Kyriakos Mitsotakis on how Greece righted the ship – The Washington Post

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the arrival of migrants — and tech companies.

By Lally Weymouth,

For almost eight years, beginning with the 2008 crisis, Greece endured a crippling depression: It lost one-fourth of its GDP, its banks nearly collapsed and officials contemplated booting it from the European Union. Today, things have turned around, and the country is growing at 6 percent, thanks in part of the stewardship of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 53. Now Miksotakis’s biggest problem is tensions with Turkey and the refugees flowing from that neighbor. Some say Greece has been less than welcoming toward the migrants; others sympathize with Mitsotakis’s desire to keep his country from being flooded. The Post’s Lally Weymouth talked this week on Zoom with Mitsotakis. Edited excerpts follow.

Q. What is the situation with covid in your country?

A. We are seeing a flare up now, but we are going to probably see the peak by mid-December. If you look at our performance from the beginning of the pandemic, we have done better than most European countries, which was a surprise given the fact that we had a relatively underfunded health-care system. Today, 90 percent of the people in the ICU are unvaccinated. We are focusing a lot on the booster shot. We have made it mandatory for everyone above 60. The vaccination rate of the adult population is 73 percent; we want to push it up to 80 percent.

Q. In 2015, refugees flooded into Greece and Italy from Turkey. The European Union did little or nothing to help. Then those refugees started going into Europe. At that point, then-Chancellor Merkel stopped the refugee flow by paying Turkey to keep the refugees there. Now, in the aftermath of Afghanistan and Syria, Turkey appears to be turning the refugee flow on and off. Refugees are arriving again in Greece. But human rights advocates say your country is forcibly sending them back to Turkey. What is your response?

A. We should agree in principle that no country has a right to weaponize migrants. . . . We won’t let people come in as they please. This is my duty towards my citizens, and I’m also doing the job on behalf of Europe, because the borders of Greece are also the borders of Europe. The moment we allow unregulated flows of migrants into Europe, we will have a repeat of 2015, and that’s the day that the Schengen Agreement is going to collapse, because everyone is going to start imposing internal restrictions on the movement of people within Europe. Turkey has an obligation to pick up boats that start from the Turkish coast while they are still within Turkey’s territorial waters.

Q. You are getting bad publicity for turning away refugees.

A. I don’t think we are getting terrible publicity. . . . I find it difficult that people point the finger at Greece while they’re not pointing the finger at Turkey, a country that is engaging in gross violations of human rights.

Q. The Turkish currency is at an all-time low. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fired three central bank governors in less than two years, has threatened to cut off U.S. access to the key Incirlik air base, and has violated your airspace many times. Is it possible that there could be a change of leadership in Turkey?

A. I’m not going to make any comments on the Turkish domestic scene. What I can tell you is that the currency is under a lot of pressure. If Turkey continues its aggressive behavior, there could be consequences for Turkey — sanctions by the E.U. On the other hand, if Turkey stops its aggressive behavior in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, there is room to sit down and sort out our differences.

Q. Reportedly, you were able to revive tourism last summer. You focused on the U.S. market, where a lot of people were vaccinated. How is tourism going?

A. We opened up with very specific rules. At one point, we had 10 nonstop flights from the U.S. into Athens daily last summer. I’m looking forward to welcoming many more American tourists next summer.

Q. How is your economy doing?

A. Overall, it is recovering remarkably. I expect the growth rate to exceed 7 percent in 2021 and to exceed 5 percent in 2022. . . .My aim is to make Greece the success story of the euro zone. Unemployment is coming down. Young Greeks are returning to Greece for the first time. The future is bright.

Q. I heard that you have attracted companies like Microsoft, Tesla and Amazon to invest in Greece.

A. Amazon is not public yet. Microsoft is probably the most important because they are investing heavily in data centers.

Q. I understand that you are trying to make Greece into a technology hub.

A. Yes. All the big tech companies are looking at Greece now. The reason they’re doing it is primarily because of our human capital. Pfizer has set up an AI center in Greece and will end up employing close to 700 people.

Q. Greece’s spending on its military is higher than almost any other country in NATO. Why?

A. We are spending about 2 percent of our GDP, because obviously we have real security threats. We are constantly looking to upgrade our forces, [including] half our F-16 fleet, which we do together with U.S. contractor Lockheed Martin. There is a medium- to long-term plan to purchase the F-35 combat aircraft. We purchased three French frigates to upgrade our navy.

Q. Didn’t Greece give Saudi Arabia a Patriot missile battery when the Biden administration removed the Patriots from Saudi Arabia?

A. If you want to build strong alliances, you have to be there when countries you consider your partners ask for your assistance.

Q. A previous Greek government allowed the Chinese company COSCO to invest in the port of Piraeus. Recently, over U.S. objections, you allowed it to increase its investment to 67 percent. Why did you do it?

A. We never got any complaints from the U.S. for the simple reason that the agreement to increase their share was written in the initial contract. The sale of the Piraeus port was done in a different time when very few countries were interested in investing in Greece.

Q. Are you worried that China’s economic presence will turn into a political and military presence, as it has in many Asian countries and islands?

A. Absolutely not. Greece is a member of NATO and of the European Union. We want to have good relations with China, but they are also strategic competitors.

Q. The euro zone has restrictions on borrowing when budget deficits exceed 3 percent of a country’s GDP. Do you want those restrictions relaxed?

A. We scrapped the spending rules during covid. So we spent a lot of money to support our economies. That’s why we’ve seen a reduction in unemployment, even during covid. The initial rules were much too rigid. We were placing too much of a burden on the countries that have a higher debt. I realize that the country has to grow. The more the economy grows, the better our fiscal position is going to be.

Q. Will you grow your way out of the debt?

A. We will grow our way out. Greece will be able to produce a primary surplus in 2023. We will also be able to repay part of our debt through our annual fiscal performance.

Q. The Greek parliament just passed a law that makes it a criminal offense to publish “fake news,” and makes the proprietor and the journalist both liable.

A. We have tried to limit what can be published so “fake news” stories, especially related to public health, are not given too much exposure.

Q. I think that would be a big mistake. What do you need with attacking the media?

A. What we are doing is very measured and very valid.

Q. Why don’t you just not do it?

A. You’re such an experienced journalist. I’ll take your point very seriously.

Q. You’re a very successful prime minister. Why do this? You of all people should be used to the media. You’ve been in the public eye for years. It’s a slippery slope.

A. I’ve had my fair share of attacks. But it’s not about me. It’s about . . . public health. On the other hand, you could argue that the stories are already on the Internet and no one can censor the Internet.

Q. I disagree with the anti-vaxxers, but I wouldn’t censor them.

A. I’ll take your point. In terms of anti-vaxxers, what we are doing is making life difficult for those who don’t want to get vaccinated. We are not making vaccines mandatory, and we are not locking them down.

Q. Do you think your government can provide an antidote to the rising populism in Europe? Can you show people that government can deliver?

A. That’s exactly what we try to do. We are a reasonable center-right competent government that came after a populist government that failed the Greek people. We were elected with a clear mandate: to create jobs, lower taxes, modernize the state, drive the digital transformation and drive the green transformation. We never stopped pushing reforms, even during covid. The government is still quite popular, and we have a reasonable chance of winning the next election.

Q. Your country has recently renewed and expanded its Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States. Is it a sign that things are going well between Greece and the U.S.?

A. We are very happy about the agreement. We signed a five-year agreement, which will be automatically renewed unless one of the two parties decides that it no longer wants to be party to it. It opens up new [bases] for the U.S. in Greece. The most important is the port of Alexandroupolis, which is in Northeastern Greece, very close to Turkey. That would be the natural entry point for U.S. or NATO troops into the Eastern European region.

Q. Are you planning to come to the United States on a state visit?

A. I think I will be able to visit the U.S. during the first half of 2022. President Biden is someone who really understands the region well. He’s very close to the Greek-American community.

Twitter: @LallyWeymouth

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