Laura Kuenssberg: Not so long ago Greece was groaning under enormous debt and trying to cope with many, many thousands of people arriving on its shores. But the man often credited with turning around its economy, who was rewarded with a thumping majority in the summer elections, is Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who I’m delighted to say is with us this morning. Welcome to the programme.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Laura Kuenssberg: It’s a very great pleasure. Now, like the UK, Greece has had to grapple with migrants arriving on its shores. But you have really cut the numbers. And not so long ago, Suella Braverman, who was the Home Secretary until recently, visited Samos in the Aegean Sea, and she said she felt the UK had a lot to learn from Greece. So do you think there are things we have to learn from you?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, we’ve implemented the tough but fair migration policy, which starts with a fundamental premise: that you need to limit the number of boats leaving the Turkish shore. And we’ve been able to do that rather successfully. Granted our geography is very different to yours, so maybe some analogies may not be that relevant. But we’ve been able to significantly reduce the number of people arriving on the Greek islands, which, of course, is a big relief for our island population. And we’ve also been very successful in processing asylum applications relatively quickly.
So I’d say, overall, we’ve changed the narrative of migration. And we’ve also convinced Europe that you cannot manage the migration problem unless you place particular emphasis on what we call the “external dimension” of migration, which is essentially protecting our common borders.
Laura Kuenssberg: And if you look at the numbers, I mean, they are astonishing. In 2015, you had more than 800,000 people arriving. The latest figures are now down to 35,000 so far this year. But part of the way that you handled it was an EU-wide deal with Turkey. Now the UK has struggled to get a returns deal with France; and outside the EU that might be quite tricky. But do you think it’s realistic that the EU would actually try to help the UK with this?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, look, in our case, we want to work with Turkey. Turkey is a country of transit, and we do so both bilaterally, but also within the context of the European Union. It seems to me that you have a different type of a problem. When I was looking at the numbers, a significant number of the people who arrive in the UK arrive through legal pathways. What we’re saying in Europe is that you need to contain the problem of irregular arrivals while at the same time offering legal pathways to migration.
If you look at the Greek economy, for example, we’re looking for more agricultural workers. The economy is growing. Unemployment is under 10% for the first time in many, many years. So, we need to balance protecting our borders with offering legal pathways to migration and, of course, returning those who are not granted asylum to their countries of origin. This has proven to be very tricky, not just for the UK, it’s also proven to be very tricky for Europe because we need to cooperate with these countries and they’re not always particularly forthcoming.
Laura Kuenssberg: They’re not always willing to do so. But there has been also some criticism from charities and from other refugee groups that the approach that Greece has taken has sometimes been too harsh and too strict, and you’ve been too tough to get the numbers down. Now, in the summer, there was an overcrowded boat carrying migrants, and it capsized and hundreds of people died. I’m sure people will remember the news story. Now, your Coast Guard has come under real pressure over the way that it was handled. They claimed the boat was on a safe and steady course. Some of our colleagues at the BBC found that the boat actually had hardly moved in the hours before then. And the BBC has also verified some footage that shows that the Coast Guard filmed the boat foundering at sea during the time that the authorities claim it wasn’t in need of rescue. There’s been a lot of controversy around this. Do you accept now that your Coast Guard got some things wrong?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We’re investigating this particular incident, but what I would like to point out, Laura, is that our Coast Guard has saved tens of thousands of people at sea, and we should be grateful for the work they do. At the same time, I’ve been very open and forthcoming that we feel that we have a right to intercept boats at sea and at the same time, encourage these boats to return to the coast from where they left.
When you look at this boat, the tragedy is that this boat left the coast of Libya in the first place. And that is why it is so important to work with the countries of transit. It is very difficult -you just look at this photo- to do a lot about an overcrowded boat. We asked the boat whether they wanted assistance. They refused any assistance. They wanted to get to Italy. And at the end of the day, we should hold the smugglers accountable, not the Coast Guard that is trying to do its job.
Laura Kuenssberg: But even the Council of Europe has expressed concern about what happened about the actions that were taken by the Greek Coast Guard. Do you think they might have got some things wrong?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: What I’m saying is that this incident is being investigated, and it’s also being investigated by Greek Justice, and I will leave it at that. But again, it’s important to point the finger at the smugglers because they, at the end of the day, are the ones responsible for offering people what many desperate people think is actually a safe passage. And then they end up on this boat and they realise that this is actually a very, very dangerous trip. That is why I’m insisting so much on making sure that the boats don’t leave the coast in the first place. That’s why we’re working with Turkey and with the Turkish Coast Guard. That’s the way to actually save lives.
Laura Kuenssberg: Let’s talk then about a way that you might be working with the UK. Our viewers, many of them will have heard of the Elgin Μarbles or the Parthenon Sculptures.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We call them the Parthenon Sculptures.
Laura Kuenssberg: You call them the Parthenon Sculptures. Βecause they were brought to this country in the 19th century by Lord Elgin, who was a British diplomat at the time. Now, here are the ones of the British Museum. There they are in their home in Athens. So, at the moment, they’re not together. You’ve said for a long time, and Greece has said for a long time that they would very much like to have them back. Now, where do you think they look better?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think the answer is very clear. They do look better in the Acropolis Museum, a state-of-the-art museum that was built for that purpose. And again, this is not a question of returning artifacts whose ownership we question. We feel that these sculptures belong to Greece and that they were essentially stolen. But this is not, in my mind, an ownership question. This is a reunification argument.
Where can you best appreciate what is essentially one monument? I mean, it’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half and you would have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum. Do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way? Well, this is exactly what happened with the Parthenon Sculptures, and that is why we keep lobbying for a deal that would essentially be a partnership between Greece and the British Museum, but which would allow us to return the Sculptures to Greece and have people appreciate them in their original setting.
Laura Kuenssberg: Now you said you were confident if you were reelected -you have been reelected- that the Marbles would return to Greece. So are you confident that there will be a deal? You’ve got a hotline to George Osborne, the boss of the British Museum.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, what I can tell you is that I would hope that… We have not made as much progress as I would like in the negotiations. But again, I’m a patient man and we’ve waited for hundreds of years and I will persist in these discussions.
Laura Kuenssberg: Do you think you’ll be able to do it in your time frame?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would hope so, yes. I was just elected. I still have a full term ahead of me. It’s unusual these days in Europe for Prime Ministers to be rewarded for the job they do. But I think we’ve done that. We’ve turned the country around. The economy is performing particularly well. We’re growing much faster. I was following the previous debate about taxes and about the burden on average people. We’ve lowered taxes, but we’ve also driven up growth. So in our case, we can convincingly say that the difficult days for Greece are behind us.
Laura Kuenssberg: And finally, on the Marbles, the Sculptures. The report suggesting Keir Starmer has indicated that he would give them back to Greece if he becomes the Prime Minister. Is that true? Has he told you?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I don’t know. I will meet both Keir Starmer and, of course, the Prime Minister tomorrow. And maybe I can let you know afterwards.
Laura Kuenssberg: That would be wonderful. Well, it’s great to have you here in the studio with us ahead of seeing the leader of Labour and the Prime Minister.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you very much for having me.
Laura Kuenssberg: Prime Minister, thank you very much for joining us this morning.