American companies have an interest in the exploration and exploitation of energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Alexis Papachelas for the “New Files” program that was aired on Skai TV yesterday.
Clinton, who on Monday wrapped up a two-day official visit to Athens, said that Washington is in favor of energy exploration in Greece’s territorial waters, while making note of the natural gas fields that have been found off of the Mediterranean coasts of Israel and Lebanon.
In the interview, America’s foreign policy supremo also underscored the importance of the country “as a hub for conventional energy with oil and gas and pipelines that would be transecting Greece.”
In regard to the ongoing debt crisis, Clinton hailed the structural reforms introduced by the Socialist government, but said more needs to be done to pull the nation out of the fiscal misery which she said is a threat to future generations.
In the area of foreign policy, she encouraged efforts to improve ties with Turkey, while warning that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia “will not be able to move forward on its European integration” unless it agrees on a settlement to its long-running name dispute with Greece.
Allow me to begin by asking what the main message that you carry with you during this visit is.
It’s a message of support and solidarity with the Greek government and most importantly the Greek people as you go through this very difficult period. We think what has already been done is important but we know more also has to occur with privatization and tax reform. But I want people in Greece to understand that we recognize the difficulty of these decisions; we know that there will be painful sacrifices but we are absolutely confident that Greece will emerge from this even stronger and the future for Greece is so filled with potential because of your strategic location in a part of the world that is changing so rapidly. I came with a message of real hope that this can be done and done in a way that will strengthen Greece, and for years to come.
There are a lot of angry people here in Greece: They’re angry at the markets, they’re angry at the rating agencies, they’re angry at the politicians. If you had a chance to meet with one of them, what would you say?
Well, that I understand the anger and the deep concern that the global economy has presented to all of us. We have angry people in my own country right now, and I am a very sympathetic person to what people are going through. But you cannot deny the reality of what must be done. I used the analogy this morning with the foreign minister: If you are given a diagnosis of cancer you can be angry, or you can seek treatment, and sometimes the treatment makes you sick before it makes you well. Radiation, chemo, those are terrible things for the body to go through, but what we have learned is that if you are willing to do that, very often in today’s modern world, with modern medicine, you can be cured. What we know now about the global economy is that we cannot escape it and it’s a hard taskmaster. So the kinds of fiscal disciplinary policies that the current government is pushing are necessary medicine. Does anybody like it? Of course not, but there is no alternative because Greece is in a central part of Europe, it has benefited from its membership in the EU and the euro and now there are these steps that must be taken. But it’s not only for the government to take them. I have been talking with government officials, but I also have many Greek-American friends and it is clear that there are steps that individuals have to take as well, but it will be in the best interest not only of the nation but of the people if this pathway that has been laid out can be followed now.
There has been a lot of talk about the need for consensus, political consensus, in terms of what kind of measures should be taken and so on. Of course the US is experiencing similar problems, what with the deficit and the whole situation. Do you think it is important and do you think it is actually compatible to have a working democracy the way we know it and also to be able to take the kind of measures that you need to compete with China, India and others?
Absolutely. I mean here we are in the birthplace of democracy and there is in my opinion no doubt that functioning democracies with transparent governance, with the consent of the governed, with the kind of responsible decision-making that Greece is exhibiting now, are in the long run in much stronger positions not only economically but also where we all live and feel in our individual rights and freedoms. You know, there are other systems in the world, but no one that I know of would want to change places because you would sacrifice so much. So, yes, are we testing democracies today? Are we testing political leadership and whether or not people actually want to solve the problem or just exacerbate it for their own personal and party political gain? That’s unfortunately all too common across the world in our democracies but it is by far the best system. You know Winston Churchill’s famous old saying: It’s the worst system that’s ever been devised, except for all the others. Well, as hard as it is to get people in a room, to make the compromise, to decide on a consensus, it is the best approach. And what the government here did, in getting the votes necessary to move forward, was a great tribute to the Greek political system and I [admire] how hard that was because I am as you know a recovering politician, I’ve spent a lot of my time in the political trenches. So I know how difficult it is. But this is what leaders are for. These are the historic moments that test whether one is a leader or just a politician. And we see leadership from the prime minister here, leadership from our president back home, leadership in those who are stepping up and accepting responsibility. It is not of the current generation’s making, they inherited a lot of this, but it is up them to resolve it, and I don’t think there is any better alternative.
I know some heavyweights in economic policy, including from the US Treasury, have accompanied you on your trip to Athens, and I was wondering if the Greek people can expect anything practical in terms of assistance from the United States or perhaps investments once the systemic risk is over and the country has stabilized.
Well of course, and because the US is the single largest contributor to the International Monetary Fund, the IMF assistance that is coming to Greece is very much a part of America’s commitment. But we also -- and I have been trying to send this message -- want to see more American businesses invest in Greece. We think there are great opportunities. It’s not only the beauty and the tourism and hospitality industries that can benefit, but I think Greece is well poised in clean and renewable energy. Some countries are going to capture this market, they are going to be market-setters and leaders; Greece can do that and I think there are investments that Americans would be interested in. I also think that as you have reformed your business sector with more transparency, more contract enforcement, making it possible for businesses to feel they are on a level playing field with Greek and other businesses, that will be very attractive to American business. So, both from the public side, with our commitment to the IMF, and on the private sector side, we think there is opportunity here and we want to be part of making that happen.
There have been various reports about large reserves of natural gas or even oil in the eastern Mediterranean. What is your opinion on this issue? Are such reports of interest to the US business community?
Absolutely, and they aren’t yet well documented but I think exploration is beginning, and we encourage that. There are also ways that Greece can become a hub for conventional energy with oil and gas and pipelines that would be transecting Greece. So, yes, and we’ve encouraged American companies to look at this. We know of the big gas finds off of Israel and Lebanon and it seems that if mother nature has her way, it may take a long time, but with all of the development of gas and oil fields that we are discovering around the world, it seems like there are very few geographic limits to that.
The geopolitical puzzle
The whole region is undergoing serious changes at the moment, considering what’s happening in Syria, in Libya and so on. Has this changed your geopolitical view of Greece, of Greece’s relations with Turkey, and of Greek relations with Israel? How do you see this whole puzzle?
Well, you are right that this has been a time of very rapid change in the Middle East and North Africa and if you just look at the map and where Greece is situated, its strategic advantage is apparent. There is work to be done, work to ensure that you continue the efforts to try to resolve Greek-Turkish problems, that there be continuing efforts on the unfinished business of the western Balkans, that we all work to try to support the transitions going on in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. But I don’t think there is any doubt that with Greece’s strong strategic location, coupled with your historic relations with these countries in the Mediterranean, there is a great opportunity here for Greece, which is why -- as we were discussing with the ministers with whom I met -- if you think about the industries of the future -- and energy will certainly continue to be one -- how Greece positions itself on renewables, on clean energy and on traditional forces of energy, [it] will [have] a major impact on what happens in the region. So, yes, I think that Greece is very well positioned and that’s why I hope that as the Greek people go through this economic crisis you don’t lose sight of what is over the horizon, because getting thorough this crisis, making the reforms that are necessary will really strengthen you. I mean other countries have gone through these kinds of changes: I am thinking of South Korea, which is now I think the 12th largest economy, it’s a member of G20, it is absolutely on a very strong economic footing and exercising influence around the world. Brazil went through IMF restructuring. You can look around the world and you can see there is a direct line from taking the medicine, making the hard decisions and the kind of payoffs economically that other countries are enjoying.
You recently spent a few days in Turkey. Do you see potential for any real progress in Greek-Turkish relations or do you think closer ties are not compatible with the kind of economic crisis we are experiencing?
I do. I don’t think that the diplomatic effort should be shelved during the economic crisis; I think you need to be proceeding on both tracks. And I really believe that there is an opening here. I know that Prime Minister [George] Papandreou has already met with and visited with Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the Turkish leaders, and I encouraged him to continue that, even though I know that he has to put the economic challenge first and foremost, because I think that helps Greece. I think in the medium term -- not just the long term -- working to resolve Greek-Turkish tensions and a lot of leftover issues from the past clears the decks for Greece to play that strategic leadership role in the region. I think you can.
I know you have been trying to talk to the government in Skopje regarding the issue of the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Do you see any progress from there?
Well, we have made it very clear that we support the negotiations that have been going on between Skopje and Athens; we think that there is an opportunity here and the government in Skopje needs to know that it will not be able to move forward on its European integration until it does resolve this, and obviously Greece has to be willing to accept how the name is resolved. So we have encouraged as strongly as we can that this matter be finally taken care of. Whether that will happen or not, we’ll have to wait and see.
The D Word
A lot of people think that it’s important for the US that Greece doesn’t default, because that might create the sort of sovereign debt crisis that could spread around the globe. How concerned are you about that and do you think Greece will be able to avoid it?
I think it matters what Greece does now. I think half of the package that was required has been passed; it’s beginning to be implemented but the other half has not yet been carried through and if you look at the need for tax reform, a broad tax base, ending special favors, trying to make sure that Greece has the resource that it needs, that’s a very important piece of business. And I know it’s hard, but it has to be done. So I think a fair assessment would be that Greece has come a long way but it’s not where it needs to be in order to reassure the markets to avoid the kind of economic disaster that could occur and to reassure your own citizens that you are on a path that will pay off for them. Because, ultimately, that’s what people have to believe.
And there will always be opposition, there will always be naysayers, you cannot please everybody in a democracy, everyone knows that; but you have to make the case that what you are doing is not to satisfy some bondholder or satisfy some European government or the IMF.
You are doing what you must do in order to secure the future of Greece and the next generation of young Greeks, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that you can do that. I have absolute confidence that you can, but it’s not going to be easy and everybody just needs to take a deep breath here and begin to do everything you can, not just in the government, but in the citizenry, to move this along and try to make the tough decisions that are necessary.
Will that be your message to the leader of the opposition when you see him tomorrow?
Yes, it will. It is my message to everyone, my public and my private message.