Nine months in the prime minister’s chair is enough time to do a lot of learning. But nine months with two major crises – Turkey’s weaponization of migrants and refugees, and the coronavirus pandemic – is an entirely different experience. This is the experience Kathimerini had the opportunity to discuss with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, “live” at his office at the Maximos Mansion.
Our conversation was not intended to address the big economic issues only, but also how the prime minister has changed these past nine months. He tells us how he came to choose Professor Sotiris Tsiodras as the government’s key health adviser in the crisis and how he has revised his approach to the National Health System (ESY).
The prime minister appears amply aware of the challenges lying ahead, stressing the need for a recovery that will be fair on everyone and assuring that he is prepared to stand up to unreasonable demands for subsidies and handouts.
Last but not least, Mitsotakis rules out early elections, saying that he doesn’t feel that he lacks the legitimacy needed to implement his policies.
You were prepared for certain challenges when you were elected but have had much more to deal with. What have you learned from this?
The truth is that when I was elected prime minister, my priority was to rebuild the economy and bring the country back to rapid growth rates. The refugee issue was certainly on my mind, but I did not expect to face a crisis of this intensity. Also, nobody imagined that we would face a pandemic like the one we are experiencing today. I think I got a lot of practice in a lot of things: Having to make quick decisions without having all the information; having to trust the experts but, at the crucial moment, making your own mark.
Have there been moments either in the refugee crisis or in dealing with coronavirus that stand out as being particularly difficult?
I think the first few meetings on the refugee issue, when it seemed that we would be under a lot of pressure [in the region of Evros], were extremely critical, because we did not have a full picture of the real extent of the problem and there were questions like: What if we cannot handle it? What if they manage to cross somewhere? What if the fence is breached? What happens then? Fortunately, we acted quickly and managed to prevent this from happening. So, from the moment we and Europe acted, I think within the first four or five days, I was confident that we had the capability, the strength and the operational competence to guard the border. This was a much harder and complex exercise at sea. But even there we proved that we can guard our borders, with absolute respect for human life. The message has been understood by everyone, especially by Turkey, but also by the refugees and migrants who will now take more time considering whether it’s worth getting on a boat and trying to cross to an Aegean island.
The name of the government’s special adviser for the coronavirus crisis, Sotiris Tsiodras, seems to be everywhere lately.
It was [Health Minister] Vassilis Kikilias who recommended appointing Sotiris, saying that he would be the best person for the job. I spoke with him and we soon developed a very good rapport. I was, of course, also aware of his professional accomplishments. He is not only a highly trained scientist, but also a person with incredible sensibilities. A doctor in every sense of the word. He cares about his patients. And right now, we are all his patients in a way, the entire country. Sotiris Tsiodras has also demonstrated an incredible ability to convey messages in a simple but at the same time intensely emotional way. I think we owe him a debt of gratitude for the way he convinced the public that what we are doing is for the greater good.
Has the health crisis made you reconsider some of your positions concerning the streamlining of the state?
Yes and no. I have always believed in a strong state. I have always said that protecting the citizens is the state’s greatest role, it’s just that I had a different aspect of safety in mind. I had not considered the issue of public health, which cannot be taken for granted even though it should be. What I can say – and I do so sincerely – is that I have gained a lot more confidence in the National Health System. I think that this crisis has brought out its potential but also its shortcomings. So I have set myself a challenge: a National Health System that will become a point of reference not just in Greece but in Europe as well. I think we deserve this, our doctors deserve it, our nurses deserve it, and, above all, the Greek citizens deserve to have access to free, high-quality healthcare. I also believe that as a society we have not shown as much discrimination as others have during this crisis. In the United States, for example, poor Americans, African Americans who are constantly being marginalized, are being hit proportionately harder. We don’t have such incidents here, fortunately.
This does not mean that ESY cannot work fruitfully with the private sector in absorbing know-how where necessary. As soon as the crisis erupted, after all, we put the entire private sector under the oversight of the Health Ministry. Thankfully, we have not needed to use the capabilities of the private sector because we have not been on the brink of overflowing intensive care units, even on the toughest days. And this, ultimately, has been our policy’s greatest success. Cases are now starting to drop, in fact, and intensive care beds to rise. This allows us to take a different approach to the next step and to how we gradually relax restrictions.
Has the financial contribution of Greek businesspeople to the fight against the epidemic been sufficient?
I’m not sure what measure we should be judging their response by. I’d say there are two different angles: One is the donations, which were indeed significant. There could obviously have been more, but important initiatives have been taken by prominent Greek businesspeople and companies. The second, which is really interesting, is how much care they have given to their own businesses, to the jobs they provide, to paying their dues to the state. This is where the business world’s contribution is really important. The fact is that we have been pleasantly surprised so far by businesses’ consistency in terms of their tax and social security obligations. And, of course, once we introduced a framework protecting jobs – essentially by prohibiting layoffs if a business wants to benefit from the support measures we’ve announced – we saw the alarming trend from the start of the crisis, the rapid rise in layoffs, stopping.
When do you expect to start having a clearer picture about the course of the health crisis? When will we be able to say that the worst is behind us?
This is something we cannot and should not say. I believe that we will start getting a clearer picture by the end of the month so that we can start gradually relaxing the restrictions by May, barring any dramatic developments. But this relaxation will be done step by step, and, of course, will not apply to the elderly and to people with underlying conditions.
Are you worried about a resurgence of the pandemic in the fall?
Yes, of course. I think it’s almost certain that the coronavirus will return in the fall – and that’s on the assumption that we do see a decline in the summer due to rising temperatures. It gets very hot in Greece in the summer and this will probably work in our favor. In October or November, however, things will be different, but by then we will also have a lot more intensive care beds and greater testing capabilities.
Are you prepared for the major financial crisis that will possibly last a year or two? How do you see it playing out for Greece?
No one can say. The bad thing is that this pandemic came after a 10-year [economic] crisis. The good thing is that we have demonstrated great fortitude and adaptability. We are a fairly flexible economy, which may be able to open and close faster than others perhaps. The big question is what will happen to tourism. No one can answer this, because it will depend not only on events in Greece, but also in our main markets, in the UK, Germany, France – countries that send a lot of tourists every year. I believe, however, that we will make a quick recovery. I know we will have a deep recession in 2020. But, provided that science gives us the answers we are waiting for, the recovery in 2021 will be greater than the 2020 recession.
What do you have to say to the 30-somethings who already went through a tough time in the economic crisis and are now looking at more difficulties after finding a job in tourism or some other sector that has been shut down by the health crisis?
There are some mornings when I wake up and ask myself: Was it necessary? We were headed for a very good year financially in 2020 and I honestly believed that we had put the crisis behind us. We can, however, take some comfort from the fact that we are no longer regarded as a “special case,” we aren’t the “black sheep,” and that, I think, is very important to our collective state of mind. The fact that we are united in dealing with the pandemic and its consequences, with a sense of discipline that has been, perhaps, surprising to many, is evidence of our fortitude. We have matured and we are rebuilding something that was absent, not just during the crisis but throughout this country’s recent history: trust. Trust in the institutions and the state, and not just in the government. Trust in the people who have been assigned the power to protect us, to keep us safe and healthy. This is, after all, the main reason why societies formed organized states. We are going back, in other words, to the reasons that led to the creation of strong state entities. So, I would say that we will come through these tough times together and quite quickly, too. I honestly believe that if we see the progress I expect – because a lot of money has been directed toward hiring many clever people to find medical responses and a much-desired vaccination against the coronavirus – this will all be a brief parenthesis. And there are positives that we can hang onto from the experience.
What positives do you see in such a bleak situation?
We’ve been thrust into high gear. We passed brave emergency reforms. We created a digital state within weeks – and that’s a very important legacy. Digital reform was one of our key institutional priorities with regards to the public administration over the four-year term. We have accomplished in days things that we had aimed to complete in 12 months and had been lagging in for years. And these things will be important weapons in the days to come. Look at teleworking: We suddenly realized that we can do a lot more from home than we’d thought. Or education: Who would have thought that the Greek public education system would be able to provide – despite the initial shortcomings – 260,000 online classes?
One of the big problems I see ahead is who will say no to businesses and social groups demanding handouts, subsidies and state support during the recovery.
We will. I will. Just as we said a lot of “yeses” and loosened the purse strings – because this is what we had to do – we will also have to honestly say a lot of “nos” down the line. People need to understand that these are exceptional circumstances. And if some believe that we will go back to the days when the state stepped in to fix everything that was wrong, they are mistaken. At the end of the day, we are all the state, and this is why I’m talking about fair burden-sharing. We are heading into a major recession and everyone needs to assume their share of the burden. The state has done its part. It gave a lot of money toward bolstering jobs and incomes, and it did it in a way that was – dare I say – almost socialist, giving 800 euros to everyone, across the board, regardless of income. Other countries chose to pay a portion of people’s salaries. We did not. By giving a specific amount, we ended up offering a lot more support to low-income earners. High-income earners have sustained losses. But this is what needed to be done. Therefore, the difficult task of putting on the brakes after having stepped on the accelerator will be assumed by the government. We are also keeping some reserves, because we don’t know how long the crisis will last. Some people are telling us to give everything now, but how much can we give when we don’t know how long the problem will last? We need to keep some reserves for restarting the economy.
We’ve also had to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan weaponizing the migration crisis. It looks like it may even intensify as a result of Turkey’s domestic problems. Is this something you are worried about?
Of course. On the other hand, I have complete confidence in our operational capabilities in guarding our borders on land and at sea.
At sea? Does that mean pushbacks?
I am not going to use a term that may have been rendered obsolete by developments. What I mean is that we are going to prevent vessels from entering Greek territorial waters illegally, without ever endangering anyone’s life. And I believe that the Hellenic Coast Guard, which has our absolute political support, is doing an excellent job serving this objective, which is our national strategy. This will not automatically stop the inflows. We will still have arrivals. The issue is that they stay small. The country can manage small inflows. What it doesn’t want – and I could never allow – is having to deal with an organized “invasion,” orchestrated centrally by Turkey.
Are you expecting an escalation?
Not necessarily. I think that what we’re most concerned about right now is dealing with the health crisis. Perhaps it is even an opportunity to take a different look at all these issues, more so on Turkey’s part, because Turkey has always provoked Greece. I’m not ready to talk about “coronavirus diplomacy” like we talk about “earthquake diplomacy,” but these big crises that affect people are certainly an opportunity to redefine our priorities, and to consider that policies pursued in the past – again, I’m referring to Turkey, not Greece – may not make sense in the present circumstances.
Have you felt the support of the key European players over the recent migration crisis, the health crisis and now over the economy?
On the migration crisis certainly, but they have also been looking out for their own interests, of course. No one wanted the Greek front to crack, flooding the country with illegal migrants, many of whom would have somehow found their way to the rest of Europe. So, Europe certainly supported us, both actively and symbolically, in this effort. The statement made about the need to protect our border also gave us the additional legitimacy that we were protecting Europe’s borders as well as the Greek ones. In the health crisis, moreover, the economic decisions at the European Central Bank level, Greece’s inclusion in the bond buyback program and in the bond waiver, which gave the banking system some leeway, demonstrated that the country is no longer being treated like a special case. This is a big win. I don’t think it can be attributed to the past few weeks, but to a buildup of confidence in the government over the last eight months that is now benefiting the country. There is also the fact that the country is doing very well in terms of the health crisis.
How will this benefit us down the road?
There is no doubt that it will also act in a positive way for the economy when we eventually emerge from the health crisis. Let me give you an example: European pensioners and holiday homes. The concern used to be: “Great, I’ll buy a home in Greece, but what is the health system like?” Concerns about how the healthcare system worked and appeared to work used to put people off. These concerns have now been answered. The country is a leader in its response to a global pandemic, widely cited as a paradigm. Greece is seen as a serious and reliable country. And if some were pleasantly surprised by our response, we can only be happy and – why not – even proud. This is a success that we will certainly benefit from down the line when the economy restarts. It will also benefit Greece as a tourist destination – even though we know tourism will be down this year – as well as the country’s image. The management of the crisis has given us a lasting comparative advantage.
I understand that some people are advising that you call early elections to demand a new mandate because you were elected on a different platform. Is this something you’d consider?
Not at all. In fact, I remember saying in February that we are not here to indulge in political tactics or to hold elections whenever this suits us poll-wise. I don’t feel like I’m short of any political legitimacy needed to implement my policy program. Not in the least. In fact, I believe that I have the legitimacy and the trust I need. I believe that I have built a relationship of trust with the Greek people that allows me to form an economic policy for the day after and in the medium term that will account for all the changes brought by the crisis. Our priorities haven’t changed; it’s just that some things need to be done faster. The priorities are the same. Attracting investment is even more important now than it was given the comparative global competition for day-after investments. The investment vacuum will be significant and that is when our credibility will be an asset. We are changing our approach to some things, like the importance I’m placing on the National Health System – an area where I would say I was at fault.