Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conversation with Editor-of-Chief of “Foreign policy”magazine, Ravi Agrawal, at the World Economic Forum in Davos

Ravi Agrawal: I have the pleasure today of sitting and chatting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece. Welcome.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thanks for having me.

Ravi Agrawal: Great to have you here. So, first of all, I just want to say congratulations, because you won a resounding re-election last year and you did so at a time of great difficulty for a lot of incumbent leaders around the world. And the Economist magazine went as far as ranking Greece as sort of the country of the year for the way in which you’ve helped turn it around from the sick man of Europe to a country that’s growing faster than other countries in the eurozone. I want to talk about that and maybe extract some lessons, but I want to do that in a minute. And I thought I’d begin with the Middle East first. Greece has a huge shipping industry. We have a crisis in the Red Sea right now. I believe a Greek ship was attacked by Houthi rebels, but this is a much bigger crisis than that. How worried are you about escalation?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We are all quite worried about the possibility of a regional escalation. And, of course, what is happening now in the Red Sea is particularly concerning, not just for the Greek shipping industry, but also for international trade in general, at a time when we’re trying to bring inflation down. Any disruption in supply lines, of course, can only make this effort, this global effort by central banks that much more complicated.

We have, as Greece, I think, taken a very measured position when it comes to the Middle Eastern crisis. We obviously initially very clearly supported Israel’s right to self defence, insist on the release of hostages, but at the same time also made a very, very clear distinction between Hamas as a terrorist organisation and the Palestinian people. And as much as we defend Israel’s rights to defend itself, we are increasingly concerned with the plight of innocent people in the Gaza Strip. And that is why, as a country which is relatively close to the conflict area, we try to do our best to make sure that humanitarian aid gets to Gaza as effectively as possible, which, as you know, is still a very, very difficult challenge.

And at the same time, I think we are considered by all involved parties as honest brokers. We talk to everyone. And as soon as this conflict comes to an end, I think the time will be ripe for a serious discussion about the political solution to this problem, which has been around for many, many decades.

Ravi Agrawal: You said recently that you recognise that Israel has the right to defend itself, but how it does so actually matters. As a friend and ally of Israel -you went there right after the attacks as an honest broker- do you think that Israel’s response has been disproportionate?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Everyone should be concerned with the fact that we have more than 10,000 children who died as a result of this conflict. And I don’t think that it is in Israel’s strategic interest to create a new generation of orphans or of fathers and mothers who lost their children. So the nature of the response, yes, is important. And I think that I’m not saying something which is that sort of dissimilar to what the United States has been saying. And frankly, I’ve also expressed my concern that as a European Union, collectively we have not been able to come up with a more sort of measured but also firm conclusion when it comes to balancing our support for Israel with our call for Israel to be careful in the way it has reacted to this horrific terrorist attack.

Ravi Agrawal: Now, Greece historically was more pro Palestinian, but I believe in the 90s, when your father was Prime Minister, it recognised Israel. And in a sense its sort of orientation has changed a little bit. Can you talk about that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would say it has significantly changed. Greece was actually the last country, the last European country to recognise the state of Israel. It only happened in 1990, actually, as you said, as you pointed out by my father. And we’ve established a very strong strategic partnership with Israel that goes beyond security and defence. We have a strong economic partnership. We have significant Israeli investment in Greece, for example, in real estate. And that’s what friends are for. Friends are here to actually tell their friends what they think their opinion is or should be. So in that sense, Greece has clearly moved away from a rather unbalanced position during the 80s. Those were the years of the first phase of Greek populism under the socialists. And right now I think most parties recognise us as a pillar of stability in a rather unstable part of the world. And we want to make sure that we leverage this role to do good.

Ravi Agrawal: When you say “that’s what friends are for”, could Greece or the EU be doing more to be a broker to bring the two sides together?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Maybe that’s something that will need to be discussed when this phase of the conflict is over. And I do hope that this happens as quickly as possible. Because at the end of the day, unless one addresses the root cause of the problem, which is a political solution to the Palestinian plight in two states, living side by side in peace, then the whole sort of regional alliances that have been formed, whose raison d’être is or claims to be, because sometimes one cannot argue that all the parties are totally honest in what they say, the support for the Palestinian cause…I mean, one has to address the root cause of the problem. And I would like Europe to play a more active role once this phase of the conflict is over.

Ravi Agrawal: So let me take that as a segue to go to Europe, which has its own war. And you know, the theme at WEF this week is rebuilding trust. And we’re in a moment where trust in global institutions is very low. There’s a clear north-south divide on both of these conflicts, where it almost seems like there’s one part of the world that makes a certain set of arguments and another part of the world which has a different set of sympathies and often feels left out. With that backdrop, what’s your sense of where you see the war in Ukraine headed and NATO’s role, especially given that Greece is part of NATO?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, let me first of all speak on behalf of my country. Greece has been unequivocal in its support for Ukraine from the very beginning. And we’ve offered support, not just diplomatic support, but also military support. And we continue to do so because this fight really matters. And for Greece, I do need to point out that this was not such an obvious decision, given the strong historical and cultural ties that we had with the Russian people. And we have nothing to separate with the Russian people. The problem is not the Russian people, it’s the Russian leadership and the horrible decisions that they took to attack Ukraine.

And I would argue that there’s an additional reason for Greece to support Ukraine. And this has to do with the fact that what happens in Ukraine will reverberate beyond Ukraine. And we live in a neighbourhood where in the past, and I make a distinction between previous behaviour and current behaviour, we’ve also been the subject of aggressive sort of behaviour by our large eastern neighbour. And if anyone who thinks that the international order can be challenged by force gets his way, then this creates a very, very dangerous precedent.

And it’s not just Taiwan. There are other places in the world that would fall into a similar category. Now, I think Europe overall has been remarkably united when it comes to Ukraine. Yes, if you look at the bulk of the military support, it has still come from the US. But even achieving this political alliance has not been obvious. We’ve been able to do so. I think by the next European Council, we will agree on the financial support for Ukraine, which is going to be significant. We’re talking about €50 billion over four years. I think we will overcome the obstacles of the one country that did not make it possible to achieve this agreement at the previous Council. And we will continue to support Ukraine in spite of the fatigue and in spite of the fact that the war in Ukraine does not maybe occupy the same amount of time when it comes to media coverage.

Ravi Agrawal: What do you make of the sanctions regime so far on Russia? Because Russia seems to have been able you know, on the one hand it has been hurt by sanctions, but on the other hand, it sort of morphed into a wartime economy. And there’s also a Greek connection here. I believe Greek ships have been involved in sort of transporting Russian fuel, for example, which has made the price cap a little bit harder to manage.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: As far as Greek shipping is concerned, we have been very careful to communicate to our shipowners that they need to adhere to the international sanctions regime, and they have done so within, of course, what has been agreed, what they can do and what they cannot do. Now in terms of sanctions, yes, I think you are right that the Russian economy has proven to be more resilient than we thought. But this does not mean that Russia is not paying a very heavy price when it comes to its economy. And I think that a wartime economy is essentially eroding the long-term possibility of Russia to return to a path of sustainable growth.

There is pain in Russia and that is why we are sticking to the sanctions. It is a one economic tool which we have at our disposal, and that is why we need to do more to ensure that there is no evasion of sanctions to the extent that this is possible. But what concerns me is what you pointed out, that this narrative of what is right and what is wrong does not seem to resonate as much as we thought it would to a big part of the world, especially to the global south, where our arguments, as right as they are, sometimes they seem to be rather hollow.

Ravi Agrawal: And why do you think that’s the case?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I mean, there are historical legacies, there is a colonial past for many countries. Greece does not have a colonial past. So in that sense, when we talk to countries of the global south, I think sometimes we have more credibility. It’s probably easier for us to make the case than it is for other countries who can be accused of double standards due to their historical behaviour.

Ravi Agrawal: I know you’re headed to India next month, for example. But, you know, countries of the global south, such as India, it’s not just an antagonism towards former colonial powers, but it’s also a general collective sense that their wars, their problems, they don’t get as much attention in the West. And as much as you know all of these things, how do you address it? How do you better communicate with them about this?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, we need to sort of overcome what one could label sort of “the Davos arrogance”, people who gather here, I mean, representatives of the sort of liberal elites, primarily from Europe and the United States, that we are the ones who know how to solve all the problems of the world. I think this is something that occasionally really upsets the countries of the global south that are emerging as global powers. And, of course, if you look at international arrangement, international institutions, the post World War II order, it simply does not reflect the reality of today’s world. So acknowledging that reality is a very good start to at least be able to talk to these countries by also communicating to them that we take their concerns and their resentments and their peculiarities, the stage they are in, their own growth cycle, very, very seriously.

Ravi Agrawal: Let’s take another example of a country that sits on the cusp of East and West: Turkey, a country that Greece, of course, has tussled with in a variety of fora, but also at NATO. Do you think that Turkey will be a spoiler in the coming months as discussions about Ukraine joining the Alliance gain steam?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, we need to overcome the Swedish hurdle, and I’m reasonably optimistic that this could happen relatively soon.
Ravi Agrawal: Why so?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I mean, the relative decision has been tabled to the Turkish Parliament, the National Assembly, and I would hope that this is overcome sooner rather than later. The more countries, especially countries that share, countries such as Sweden, that clearly share our values, join the Alliance, the stronger the Alliance will be. And we’ve had a complicated relationship with Turkey. During my first term we’ve had our very, very difficult moments. But since the Turkish earthquake, we have made an honest effort to build bridges.

Ravi Agrawal: You sent them a lot of aid in their darkest hour.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yes, we did. We were the first to fly into the areas that were struck by what was a catastrophic earthquake. I’ve met President Erdogan three times since I won my reelection and he won his reelection and we have set out a roadmap that, first of all, addresses, I think, legitimate concerns by Greece. That sort of the aggressive rhetoric that Turkey had assumed in the past does not lead us anywhere. So we need to lower the temperature and the tension. And this is a precondition to address our main dispute with Turkey, which is the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.

But even if we do not succeed to resolve this problem, which has been an outstanding issue for more than 40 years, we can still agree to live in peace side by side and build on a positive agenda. For example, we have obtained the agreement of the European Commission to allow Turkish citizens to travel without a visa to ten Greek islands for seven days. These are the islands of the eastern Aegean. This is particularly important for Turkey, it’s particularly important for our islands, because essentially they can sustain the tourism industry twelve months a year because obviously the Turkish coast is very close to the Greek islands.

We can work together. We have to work together on migration. Greece has been rather successful in managing the migration problem, unlike many other European countries, by imposing and implementing a tough but fair migration policy. But we need to cooperate with Turkey because we need to stop the boats before they actually leave the Turkish coast. And we’ve had indications that Turkey has been much more cooperative over the past months. Again, I’m not naive. We’ve seen some pretty dramatic changes in Turkish policy over the past years. But I’d like to be an optimist and I’d like to build upon the positive steps that both our countries have taken over the past months.

Ravi Agrawal: One last question on Ukraine and Europe. President Zelenskyy was here this week. He’s putting forward a peace plan that dozens of countries around the world have sort of signed up for as well, in which Russia essentially abandons the land that it’s taken in Ukraine, pays for reparations. Russia, of course, is nowhere close to agreeing to any of these maximalist demands. But what I want to ask you is, when you hear Ukraine discussing a peace plan, do you feel like this is the year where some sort of negotiated settlement is a possibility, or will this still be settled on the battlefield?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’m not sure that I see an end to the conflict, unfortunately, anytime soon.

Ravi Agrawal: You just said you were an optimist.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I’m an optimist when it comes to my general perspective. But in this particular case, I think we still have some time to go before a serious negotiated settlement can be discussed. And that is why it’s so important in the short term to continue to provide support to Ukraine, both military support, but also financial support. Because at the end of the day, we’ve said from the beginning that if a peace is to be reached, it has to be reached on Ukraine’s terms, or at least with Ukraine in a strong position to negotiate the peace that it considers appropriate. And in order to do so, we need to continue to support the country.

Ravi Agrawal: Let’s talk about elections. This is a year of big elections around the world. Some 4 billion people will head to the polls. I think it’s five of the six biggest democracies have elections and you’ve just had yours.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, we had it out of the way. We had our elections in 2023.

Ravi Agrawal: Right, exactly.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Although we have European elections in 2024.

Ravi Agrawal: That’s right. Forget that. But you can watch this year with a bit more calm, as everyone else is anxious about their elections. But what is your sense of the global mood for nationalism and populism? And you’re a centre-right leader who seems to have bucked the trend globally in that you were able to come back to power. Incumbents don’t often come back to power unless you’re thinking about India or Bangladesh. What is your sense of the message that sends to the world?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, I remember sitting at a similar panel last year. Everyone at the time was very bullish about the Greek economy. There was, of course, the outstanding issue of the Greek elections. And I was making the case at the time that we have a reasonable chance of winning again. And we did so, which means that as far as Greece is concerned, we now have four years ahead of us. We have an absolute majority in parliament, a very strong mandate to implement ambitious reforms, to continue and maintain sort of high growth rates and really change the fabric of the country and make it a true European country.

We spend a lot of time historically trying to become part of Europe. Then we spend a decade trying to remain in Europe, and now is the real time to become Europe. And by becoming Europe, I mean true convergence with Europe on all the important metrics that we look at. So Greece right now, unlike many other countries, is in a good position in the sense that there is no significant political or geopolitical risk for the foreseeable future.

But I think you’re right to point out that the Greek story holds some interesting…maybe one can draw some interesting conclusions from what happened in Greece. Why did we win again? We managed to increase our share of the vote. And as you pointed out, in difficult times, this is not obvious for incumbent governments. We essentially delivered on our commitments. This is all about trust. This, Davos, is about trust. What is trust really? At the core, trust is maintaining the contract that you sign with citizens when they elect you to power. They elect you to power because you tell them that you will do specific things. And if you deliver on what you told them you would do, then chances are that they will reward you. So over four years, we both delivered on our commitments and of course, we managed rather successfully, multiple crises.

But at the same time, one needs to be very careful in this environment where everyone is pointing the finger at populists, not to alienate the people who actually vote for them, because some of these grievances are actually very real. People feel that they’re left behind by globalisation. The fact that wages have not really increased, inflation is really hitting lower income households, these are real grievances.

What you need to explain to people is that there are no obvious solutions, and that what is presented as an easy solution, usually is a solution that cannot be put into practise. So when it comes to our story, we delivered on our commitments, we focused on the economy. At the end of the day, it is the economy that determines, I think, the outcome of elections. And Greece in 2023, in spite of all the difficulties, found itself in a much better place than it was in 2019. Whether you look at growth rates, whether you look at unemployment, job creation, investment. I remember the first time I came to Davos in 2020 as Prime Minister, I had a really tough time making the case why foreign investors should invest in Greece. Some were bold enough to do so, and I think they were very happy with their choice. Now the case is much easier because we have delivered results. And at the end of the day, I think people are basically rational. They look at what is good for them and for their family. And in that sense, they rewarded us with a second mandate.

Ravi Agrawal: It sounds very easy when you put it like that. But even in Greece, it’s not like you don’t have a far right. It’s not like you don’t have a far left. These are forces that exist there that you have to combat, and you have to put the case to the people why a centrist party is a better alternative. What lessons are there for other countries in Europe and even around the world? Because this is a year again that people are very worried about the rise of either the far right or the far left.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: In political science, we frequently use the term “triangulation”. And I think what we have achieved in Greece is sort of a new form of “triangulation”, by which we are rather liberal when it comes to the economy. So we did cut taxes, we deregulated, we grew the economy by unleashing the forces of private entrepreneurship. At the same time, we were very present when it was necessary, especially during Covid. So I think we followed a successful economic policy.

I think we were responsible patriots in the sense that we protected our borders when Turkey tried to instrumentalize migration back in March 2020. And we also were rather effective in managing migration. So to those citizens who have sort of greater interest in these themes, we tick those boxes, while at the same time, we were also rather liberal and progressive when it came to our social policies, really focusing on issues of income inequality, supporting people rigorously through means tested policies, who really focused on those who were in greater need, and also bringing forward policies which are not always associated with centre-right parties. For example, now we are discussing in Greece, marriage equality. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a centre-right party to be championing this reform.

So I think this form of “triangulation”, focusing on economic growth, be responsible patriots, while at the same time be progressive when it comes to topics where one needs to be aligned with how society itself progresses, has worked well for Greece. But again, there is no magic formula. And every country has its own peculiarities. Political systems are different, electoral systems are different, but this is certainly a strategy that has worked well for us. And I will be making the case that this is also sort of a strategy that needs to be adopted by the European People’s Party when we fight the next European elections in a few months from now. And we do hope that we will again be the largest party in the European Parliament.

Ravi Agrawal: Let me add one more angle to the triangle, and that is AI, which has come up in discussions all week in a variety of forms. When it comes to elections, obviously there are immense fears about deepfakes and mis-and-disinformation, election interference, cybercrimes. Obviously, Greece has just gone through an election, so this isn’t an immediate concern for you, but how are you thinking about what countries need to be doing and how they should work with companies to safeguard their people and their democracies?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: You touch upon a topic that is extremely relevant, and of course, there are no magic solutions, but we need to form an alliance that will include tech companies and civil societies to first of all, educate public opinion about the risk of what actually can happen through these deep fakes and then find ways to identify them. And there are various tools that were also discussed in Davos on how to actually do that. But the threat is very, very real when it comes to election interference. And unfortunately, technology may be a step ahead of us.

And I am concerned about this sort of discontinuity between the level of understanding of the tech leaders and those who are developing these complex algorithms and the policymakers who are responsible for regulating this technology. Because these technological issues are so complex, Ι’m afraid that this gap is not narrowing, it is widening. So that’s one of the good things of Davos, is that we sit at the same table and we share concerns, but essentially, we need a new alliance between governments and the big tech companies to address this topic.

And if I may add, this is not just necessarily about playing defence, which is protecting the integrity of our democratic process. It may also be about playing offence. That is, how do we use AI to make participatory democracy more effective and other ways to engage with people in terms of making the public discourse more relevant, and us taking the views of the public more into consideration.

By using artificial intelligence tools, this will also build more trust in the technologies and help us bridge this trust gap, which is still very much relevant. If you just look at the number of people who vote in the elections, this should be a reason of concern to all of us. I mean, we’re currently in the Greek parliament presenting legislation for the first time.

We’re actually able to do it because we overcame a supermajority barrier that will allow Greeks abroad to actually vote in the European elections and use absentee ballot, and actually extending the same possibility to also Greeks in the country. If you have, for example, a young kid, we have elections in June, who’s working in one of our islands, he cannot or she cannot participate in the elections. They can’t just leave for the weekend and go and go vote. I want to give them the possibility to mail in their ballot and vote in this way.

So we need to also try to really understand what is it that makes people not participate in the electoral process, because the fewer people who participate, the less legitimacy. At the end of the day, we have to implement our policies for which we are elected.

Ravi Agrawal: Speaking about elections and legitimacy, I think one person who isn’t at Davos this week has loomed large in the news, and that’s former President Donald Trump in America. How are you thinking, not just from a Greek perspective, but from a European perspective, how are you thinking about the possibility of his reelection and what that might do for a range of other things that Greece is involved in, whether it’s Ukraine and NATO or the Middle East?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I thought we had run out of time.

Ravi Agrawal: I can’t see the clock.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Look, I’ve worked with both President Trump and President Biden, and at the end of the day, it would be, I think, rather inappropriate for any foreign leader to express their views on what is fundamentally a democratic process. And we will, as Europe, have to work with whoever the American people choose to elect as their next President. And I think sometimes expressing sort of opinions or sort of presenting doomsday scenarios or very optimistic scenarios sometimes has the opposite effect. People don’t like to be preached, and they don’t like to be told what they should be doing. We may all have our preferences, but I think it’s probably best to keep it to ourselves.

Ravi Agrawal: You are more diplomatic than Jamie Dimon, Prime Minister. Thank you very much.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you very much for having me.