Outgoing US Ambassador to Greece Daniel Bennett Smith expressed admiration for the political courage displayed by the administration of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and support for the reform drive that is under way, while also calling on SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras to consider the responsibilities that come with the role of lead opposition.
In an extensive interview with Kathimerini, ahead of his departure from Greece, the experienced American diplomat says that a unilateral demarcation of an exclusive economic zone by Greece could create problems and urges discussions with partner countries.
He also talks about the upcoming meeting between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and US President Barack Obama at the White House, as well as of the recent visit to Athens by US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Smith further expresses concern about the rising influence of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.
What did it mean to be the US ambassador to Greece when the country became the center of world attention due to the economic crisis?
Well, this had started a little bit before my tenure here, the crisis had started and the first bailout was concluded in May of 2010. So, it was well under way by the time I arrived, but obviously it has had an impact throughout my tenure. I think much of our mission has focused on this crisis, not only on monitoring it and reporting back to Washington what’s happening, but trying to find ways that we could help Greece during this very difficult and challenging period. So it’s really dominated my tenure, clearly.
Did you find ways that you could help or might help in the future?
We’ve tried and I think we have found some. Obviously the United States plays a big role in terms of the macroeconomy and in terms of our support for the International Monetary Fund and the IMF’s role here, but beyond that I think what we’ve tried to do is focus on areas where we think we could make a difference, whether that’s helping or encouraging US businesses to take a close look at investment opportunities in Greece, or promoting bilateral trade between our two countries, but also focusing on things like entrepreneurship and how we can help stimulate entrepreneurship in Greece.
I believe very strongly that there is an enormous potential here when it comes to entrepreneurship, there is great human capital, and if we can create the right conditions, where people are allowed to launch new businesses, are encouraged to launch new businesses, and are able to raise the money and other things they need to do that, this opens up a whole range of possibilities for growth in the Greek economy, so I feel very bullish on the potential for entrepreneurship here.
Obviously the conditions are tough and what we’ve tried to do is partner with young entrepreneurs and with female entrepreneurs; we help sponsor a mentoring network for young women entrepreneurs, the I4U network, but we have also worked with a variety of other groups to help and encourage entrepreneurship.
One of the areas that is of particular interest to me is the travel and tourism sector, and in particular the cruise industry, and I know the government has taken important steps by the lifting of cabotage, but hopefully also some investments in infrastructure and other changes will make it even more attractive for American and other cruise lines to homeport in Greece, which has enormous potential in terms of bringing value added from tourism here and enhancing Greece’s attractiveness as a tourist destination.
Greece, as you know, used to dominate the cruise market in the Eastern Mediterranean. That changed for a number of reasons and Greece is now finding itself in a very competitive market, but it has enormous natural advantages. So, if we could simply tap into that potential, get some of these cruise lines homeported in Piraeus or Iraklio or Rhodes or Thessaloniki, I think the economic impact could be great. Because it’s not just those people coming for tourism; they fly into Greece, they spend a few days in a hotel, they can maybe do some agrotourism, or other travel. So we focused on areas that we think there is great potential and could be a great benefit both for Greece and for US business.
US President Barack Obama will be meeting Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras next week. What’s on the agenda of their meeting?
It is really something we’ve worked on for a long time, and I am delighted to see this happen, even if it’s at the end of my tenure. I think it will be a very good meeting. It’s a good opportunity for these two leaders to get to know one another in more detail and in more depth. Right now both sides are working on an agenda but I anticipate that it will be a fairly broad agenda. Obviously the economy and the economic situation both in Greece and in Europe will be at the forefront of this discussion but I also think that it’s going to touch on regional issues, especially recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa, Greece’s upcoming EU Presidency, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as well as transnational threats such as terrorism.
How do you feel about the Samaras government?
I think the cooperation between our governments has been excellent. Prime Minister Samaras is obviously working very hard, as are his ministers, to address an enormously difficult challenge for Greece. They are trying to do the best they can, in very difficult circumstances. We support the government in its efforts to continue on the path of reform, to keep Greece in the euro and to undertake the measures that are going to be necessary to restore competitiveness. But we are under no illusions that this is easy. And the recent cabinet reshuffle and the change in the coalition government is evidence of how difficult politically this is to do. But we have a lot of admiration for the efforts being undertaken and for the political courage the government has shown.
There’s some talk of a US preference for main leftist opposition SYRIZA, given the latter’s strong opposition to Germany.
As a rule, we try to stay out of domestic politics. It’s never a good thing for a diplomat to interject himself into a domestic political debate. I would say people read too much into a lot of things that strike me as sometimes puzzling. The fact that [SYRIZA leader Alexis] Tsipras went to Washington is great. The fact that he spoke at Brookings is great. But I don’t know that you can interpret that much more than he was there and he gave an American audience his views. It’s not an endorsement one way or the other, certainly from the US government in that matter.
I think the people who were interested in hearing his ideas remain interested in hearing his ideas. He has rapidly risen from a party that was very much on the margins to being the leading opposition. And, obviously, he is an unknown commodity and people wanted to hear from him. But they also wanted to deliver a message, one of those messages was: “While we are interested in your views, you now have a different role than you had before. You are now the leader of a major opposition party and what you say matters. People pay attention to what you say.” And this is something that is important for any opposition to realize.
There is a responsibility that comes along with these things. You are not in the government and it is not your job to make official decisions. But if you say things that affect the investment climate or affect the willingness of people to invest or create jobs, it can have an impact as the leader of the opposition in a way that might not have happened before.
Again, people are paying very close attention. One has to take care as the opposition leader in a way that maybe one didn’t have to before they arrived at such a prominent position. We do not express preferences one way or the other. It’s up to the Greek people to decide who should govern them. And our enduring interests are with Greece and Greek-American relations and we will deal with whatever government. But we have made clear that we think that Greece needs to stay on the path of reform, that Greece needs to convince and restore the confidence of its partners in the world markets. There is no easy way out of this.
What was the purpose of US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s visit to Athens, and what, if anything, did he achieve?
Secretary Lew has spent a lot of time on Europe, and he’s noted that Europe is at the top of his agenda. So this was an opportunity for him. He was coming from the G20 meeting in Moscow to spend some time in Greece, to get to meet the prime minister and the minister of finance to discuss in more depth some of the issues and challenges that Greece faces going forward. It was a useful opportunity to have the most senior policymaker in the US government when it comes to financial issues dealing with this and having familiarity with the issues and having contacts with the prime minister and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras. But it was also an opportunity to underscore the message that we have consistently supported, which is that we’d like to see much more growth and jobs in Europe than we’ve seen, and we think that Europe’s prosperity is very important for world prosperity. We also recognize that it’s very important in Greece’s case that it continue on the path of reform and that those reforms will open up possibilities for economic prosperity in the future. But we recognize they are painful and we recognize the sacrifices that the Greek people have made in the interim.
How do you view the rise of Golden Dawn and how do you explain it?
Well, this is one thing that I have sought answers to as an ambassador to Greece and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it. I think you hear conflicting things. Some people say this is some kind of protest vote, that a lot of people are fed up, they’re mad, and that this is a way to vent their anger and frustration; others point to other factors as being instrumental in all of this. At the end of the day, perhaps I’m not the one to answer that question, but I will say that the rise of this party and what it stands for is troubling to friends of Greece, to people who care about this country, and it’s not simply its ideology which is troubling enough in its own right, but also some of the actions that it has undertaken, whether it’s harassment of immigrants or those who appear to be non-Greek, or blood drives for Greeks, or the food drives for Greeks only. It’s not the image I think that most people have of Greece; it’s not the image that Greeks themselves portray – most of them – or project. This is a very welcoming, very hospitable country and I realize there are enormous challenges when it comes to illegal immigration and this is a society under real stress, but I don’t think, from my perspective at least, that these are the ideals that really represent Greece.
How does the US feel about the prospects of Greece’s demarcation of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with Cyprus?
We’ve never disputed Greece, or any country’s right, which is clear under international law, to declare an EEZ. But of course, exclusive economic zones, in cases like this, are demarcated between two countries normally, and in the case of Greece this is not only in the Aegean, but elsewhere. This is going to involve discussions with partner countries – with Turkey, with Libya, with Egypt. And those discussions are critical in all of this. It has to be done in conjunction with other countries. We think that a unilateral declaration of an EEZ can be problematic in that regard because it doesn’t really have meaning until you come to an agreement between the countries.
About the Trans Adriatic Pipeline: The US did not initially warm toward this prospect. How do you see the project?
First of all, I think this is good news. It is good news for Greece and it is good news for Europe. We were neutral on whether it should be TAP or Nabucco West. But we’ve never been hostile or opposed to TAP. In fact, it’s become clear for quite some time now that TAP had some advantages over Nabucco West which was obviously in the end, decisive in the Shah Deniz consortium’s decision to choose TAP, although they haven’t ruled out using some of the Nabucco West ideas and infrastructure eventually. It’s good news for Greece. It will mean jobs, it will mean investment, but it also means Greece becomes a strategic energy hub for a lot of the countries in this region, and that can only be to the benefit of Greece and Europe. Most importantly, from a broader strategic standpoint, it means more energy diversity for Europe, which is something we have long championed.
In closing, could you tell us about the highlights of your tenure in Athens?
It’s a tougher one to answer in many respects. We’ve talked so much about the economy and how it’s dominated, but at the end of the day what I’ve been most impressed with is many of the ordinary Greeks I’ve met from all walks of life, whether its people from nongovernmental organizations that we’ve worked closely with, those providing food and shelter to the homeless, those worried about children or victims of trafficking, and those worried about protecting the environment. We’ve worked closely with a lot of these NGOs, and I have to say I admire enormously their dedication, their determination and their commitment despite the very enormous obstacles they face. Many of them had been very dependent on government funding in the past, and that has largely dried up and they have had to look for new sources and we’ve tried to provide some assistance but also help them increase their capacity to raise money and provide relief and carry out their great work. So, this has been one of the things that have struck me in the course of my tenure, and I’ve also been enormously impressed with many of the Greek entrepreneurs I meet. Entrepreneurs by definition are optimistic people; you don’t launch a business if you aren’t an optimist, and, especially, you don’t launch a business in the sort of climate we find ourselves in here if you aren’t optimistic. So they are great to be around in that sense, but the vitality, the ingenuity, the brilliance of many of these people is really striking, and it’s been a great pleasure for me to be associated with them and to help them in any way that we can.
But at the end of the day – especially at the height of the crisis when we were having demonstrations in Syntagma and people were wondering if it was safe to travel to Greece, notwithstanding what you were seeing in various international broadcasts – Greece remains a very welcoming place, a very safe place, a very wonderful place to visit and to travel to, and I’m delighted that this year we’ve seen a real rebound in Greek tourism. I think it’s great for the Greek economy, it’s great for Greece, but it’s something that we’ve long worked for and hoped would happen.