Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations with Daniel Speckhard, President and CEO of Corus International and former US Ambassador to Greece

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis participated in a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC with Daniel Speckhard, President and CEO of Corus International and former US Ambassador to Greece. He then answered questions from members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Prime Minister’s remarks follow:

Daniel Speckhard: Thank you for coming today. On behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, I would like to welcome the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to today’s conversation. I’m Daniel Speckhard, the President of Corus International, and we’ll be presiding for today’s discussion. We are joined by Council members here in Washington and virtually, and the Prime Minister is in town for a meeting of heads of state and government for the NATO anniversary Summit for its 75th anniversary year.

In introducing the Prime Minister, I won’t repeat your bio, which you all have, but I would add that he has carved an impressive path in Greek politics and in navigating his country through a very challenging time in European security and in the world.

When I first met him 15 years ago, I was Ambassador to Greece, and he was a young parliamentarian that had already caught the attention of the United States and other diplomats as a member of parliament who was colouring outside the traditional political Greek lines and promoting good governance and an evidence-based approach to public policy. He represents a new generation of leaders in a world that is fundamentally led by an older generation and has successfully done what few others have been able to do, and that is to hold the political centre in an increasingly politicised and populist world.

We are fortunate to have him here today, with Greece at the crossroads of Europe and a maritime country with global reach. It has a long tradition worrying and recognising the importance about security in the world and punching above its weight on international issues. Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for joining us today.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Speckhard for having me.

Daniel Speckhard: Let me kick it off today by asking you about what’s on top of everyone’s mind, and that’s Ukraine. I’m sure there’ll be new pledges. I’ve been a NATO official and worked many of these summits in the past on the staff side, and I know they’re going to come up with some great announcements, great pledges, new signs of support for Ukraine. But as the war drags on into its third year, I know also fatigue is starting to set in, and there’s a sense of malaise amongst many, and that perhaps Putin’s strategy of waiting out the West is starting to bear fruit.

How do you see the current situation evolving in the coming year, and what impact, if any, do you think this summit is going to have? And perhaps you could also say what implications for European security there will be if Putin feels that he can once again annex territory by the use of force?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, let me speak about Greece and then about Europe in terms of how we see this conflict evolving. Greece, from the very beginning, positioned itself in line with our allies and in full support of Ukraine. This was not necessarily a given for a country that has had the historical, cultural, and religious ties to Russia. But we made our position very, very clear. I think we have delivered in terms of political, economic, but also military support, and our position is not going to change.

I also need to point out that the European Union, in spite of what many predicted at the beginning of this war, has been remarkably united when it comes to Ukraine. We have imposed numerous rounds of sanctions on Russia, and we were actually the ones that delivered on a significant package of fiscal support before the US agreed on its support, a pledge to continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, both financially and militarily. And of course, when it comes to offering Ukraine-EU membership perspective, we’ve also crossed that bridge and the first intergovernmental discussions, which marked the beginning of this long path towards European membership, have started this month.

I don’t see any signs of the European commitment towards supporting Ukraine wavering. Yes, we may have problems with one or two countries -one of them happens to be leading the Council of the EU as we speak-, but overall, the support of Europe has been very robust.

The Ukrainian crisis has also forced us to acknowledge a fact which has been painfully obvious to some of us, but not to all of my European colleagues, and that is that we need to take more ownership when it comes to issues of European defence and European strategic autonomy, which also brings us to the question of NATO and this important summit that is taking place in Washington.

I think that the US has been right in terms of pointing the finger at some European countries -some of them being very large-, in terms of not stepping up to the plate and delivering when it came to their commitments towards NATO. I do need to point out that Greece is not in that category because Greece has been spending more than 2% of its GDP ever since it joined NATO. But as we recognise that we need to take more ownership when it comes to issues of European security, inevitably, we in Europe are also spending more in terms of our defence commitments.

Of course, this brings us to the question of whether we can do more at the European level to organise our security, to complement what NATO is doing. I believe, again, the answer needs to be affirmative. I have proposed with my good friend, the Polish Prime Minister, a European defence initiative, which is essentially a European Iron Dome. How do we complement and strengthen our existing air defence capabilities by committing more European resources to this project, always fully integrated with NATO command and control structures. But this, for us, is going to become a topic which we will focus more and more on as we move into the next European cycle.

Daniel Speckhard: Do you feel that what you’re describing there is going to be enough to stabilise the situation in Europe? I’m thinking here whether we can look to a brighter future or whether or not we could expect further trouble as the Russians, perhaps, and what is hopefully their conflict there at some point in the future, they’ll look to places like the Balkans or the Mediterranean or the Middle East. What’s your sense of perhaps the stability in the wider European region and whether or not NATO is really up to the task of even going beyond just managing the Ukraine crisis, but managing what could be larger crises in the region?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, Ukraine is the number one priority. Of course, we are all realists, and I think that the message that also came out of the Peace Conference that took place in Switzerland was that the continuous support to Ukraine is important because whatever peace discussions take place at some point, they cannot be under conditions where Ukraine is defeated and capitulates. This is not an acceptable premise for us in Europe. Of course, this means patience and continued support to Ukraine and to make sure that there is no drastic change when it comes to the battlefield, at least, of putting Ukraine in a position of significant disadvantage.

Again, let me repeat, I do not sense that there’s anyone in Europe who does not believe that this is -right now, I mean- the right short-term -I stress short-term-, approach to address this issue.

Now, in terms of the remaining important strategic priorities, Greece sits on the southeastern flank of NATO in the Eastern Mediterranean. We’re facing our own sets of challenges in the region, in particular in the Middle East. But I think what is important is that we should try our best to ensure that we don’t have additional problems that compound what is already a very complicated situation when it comes to Ukraine.

As far as our relationship with Turkey is concerned, when we first came into office in 2019, we faced a situation of what I call “aggressive Turkish revisionism”. We went through three years of difficult times with Turkey. Over the past year, I’d say a year and a half, things have significantly improved. I think we should acknowledge that, while at the same time recognising that some of the fundamental Turkish positions when it comes to the situation in the Eastern Med have not profoundly changed.

But the fact that we’ve had 16 months of quiet in terms of having no violations of Greek airspace, that we’re working better together when it comes to issues of migration, that we’ve actually done a deal with Turkey that allows Turkish citizens to travel to the islands, the islands of the Aegean, and get their visa very, very quickly, encouraging Turkish visitors to come to Greece, all these are some positive steps that at least point to a situation of détente. In its own right, at a time when we were faced with significant challenges within NATO, this is something which I think moves the needle in the positive direction when it comes to our relations.

Now, the Balkans, as you know, are much more complicated. Greece has always been very supportive of the European perspective of the six Western Balkan countries. In that respect, we have been consistent in our policy. But the problem with the Balkans is that quite frequently, the ‘ghosts’ of nationalism emerge when you don’t necessarily expect them.

Let me give you one example, North Macedonia. North Macedonia is a member of NATO today because Greece lifted its veto after the Prespa Agreement, which was signed and ratified by the previous government. I’ve had issues with the Prespa Agreement, but I’ve made it very clear that this is an international agreement that binds the country, I respected it and I do respect it.

But one of the fundamental if not the most fundamental aspect of the Prespa Agreement had to do with the name North Macedonia being used erga omnes, which means both internally, within North Macedonia, and externally. This is something which is simply non-negotiable. It’s very clear, it’s in the Prespa Agreement and it’s non-negotiable for Greece. So, when I hear the new government of North Macedonia referring to the country as ‘the Republic of Macedonia’, within the country, I have serious concerns.

This is an issue which I do intend to raise. It is not constructive. It does not help the European path of North Macedonia. It’s an unnecessary complexity at a time when we should be looking for areas of convergence.

It’s just one example of how the situation of the Balkans can always be complicated. But Greece is a country that remains a pillar of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, a country that has left behind it the most difficult years of the financial crisis with an economy that is growing significantly faster than the rest of the Eurozone and is again ready to play an active and constructive role in promoting political stability, but also economic prosperity in the Balkans.

Daniel Speckhard: Well, I know from my own experience that you deserve a lot of credit for that détente in relations with Turkey, and it takes a lot of political courage and will to reset those relations sometimes when they’re not on the right track. I know you personally took steps to do that, so you deserve a lot of credit in trying to keep security in the southern and southeastern flank of NATO.

Let’s talk a little bit more globally. I mentioned Greece is a seafaring country and has a global reach around the world. On the ΝΑΤΟ agenda is the issue of global partnerships, Indo-Pacific partnerships in particular, that of Japan, Australia, South Korea. I know that 40% of trade goes through the South China Sea. As we watched that dynamic play out there, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that that could become a more troublesome place and affect global trade.

How do you see the conversation going here in Washington on the role of China and that it’s playing, particularly as it’s also not just in the South China Sea being a little more aggressive, but it’s providing dual use technology to Russia that’s affecting the Ukraine war. What’s the conversation going to be like around China? What are your thoughts and views on how those interactions should be taking place with that country on the global security stage?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We’ve had these discussions at the European Council. This is a complicated relationship with China, which can be at times a rival, an adversary. It could and should be a partner on issues such as climate change.

But of course, one is right to point out that all the big security issues are in a way interconnected. What happens in the Indo-Pacific is of great concern to us, not just as a European country. You’re right to point out that Greece is a country that plays a critical role in global shipping. One should not forget that more than 80% of global trade is trade related to shipping, and that Greece controls 25% of the global maritime fleet.

We have a profound interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and ensuring that trade routes remain open and that global trade continues to flow, and especially at a time when trade is becoming a more complicated political issue. Greece is a country that remains in principle committed to free trade. Sometimes we see the implications when you have bottlenecks or problems when it comes to trade routes. Look at what’s happening, for example, now closer to our home in the Red Sea, where we actually have ships. We have a ship that just shot down yesterday, shot down with Houthi drones that were threatening maritime vessels.

Of course, at a time when the cost of living and inflation is a concern to us, any disruption in trade inevitably contributes towards prices moving in the wrong direction and going up.

Of course, let me add to that the fact that issues and discussions in Europe about critical dependencies are gaining steam at a time when we’re looking at how dependent we were historically on China and what does this mean for our own security of supply and what alternatives we can have. These are complicated discussions.

Maybe just add one final point. There’s one country which is particularly important, I think for Greece, but also for Europe as a whole, and that is India. I visited India on an official state visit in February. This idea of this Middle East-Europe corridor is a long term, very powerful concept when it comes to global trade. And Greece intends to play an important role as the natural entry point into the European Union, if this corridor ends up becoming from what is currently a grand vision, a reality.

We’re looking at those infrastructure projects that can help us facilitate play that role. If you just look at the position of Greece on the map, we are a natural supply chain and logistics country. We have not invested in this significantly, but now it’s really taking off.

We’re not just talking about goods, we’re talking about energy. We are currently in the process of putting our floating storage and regasification unit into operation in northeastern Greece, which will allow us to import more LNG, including American LNG. We have the capacity to be a provider of energy security to the Balkans, coming back to breaking the historical dependency of these countries on Russian gas. But we are currently, for those of you who don’t know that, selling gas to Ukraine.

Daniel Speckhard: Can I ask you just a little follow-up here, though?
You also, on the economic side, have pretty strong engagement with China. As you create some of these alternative routes that are going to be good for security as well. For instance, the Port of Piraeus is owned two-thirds by the Chinese, which is, I think, the seventh largest port in the world, providing container goods to Europe and stuff. How do you see the dynamic of, on one hand, China being a little bit more aggressive on the security front, but at the same time, its economic engagement and investment in European countries like your own, create perhaps potential conflicts of interest?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: This is a question I get quite frequently when I visit the US, and I do need to point out that the investment, of course, going to the Port of Piraeus was made at a time when no one was interested in investing in Greece during the height of the financial crisis. It is a management agreement of the port. Yes, the port has done well over the past years, but it’s not the only port in Greece.

We’re currently privatising many other ports. For example, second largest port, Igoumenitsa or Heraklion. These are two ports which were actually acquired by a big Italian consortium.

If you look at the footprint of foreign direct investment into Greece for the past five years, the Chinese have essentially been non-present. As Greece has been able to attract significant FDI, it was not from China. I don’t sense that in any way, shape, or form, the Greek economy is overly reliant or dependent on Chinese investment. At the end of the day, the port has been regulated by the Greek authorities, and I don’t sense any strategic threat by the presence of China, again, in our largest port.

But we are a country that respects international agreements. This deal was done before we came into power, and we have to respect it.

Daniel Speckhard: Well, thank you for that. Let me ask one last question in terms of security in your region, and then open it up to questions from others in the room. As we mentioned earlier, you are at a difficult spot in the crossroads of the world there at the southern flank. It was surprising to many that Gaza was not on the agenda, as announced by the Secretary General of NATO.

Greece knows full well the fallout of conflicts in the wider region, having felt the weight of the migration flows from Syria and Afghanistan. As this conflict plays out in Israel and Gaza, what are your thoughts on the conversation that should be taking place here in Washington about that and how to address that conflict and what is really a growing humanitarian crisis?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, let me point out that Greece sits on the external borders of the European Union. So you’re right to point out it has felt the migration pressure very, very intensely over the past decade.

We’ve seen various aspects of the migration problem. We’ve seen desperate people fleeing war and persecution in search of safety and fully entitled to international protection. We’ve seen economic migrants looking for a better future in Europe. We’ve seen countries instrumentalize migration to put geopolitical pressure on Greece and Europe. This is what happened on the Greek-Turkish border in March 2020. Thank God, it was not repeated.

We’ve been able, I think, to manage this very, very complex problem in a tough but fair manner. We’ve made it very, very clear, and this is also the position of the European Union, that it is not up to the smugglers to decide who enters Europe. It’s up to the sovereign governments to charter their policies when it comes to migration.

We have a new Pact now on Migration and Asylum, which was voted by the European institutions, which is in the process of being implemented. At the same time, we fully recognise that a firm management of our borders needs to go hand in hand with offering legal pathways for migration in an organised and safe manner. We need both, trying to use the analogy, a big fence and a big door. Otherwise, I think this policy cannot be balanced and will not work.

Look at a country such as Greece, which is coming out of the crisis, we are already in need of, for example, agricultural workers. We’ve done a deal with Egypt, and we want to bring in Egyptians on long-term work permits, but they should come properly and safely and not necessarily jump on a boat and pay an obscene amount of money to a smuggler, to bring them to a Greek island in a journey that is extremely perilous.

Now, coming to the question of the Middle East and Gaza. We’ve been very outspoken on this issue. We need a ceasefire as quickly as possible. The situation in Gaza is extremely, extremely problematic. We’ve made our position as Europe very, very clear. I do think that this is a position that also eventually serves the long term strategic interests, not just of the Palestinians, but also of Israel.

I think this is something that we need to communicate very, very firmly. We’ve had too many false starts when it comes to this ceasefire, but every day that goes by, we have innocent loss of life in a situation which is becoming more and more dramatic, in spite of the fact that we’ve had more aid coming into Gaza.

The situation is very, very ugly. And of course, the more this war goes on, the greater the likelihood that you may have an explosion on the northern front. And if Lebanon were to collapse, then you’re talking about a completely different picture when it comes to refugees. We don’t want to go through this, another refugee crisis like the one we had to manage back in 2015.

Daniel Speckhard: Understandable. Well, thank you for that. Let’s open it up, the conversation.

Asked about Greece – US relations, the Prime Minister stated:

“Thank you for your question, Νick. Yes, I think it’s correct to point out that the relationship is at an all-time high, and I’m glad to take some credit for this in terms of the policies that we have implemented over the past five years. This is a strong and profound relationship. For me, my opportunity to address the joint session of Congress back in 2022 was a very important moment, and I think also very important to the Greek-American community in the US.

On the defence and military side, we’re doing much together, and we can always do more in terms of ensuring that Greece has access, both to excess defence articles, but also to modern weapon systems. Again, let me point out that it’s never in Greece’s interest to enter into an arms race with anyone, but we do want, we insist on having credible deterrents. We place emphasis on quality over quantity. That is also one of the reasons why we took the decision to purchase F-35 jets from the US. I’m looking towards completing the necessary procedures as quickly as possible.

But I think this is a relationship that has many dimensions. In the past, we’ve always focused a lot on geopolitics. I also want to highlight the economic aspect of the relationship, the fact that we have significantly more foreign direct investment from the US coming into Greece as the economy is growing, more US capital is being employed in Greece. More tech companies are interested in investing in Greece. I think this is an aspect of the relationship that we can certainly still work on.

Greece is a different country in 2024 compared to the country it was in 2019. But because we went through this, this 10-year crisis, there’s still a legacy of wrong perceptions about where Greece is today, and we can always work on making sure that we change that and point to all the necessary data to confirm the fact that this is really a good time to invest in Greece.

And of course, the strength between our communities and the Greek-American community being a real bridge between the US and Greece, and cherishing and strengthening those ties. This is an issue I take great importance for, for example, look at the possibility of technology now for language learning and what we can do more in terms of making sure that the younger generation, the next generation of Greek-Americans, stay connected to Greece. This is an area where we clearly can do much more together”.

On the course of the economy and the government’s ambitious reforms, the Prime Minister noted:

“Well, first of all, let me clarify that we’re not on a six-day work week. I’m maybe on a seven-day work week as Prime Minister, but that is not true. But we have done, just to clarify that, is we’ve given the possibility to those companies that actually work 24/7 to have their employees work for a sixth day if they choose to do so and pay them much better if they actually want to work for a sixth day.

But actually making sure that you have a labour market that is flexible and that takes into account the new priorities of work-life balance is, I think, an important component also of our economic success. We actually also have a four-day work week, because we respect the 40 hours per week, for those who actually want to work 10 hours for four days. If they can find an arrangement with their employers, they can actually do that.

But coming back to your question, yes, we have been unapologetic in terms of trying to govern from the political center. I think this has been, to a great extent, the success of our party winning in 2019, winning again with an increased share of the vote in 2023.

We are a center-right party that focuses on delivering results, fiscally prudent because we have to be, but also very much focused on growth, very much when it comes to our foreign policies, promoting what I call responsible patriotism, which means strengthening the position of the country and making sure that we build strong alliances, and I would say relatively socially progressive when it comes to social issues.

I think this has delivered for our party a strong majority. We’re one of those countries that currently does not have any real political issues because we have a strong parliamentary majority, still three years in our term, and a very clear roadmap in terms of the reforms that we want to implement.

But at the end of the day, I think the reason why we got reelected was very simple: we did what we told people we would do. We came into power in 2019 telling them we want to cut taxes and bring the country back to a growth path. We want to improve public services, digitise the state, and make sure that Greece punches again above its weight when it comes to international affairs. We did those things.

Now, at the beginning of our second term, we want to build upon this progress, address more complicated issues when it comes to public services, really improving our healthcare system, making structural reforms to our justice system, because it simply takes too long in Greece to get to any judicial decision.

At the same time, make sure that we build upon this positive economic momentum. We need to catch up with Europe. The only way to catch up with Europe is to see growth for a long period of time, much faster than the rest of the Eurozone. This is what the market seemed to believe that we’re able to do.

We want to make sure that at the beginning of our second term, we double down on all these reforms that will maintain us on this positive track. Yes, sometimes some of these reforms are not necessarily all popular, but it’s a price you have to pay in politics.

And of course, if you want to do difficult reforms, it also makes sense to do them at the beginning of the term and not at the end. It seems to me that this is smart politics. And this is exactly what we have been doing, because some of the reforms we have implemented were politically complicated. But so far, so good”.

On Greece’s shift to Renewable Energy Sources and energy security, the Prime Minister said:

“Energy has been a very complex topic, not just for Greece, but also for Europe. I think we realised, during the height of the Ukrainian war, the price that we had to pay for being too dependent on Russian gas. I think we moved away from Russian gas, not completely, but very, very quickly. It was necessary to do that both for geopolitical but also for economic reasons.

Now, if you look at Greece’s energy mix, 15 years ago, 70% of our electricity production was coal. Now it’s 5%. We moved away from coal almost completely. Today, 55% of our electricity production is renewables, wind, solar, and hydro. Basically, the rest is natural gas.

Our intention is to push up renewable penetration as much as we can. I stress as much as we can, because when you produce so much electricity from renewables, you’re beginning to face the real problems of what it means to deal with significant amount of electricity produced from intermittent sources.

Our emphasis is very much in terms of adding renewables, but in a way that balances the system, focusing on storage. In our case, it’s not just batteries, but also pump storage. I’m a big believer in pump storage. Βecause we have big dams, historically, hydro serves the purpose not just of producing electricity, but also being essentially a big battery.

And focusing on interconnections. Interconnections in Europe are going to be absolutely critical to balance the system. If we want to have more renewables, we need more interconnections. This is not just interconnections to our neighbours, but also big interconnections that, for example, can connect the wind that the North Sea produces in the winter with the sun that the Mediterranean can produce in the summer. Of course, there’s also the additional chapter of how we can connect to North Africa.

The big challenge is offshore wind, which, again, is opening up new possibilities. But at the end of the day, we will always need baseload electricity production. In the short to medium term, in the case of Greece, this is going to be gas, whether it’s pipe gas, but in particular, LNG gas. That is why we need more entry points for regasifying the LNG.

Of course, we have not abandoned our own hydrocarbon exploration. Exxonmobil is currently engaged in very active research southwest of Peloponnisos and Crete. Again, this would be a plus for us. If it were to happen, so much the better. I think we’re pushing the envelope in terms of time to see if there’s anything worthwhile to commercially exploit. But I think we at least have an obligation, before we take a decision, to know if there are any significant gas reserves sitting within our exclusive economic zone. And this is what we’re going to be doing.

But, let me make a broader point about the green transition. The green transition has been a flagship project for Europe. And, indeed, it is very noble that Europe has been so aggressive in terms of setting targets regarding climate neutrality for 2050, but we only account for 15% of global emissions.

We’re beginning to realise that the green transition costs a lot of money and that it cannot happen at the expense of our businesses, our citizens, our farmers. So, I think we will look at issues regarding the pace of how quickly this transition actually takes place and the financing tools that we need in order to actually make it happen.

Now, when it comes to finance, we actually did something very important during the height of COVID in 2020. We raised €750 billion through European borrowing, for the first time. We created a new instrument. And this is money that is used to help us with the green and the digital transition, as well as with issues regarding competitiveness.

So for Greece, this is €36 billion over five years in grants and loans. It’s a lot of money. For example, one of the pump storage projects I talked to you about is funded from this facility. We need not just private, but also public money to finance this transition”.

On the Cyprus issue and the Hezbollah threats against Cyprus, Kyriakos Mitsotakis noted:

“Τhank you for pointing this out because we did not talk at all about Cyprus. I do want to make this very, very quick point. It’s going to be 50 years on July 20th since the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus. Τhis issue has still not been resolved. The only way to resolve it is to stick to the framework of the decisions taken by the United Nations Security Council. I just want to remember and remind the audience that there’s still a European country that is partially occupied. Now, when it comes…

And of course, we saw threats against Cyprus, which are completely unacceptable and completely condemnable. This is actually the reaction of Cyprus, Greece, the European Union, the US. We’re concerned about those regional troublemakers. I’m sure the topic will come up in our discussion.

And again, you mentioned the Houthis. Again, this is an issue for reasons which I explained previously, which is, again, of great concern to us. But again, if we could, in the line of what you said, have an agreement, return of hostages, ceasefire, and at least not giving others the excuse that they were looking for to continue war by proxy, I think it would only be good if that were to happen sooner rather than later. And we’ll do our best to contribute towards that goal”.