brussels, I asked Mr Mitsotakis how Greece and his own leadership would be affected if it was a different face in the White House next year. You could be talking to President Trump. How would that strike you?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I listened to your previous podcast, and I know you’ve made the same question also to other leaders who have appeared. I will also be very discreet in not commenting about this possibility. What I can tell you is that the strategic relationship with Greece and the US, I think, transcends the person who actually sits in the White House at any given point. And I’m saying this… I have tremendous respect for President Biden. We have an excellent cooperation. But I’ve also worked with President Trump before President Biden. So I’ve actually visited two US Presidents at the White House. And when I look at Congress…

Anne McElvoy: Do you believe that relationship would be manageable again?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think that the relationship will go from strength to strength also because there is bipartisan support in Congress. I’m one of the few European leaders who’ve had the privilege to address a joint session of Congress. And I can tell you I received more applause there than I do in my own Parliament – By both sides of the aisle.

Anne McElvoy: Is there any sign of rapprochement with Turkey on the refugee question? I know you’ve tried to get that dialogue going again with President Erdoğan, not always an easy partner to deal with, and not least given that there are sporadic threats from Ankara, from President Erdoğan himself, with territorial claims aimed at Greece, which of course caused great nervousness in the Eastern Aegean.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We went through four very difficult years, but there has been a change of tune from Ankara over the past months, and I’m certainly looking forward towards exploring possibilities for a substantive Greek-Turkish rapprochement. This is, of course, also related to migration. My Minister of Migration was in Turkey. We need to work together to address this challenge. I was always an open proponent that Turkey needs to be supported financially by the European Union because it is currently hosting millions of Syrians refugees. There are win-win areas we can work together. And even if we agree to disagree on our main difference, which is the delimitation of maritime zones, we can do so in a civilized manner without being at each other’s throats and without threatening Greece in the way that Turkey has done over the past year. So I just hope that this change of approach is going to be sustainable.

Anne McElvoy: Greece has been heavily criticized in the last few years for its performance on issues around rule of law, and it’s more than a year since your country was rocked by the surveillance scandal, the so-called Greek Watergate, with phones of many politicians, business and journalists were found to be bugged by predator spyware. We’ve had that investigation, it’s gone on for longer than a year. It itself has become entangled, although some people involved in it themselves, being hauled over the coals. And that sometimes creates the impression that accountability is very slow to be delivered. Would you accept that analysis?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: What I can tell you is that this was a very serious issue. I acknowledged from the very beginning that mistakes were made, but at the same time, it is under judicial investigation at the highest possible level. So I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. What I can tell you is two things. First of all, one of the big reforms I want to make in Greece is to make sure that justice does its job at a faster pace than it has done so until today.

Anne McElvoy: You guessed my next question. I was going to say if we’re going to wait on Greek justice that can be too long.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Judicial reform is a big challenge for me. The second point I want to make is that Greece is constantly improving when it comes to the rule of law scorecard. At the end of the day, there is only one institution in charge of judging the progress that countries make when it comes to the rule of law, and that is the European Commission.

Anne McElvoy: Well, the judicial system has been brought up many times by the EU in that context, and indeed the latest EU reports saw a deterioration in access to justice and expressed some concerns there about the independence of the judiciary. Do you think they were wrong in that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think that we’ve made substantial efforts to implement a very ambitious justice reform, but I acknowledge that there is still a lot of hard work to be done.

Anne McElvoy: Do you take political responsibility for that spyware scandal?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: At the end of the day, everything that goes wrong in the country, one can assume that the Prime Minister is in charge. But I’ve spoken publicly about this issue many times, and I should also remind you that when people go and vote, they look at the complete record of a government. And of course, I acknowledge from the very beginning that this was a problematic area. People looked at our record, they assessed our overall job, and they entrusted us with the possibility to continue to govern the country.

Anne McElvoy: You have great international experience. You look around the world a lot. Do you really see yourself as leading your country to face outwards as well as deal with its domestic problems?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It’s important to be able to represent your country internationally. What happens in Brussels, for example, matters. If we are good negotiators, we will be able to bring back more money for Greece. That’s exactly what we did when we negotiated.

Anne McElvoy: You even took Ursula von der Leyen on holiday to Greece, or she came on a vacation to Greece.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: She did. It’s so strange why sometimes people are always looking for a subplot. What is essentially a good personal relationship that I think is important. At the end of the day, we invest in these good personal relationships, but the institutional independence is guaranteed and we’re all… you know, professional.

Anne McElvoy: Was there downtime? Was there a bit of beach going on there? I saw you sitting on comfortable chairs.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We are professional politicians, but at the end of the day, getting to know our interlocutors better on a personal basis, I think is quite important. We spend hours and hours in the Council. Xavier Bettel, whose last council is actually this one, made it very clear that also friendships can develop in spite of the fact that we are politicians.

Anne McElvoy: I was trying to find out if you had pool time together, but I wasn’t quite getting an answer to that one.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, let’s keep our… After all, it was a private trip.

Anne McElvoy: Fair enough.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: With no political connotations.

Anne McElvoy: I must ask you a question. Our final question we ask all of our guests. And you haven’t had any warning on this. Who would you like to hear follow you as a guest on Power Play? Who would you listen to? We know you listen to Keir Starmer, so we hope to keep you as a listener, get your five-star rating.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Get someone to talk about the tremendous progress that AI has made. How about, I don’t know, Demis Hassabis from DeepMind, someone who can really contribute to educating all of us about what is happening in a space that may seem incomprehensible to most of us.

Anne McElvoy: Demis Hassabis it is. That’s fine. We’ll get you to come and help with the bookings. Been a pleasure talking to you today.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you so much.