Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview on “Monocle” magazine podcast “The Globalist” with journalist Andrew Mueller, in the context of the 60th Munich Security Conference

Georgina Godwin (Podcast host): The Munich Security Conference included world leaders from a range of nations, among them Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, fresh off a bill in his own parliament that made Greece the first Orthodox Christian country to legalise same-sex marriage. Monocle’s Andrew Mueller caught up with Mitsotakis in Munich for a wide-ranging interview that began with the Prime Minister’s reaction to that landmark legislation.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: This was actually a piece of legislation that we passed for those people who actually deeply care and are personally affected by this issue. And it’s a fundamental question of equality, of human rights, of the rule of law. And I’m very, very happy and very privileged that as the leader of a centre-right conservative but also progressive party, we were the ones who actually brought this piece of legislation in front of parliament and got it through with a very strong majority.

I’m also happy because this gave us the opportunity to explain to Greek society what this bill is really all about. And for the first time, we actually heard from those who are deeply affected by the fact that marriage equality was not recognised until today in Greece, by the children who did not have the same right to legitimate parents, and by those who basically told us, “look, why are you denying me the right to get married?” And I even told my parliamentary group something which another conservative leader had said, that marriage is at the end of the day, a conservative institution. And I’m voting for this not in spite of being conservative, but because it is, at the end of the day, marriage, is a conservative institution.

And I can say the level of debate was very mature. I think public opinion now has swung in support of this legislation. And I fully respect those who disagree, but I think we treated those who disagreed with great respect. Even within my party, I never used the whip, so I let people choose, my MPs choose really what they wanted to vote for. And I’m happy that more than two thirds actually ended up supporting the bill.

Andrew Mueller: Do you see this particular act of progress, though, as something in isolation or as you see it, does it fit into a broader programme of rebuilding, reconstruction, perhaps even modernization of Greece, following where Greece was if you think back 10-12 years ago?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Oh, very much the second. I’ve made my second term about what I call a “multidimensional modernization” programme. And of course, this includes issues related to human rights, but also extends way beyond that. My goal has always been to make Greece a true European country and to achieve true convergence. And why not surpass the European averages in those indices where we can actually be a protagonist? So this is a long term programme. I never forget that Greece was the 10th country that actually joined the European family back in 1981. But of course, we had to deal with a lost decade which robbed us of a quarter of our GDP. And we’re gradually catching up. We need to accelerate the pace of growth.

At the end of the day, it is about growth. Convergeance is about growth, but it is also about equitable growth. And that is why I focus so much on making sure that our policies are just and that the wealth that we create is spread evenly. So my focus is on wages, on improving the minimum wage, on improving the average wage. I’ve set very clear targets about what I want to achieve over the next four years and I think we’re well on track to achieve those targets.

Andrew Mueller: Obviously, a theme of this Munich Security Conference is going to be former President Donald Trump’s bizarre outburst. And it’s not the first one he’s made about lackadaisical defence spending by America’s NATO allies. And I don’t want to talk about Greece so much within NATO, but Greece as a defence force itself. Is that something you think needs to be stepped up? Because there is an extraordinary statistic which you will be well aware of, but listeners may not, that it certainly made my eyebrows raise when somebody pointed it out to me that Greece, though it is a reasonably small country, does still control 21% of the global merchant fleet in terms of tonnage. And obviously Greek owned and operated ships have been attacked by Houthis in the Red Sea. I know the Hellenic navy has sent one frigate, though I believe it doesn’t actually have antiballistic capacity. Do you think Greece needs to become more of a naval power commensurate with its status as a great maritime nation?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, let me point out that Greece is spending 3% of its GDP on defence. And we have been consistently above the 2% threshold, even during the very difficult years of the economic crisis. The reason was simple. There was never a peace dividend in Greece, in the sense that we always faced a larger, occasionally rather aggressive neighbour and we felt that we always needed a credible deterrence capability and we will, of course, continue to do so. That is not true for many other European countries. And I think as Europe, we’re paying the price now of underinvesting consistently in our defence capabilities.

Now, you’re right to point out that the Greek merchant fleet is a global powerhouse and that is why we never shied away from our responsibility to protect freedom of navigation. And that’s why we have a presence. We will be having a presence, a ship will sail very soon, fully equipped with all the necessary technology to protect itself and it will go to the Red Sea. And we are also the ones assuming control of the European operation “Aspides”, which means shields, which works in conjunction with “prosperity shield” in the Red Sea.

Now, in terms of strengthening our navy, we have a rather capable navy, but we’re also investing heavily in terms of upgrading our naval capabilities. The first of the three ultramodern frigates we ordered from France will be arriving. It’s already at sea. It will be part of the Greek navy next year. And of course, we’re looking at the future of naval deterrence, including unmanned ships and why not submarines? So what we want to do is to make sure that as a big spender on defence, we also develop our own technological capabilities. But this is something which is not just relevant for Greece, it is relevant for Europe.

I fully agree with the comments made by the Commission President that we will need to spend more on defence, but we also need to be smarter when we spend on defence. There is very little joint procurement, there is still a colossal fragmentation of the defence industry in Europe. And regardless of what happens in the US, the Ukraine war should have been and is to a certain extent a wake up call, from the big projects such as anti-air defence to the mundane issues of producing enough shells for artillery, which many people thought was not necessary, but proves to be indispensable in a prolonged ground war.

Andrew Mueller: There is, of course, a frequently volatile region immediately to Greece’s north. And I believe you were meeting with Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s Prime Minister, today. We know that because we spoke to him this morning. Would it not make the Balkans a more secure place if Kosovo was more sure of its place in the world? And would it not help with that if Greece recognised it?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, we’ve been strong proponents of the European path of the Western Balkans, since what we call the Thessaloniki Declaration back in 2003. It’s been 21 years since then and we have not made as much progress as we would like. But I think the whole Ukraine topic has brought the issue of European enlargement again to the forefront.

Now, we’ve been very, very clear in terms of trying to facilitate the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, and I think we’ve been also very frank with both. I’ve been frank. I was visiting President Vučić a week ago. I saw the Prime Minister Kurti. I have very good relations with both, but both need to take a step back at some point and stop pointing fingers at each other if we want to make some real progress.

Greece’s position for the foreseeable future, it is not going to change. But what we need to do is ensure that the situation is resolved and that commitments which have been assumed -and I also told the same thing to Prime Minister Kurti regarding the association of Serbian Municipalities- these decisions need to be implemented.

Andrew Mueller: I just want to go back to the thing you mentioned about what you’ve been able to accomplish as a nominally centre-right politician, and especially in the context of what Greece has been through and what has been tried in Greece over the last decade and a bit, there are countries wondering how they can tackle populism, suggesting that there are extremely simple solutions to very complicated problems. And however often they get proved wrong, they never quite die out. Do you think anything you’ve done in Greece in your time as Prime Minister is actually exportable? Is there somewhere in here the genesis of a cure for populism?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I don’t think there is a general template for combating populism, and all political systems have their own peculiarities, their own electoral laws. In our case, we’ve been able to form a single party government. In other countries, coalitions are a necessity. But maybe I have a few thoughts to share with you and your listeners on this topic. At the end of the day, one needs to understand that the grievances that fuel the populist response are real grievances, whether they have to do with income inequality or with people feeling lost in a globalised world.

Andrew Mueller: Do you think there are always real grievances, aren’t some kind of populist eruptions animated largely by fantasies?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think that grievances related to income inequality are very real. Sure, just look at the numbers. And at the end of the day, because it is usually about the economy that is the case and there are cleavages and people who feel that they’re left behind.

I mean, look at farmers. Now we’ve had farmer protests in Greece. It’s very easy if you live in a big city to say, I mean, who are these guys with their tractors just showing up on the streets if we give them so much support. But that is, I think, a simplistic question.

For example, when we looked at the problem in detail, we realised we needed to do something, for example, about the electricity that farmers pay. And we found a solution to give them a better electricity price, because if they’re not competitive and if they stop doing what they do, this will create huge consequences, not just for the safety of our food supplies, but also for regional cohesion. So I’d say quite a few of the grievances are real. I’m not talking about the conspiracy theories, but there is something there that needs to be acknowledged.

The second thing is, that there’s been enough finger pointing by the Davos or Munich Security Conference to those people and that never works well. Τhe sort of deplorable attitude, I think can be a complete catastrophe.

But then of course, when it comes to real solutions, what we have done, it’s sort of, I call it a new “triangulation” sort of approach to politics. Be clearly pro-growth, reasonably lower taxes while maintaining fiscal discipline, attract investment, simplify the business environment, create jobs in the economy. So a liberal approach on the economy that puts a lot of faith in private entrepreneurship.

What I call a “responsible patriotism” approach when it comes to issues of foreign policy. So we were tough with Turkey, we increased the deterrence posture, we managed the migration problem reasonably well. This, I think, caters well to the more conservative part of a centre-right party.

Βut also be rather progressive when it comes to social policy, raising the minimum wage beyond what many people expected, coming up with strategies for those who are less privileged, doing marriage equality, which sort of opens up new possibilities for a moderate centre-right party.

But we’ve also had another advantage. We actually elected the populists to power and it was a strange alliance of hard left and hard right populists and it was a disaster. And people still remember that. But of course, when you’re in your second term, you don’t compete with who was in power five years ago. You have to solve real problems. And as long as people think that you try hard, you have to be honest, you have to acknowledge your mistakes, but you still have to deliver. And we are delivering, especially when it comes to the economy. I think people will give you the benefit of the doubt. And in our case, they voted for us again.

Andrew Mueller: There’s a thing here I wonder about as well, in terms of tackling populism, which, as you know, is often tied to paranoia about immigration. And I do wonder whether, I’d be interested to know what you think, whether the problem is not so much that people fear immigration or dislike immigration, but what they actually dislike is the appearance of disorder, the idea that there’s no programme, there’s nobody in charge.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think you’re right, but Greece has been, in various respects, a success story when it comes to integration. Look at, for example, the Albanians who came to Greece in the 90s. We have second generation kids born in Greece, they’re Greek citizens, they go to Greek school, they consider themselves Greek. I’d say it’s overall a successful story. And even now, yes, Greece was a relatively homogeneous society but we have to learn to live with people who are different. Probably the best basketball player in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Greek of Nigerian origin. He doesn’t look like a traditional Greek, but he is Greek at heart and plays for the national team. But you don’t have to be a star at basketball in order for Greece to treat you well if you happen to come to Greece and be born in Greece.

The question is, how do you expand this attitude towards those people who want to live in Greece and consider Greece their home? And for those who actually come to Greece and obtain asylum in Greece, they’re welcomed. And they should be welcomed in Greece, because we also have real needs in terms of our labour market. And we are a society also of people who have emigrated. So we know something about what it means and how painful it is to leave Greece in search of a better future. So I think we can find the right balance.