Greek PM: ‘I would like to see ND win the elections in 2027’

In an expansive interview ahead of the Euro elections, the premier talks about the dangers and challenges of his second term in office

Greek PM: ‘I would like to see ND win the elections in 2027’

A painting by Konstantinos Parthenis of the Virgin Mary and Child, combining a sense of piety with fluid Art Nouveau forms, looks over Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as he works on the puzzle of governance at his desk. “It’s the Virgin, in a modern version. This painting could be said to encompass the history of modern Greece,” he remarks. It could equally encompass the history of his New Democracy party, a combination of the classic and the modern, the right and the center, innovative digital governance tools and the fence at the Evros border, investment grade and private universities.

Indeed, it is a painting offering many interpretations, but what does it mean to the prime minister himself? Is he seeking a divine blessing or is it a double entendre, reaching out to both the liberal and the religious Right? There appears to be a discreet inclination for religious faith among rationalists. A very ordered mind can often resort to a penchant for fetishes. There are certain objects Mitsotakis holds very dear, and we don’t mean just the prayer bracelets he often wears on his wrist or his amber worry beads. Almost every object he possesses (like his watch) has sentimental value: “They’re gifts from my family,” he says.

Luck and hard work

Photographs of his family are arranged across his desk almost like a protective shield and the cross he wears around his neck is a constant fixture. “It’s a present from Mareva and it never comes off,” he says, referring to his wife Mareva Grabowski-Mitsotakis. Even if he has to remove it, say for a medical checkup, he will put it safely in a pocket rather than hand it over to someone else.

Mitsotakis conveys the impression that he wants to banish the element of luck from everything he does; that he wants all of his initiatives and accomplishments to be attributed to reason and hard work. This is only halfway true, because luck is something he respects. “It’s enormously important and you cannot banish it entirely.”

His critics say he’s been lucky; his supporters applaud him for making his own luck. The superstitious accuse him of bringing bad luck to the country (pandemic, wars and crises); the rationalists answer that he deals with every crisis better than anyone else. Despite being teased by many Greeks of being a jinx (something he has poked fun at in a TikTok video), he has proved these past five years that the jinx is entirely on his rivals’ heads. Does he have a secret talisman? “Even if I did, do you think I’d tell you?” He later hints that the cross around his neck may well be that talisman.

Mitsotakis admits that he’s a numbers man. “I believe firmly in the power of data and in the value of logical analysis. This is why I insist so much on evaluation and measurement systems – and I don’t just mean public opinion polls,” he says. He has even studied the work of his predecessors, focusing on their mistakes so he doesn’t repeat them. No amount of studying can prepare you for office, though. In November 2022, just two months after Giorgia Meloni had been elected prime minister of Italy, she asked her Greek counterpart during a casual conversation in Brussels, “Kyriakos, is it always going to be this hard?” “Giorgia, it’s going to get a lot harder before it gets any easier,” he replied with the knowledge of having been in office for more than three years.

A disciplined life

Indeed, Mitsotakis’ legendary self-control has been known to crack under the pressures of the Maximos Mansion. He’s even been known to raise his voice. “I rarely shout, but I think it’s effective precisely because I don’t do it often.” Does he hide his feelings? “I don’t think I do and I also don’t think it’s necessary,” he says. He also exercises every day. “Sports are essential to me for letting off steam, a way of clearing my head.” He is careful about his sleep and eating habits, and always makes sure to have time for the people and activities he loves. “I’ve always been disciplined. I don’t think of it as deprivation, but as a way of doing all the things I want to do.” His discipline is so fabled, in fact, that there’s a rumor going around that he only eats seven almonds at breakfast, never eight. He laughs. “I don’t count the almonds one by one; I just eat a small quantity.” And what sports does he play? “Tennis, soccer and a little bit of basketball. Not with politicians, only with friends outside of politics. I play tennis late at night at the club near the Temple of Olympian Zeus.” When he has a few free hours on a Saturday he plays in a league of school alums. “My team has qualified for the respective Conference League,” he says. 

Cellphones are a plague, ringing all the time. Does he ever switch his off? “I have children living abroad and when they’re away, my phone is never off or on silent. If, however, all three of my children are at home, I do.” And how do people reach him in case of an emergency? “There’s a hotline and you know that if it rings in the middle of the night, it’s never good.” He recently got a second number and device, hoping it would help limit the number of calls he gets. He’s kept his old phone and checks it only once in a while, but has given his new number to everyone who had his old one. “It was an exercise in futility after all,” he quips.

‘No’ to the EC presidency

Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been in power longer than his late father. What else would he like to achieve? “I’m not trying to break any records, but sometimes history makes it so that a politician’s abilities coincide with the needs of society. Under different circumstances, the things I stand for may have rendered me almost indifferent. Now, though, the situation led to a different result.” So what needs to be done to keep the favorable winds blowing in his sails? “I need to keep doing what I already believe I’m doing well. Greece needs to keep making these leaps of modernization. The biggest danger during a second term in office is that you start to relax or to think that all the hard work has already been done.”

“I’m not trying to break any records, but sometimes history makes it so that a politician’s abilities coincide with the needs of society”

Back when he was head of the main opposition, he used to say that two terms, eight years, were ample. Is he now going for 12? He mulls his answer. He has no intention of leaving, but he doesn’t want to be accused of digging himself in either. “I would like to see New Democracy win the elections in 2027, and obviously with me at its head. What is also certain is that there will be a life for me after politics, as long as I have my health.”

Konstantinos Mitsotakis served in Parliament until 2004 and the age of 85. Is Kyriakos Mitsotakis going to stay on until 75 at least, until 2043? He thinks the answer is obvious. “I would rule out being in politics 20 years from now. I have no interest in remaining on the political scene after the cycle of my premiership closes.”

Is that cycle coming to an earlier close, perhaps? Is there any chance that he’ll step down in autumn, as rumors that his is one of the names being considered for the European Commission presidency if Ursula von der Leyen is not re-elected suggest? “You can rule that out,” he says flatly. But what if he gets the invitation? Will he turn it down? “It would be an honor for the country and for me, but I would say ‘no’ if the suggestion were made. There are no irreplaceable politicians, but I do think I have built a bond of trust with the Greek people that would prevent me from accepting any office apart from the one the people elected me to.” 

The top priorities

The elections for the European Parliament are just a few days away and the high cost of living remains a hot-button issue. Mitsotakis believes that this is yet another Greek problem that beyond specific government measures (salary raises, market inspections etc) can also have a European solution. He suggested as much in a recent letter to Ursula von der Leyen recommending that geographical restrictions on retail suppliers be lifted. The opposition in Greece reacted to his proposal, dismissing it as a “pre-election gimmick.” He has also been criticized for not sending the letter earlier. “As I already told Parliament, the effect of unfair practices by certain multinationals on European inflation only just became so blatantly apparent. The problem just surfaced in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Greece and Denmark. More importantly, though, now is when the European Union’s agenda for the next five years is being shaped, so this is why it had to go down among its priorities now. The fact that the Commission accepted the proposal immediately, in combination with the reports by [Mario] Draghi and [Enrico] Letta on the common market says as much,” the prime minister argues.

Friends and politics

Harry S Truman said that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. Mitsotakis got Peanut. Does it bother him that only a dog can be regarded as a friend by a man in his position? “I have three dogs,” he answers – and they’re not his only friends. “I have friends, but they’re not involved in politics. I believe very strongly in the notion of friendship. I believe in relationships based on trust and mutual appreciation in politics as well. I believe that I could become very good friends with some of my associates when I leave politics. But right now, it is very hard to be friends too, when there’s a hierarchy in the relationship. Friendship perforce demands equality and that equality is hard in a hierarchical structure. But I know that I will be very good friends with some of my associates when I leave politics,” says Mitsotakis.

‘Talk about the political center is not some public relations stunt; it’s about the modernist-minded reform policies we are pursuing’

So is the impression that he’ll easily sacrifice ministers and associates when it becomes necessary wrong? “The resignations of everyone in these positions are at the prime minister’s discretion, but all my associates know that I have their backs. They also know that I am exacting. I will also add that I believe in yellow cards, in warnings. I rarely pull out a red card; it’s usually preceded by a yellow one.” When he does pull out a red card, though, he’s relentless. “When a mistake has been made and you try to fix it or hide it, you’ll only make things worse. It’s better to just come out and admit it, to take responsibility and move on,” he says.

The wiretapping affair and the Tempe railway tragedy continue to produce waves of reactions, even though the impact of these reactions was not what some thought it would be in last year’s parliamentary election. Instead of punishing the government, voters lashed out at the opposition. Both these cases are still being investigated by the judicial system, and respect for its decisions remains imperative, even if few people believe that it is unbiased.

“Only the independent justice system can shed light on the truth in such matters,” Mitsotakis stresses. “Uninfluenced by political parties and other interests. I can actually say that it is moving fast, considering that the process for the Mati fire took more than six years. There really is nothing more to say on the matter, except to repeat that we should remain at a calm and responsible distance from conspiracy theories and wait only for justice’s decisions.”

Being in power may seem fascinating to people on the outside; those on the inside know it’s no easy matter. Some also say that being in power means being alone. “Yes, you are alone in power, but I also happen to be lucky in that I have excellent associates, a wonderful family and very good friends, so I have never felt as alone as some other politicians have,” says the prime minister. 

He adds that it is also important not to let power go to your head. “You need to be grounded and a realist. Mareva and my entire family help a lot in this regard,” he says, admitting to one character flaw and that’s being uncomfortable with criticism. “I was never very good at taking criticism and that’s something I’m working on. I’m making an effort to change that, but I still have some way to go.”

Policy intentions

Everyone has a different interpretation of the intentions driving the prime minister’s decisions, including, for example, with regard to the revision of the Greek Constitution, which is slated to begin at the discussion level in 2025. Religious Greeks are particularly concerned about his plans for Article 3, which relates to relations between the Church and the state, and for the Constitution’s first words, “In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity.” Are they right to worry? “No, I don’t think so. I think we can talk about state-Church matters, but I’m not including Article 3 among those topics,” he says.

“Talk about the political center is not some public relations stunt; it’s about the modernist-minded reform policies we are pursuing”

If I were opposition chiefs Stefanos Kasselakis of SYRIZA or PASOK’s Nikos Androulakis, what would I have to do to defeat Mitsotakis? He doesn’t know the answer to that, but he does know what he needs to do to defeat them. “Our electoral victories were not handed to us just by citizens who customarily support New Democracy, but also by citizens who define themselves as being close to what we call the centrist space. We have consistently served the needs of these citizens, which is why I find it hard to imagine New Democracy not being the top centrist party. Talk about the political center is not some public relations stunt; it’s about the modernist-minded reform policies we are pursuing,” he says. Gay marriage was one such policy, which the prime minister insisted on passing despite reactions, and with the support of SYRIZA and PASOK. Has he been invited to a gay wedding? “I have been approached during visits to public places and invited. I wasn’t invited by Kasselakis though,” he says, of the opposition leader’s recent nuptials in Greece. Some wonder why more same-sex couples aren’t flocking to town halls, taking advantage of the new law. “If a lot of same-sex marriages are not taking place, that just goes to prove that traditional Greek family bonds have not been severed,” Mitsotakis says with a smile.

The impact of such modernist reforms on traditional bonds is, indeed, a fear among many ultra-conservatives. Was Mitsotakis’ decision to add Fredi Beleri, the jailed mayor-elect of the predominantly ethnic Greek city of Himare in Albania, to New Democracy’s ticket for the European elections meant to appease such ultra-conservative voters? The prime minister rejects the notion. “It was a profoundly political decision, an act of recognition of the importance I place on the ethnic Greek minority by nominating a man who has been very unjustly treated by the Albanian state. We have two ethnic Greeks on the ticket, in fact; we also have Pyrros Dimas,” he says, referring to the Olympic weightlifting champion, who was born in Himare.

Despite pre-election campaigns being at full throttle, Mitsotakis does not want to denigrate his rivals. He settles, instead, for a pithy comment: “Politics often attracts people who think a great deal of themselves, people who think they know everything, who believe that they can change the world with a single move. Sure, you have to have faith, but the French say that there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous, and sometimes people fail to see that they’re making that step.”

At the age of 56, Mitsotakis is still young, but he’s clocked up a lot of mileage. What is he proudest of? “The one thing I am truly proud of is my three children. After that, there are numerous moments. One moment that stands out is my speech to the US Congress on May 17, 2022. It is a moment that brought pride to the Greeks. After a period of getting very badly beat up, we were able to prove that we could do better.”

Now what?

The prime minister’s priorities after the June 9 elections are dealing with the economy’s structural problems, further spurring growth, investments and employment, getting average salaries to reach 1,500 euros and the basic wage to 950 euros by 2027, reducing the public debt and also bringing more tax relief. Health and education reforms are also high on the list, as are controlling migration and, of course, bolstering Greece’s defenses and diplomatic clout. “The objective is to become like Europe in every respect, to cover the lost ground, the big shortcoming of the Metapolitefsi [the 50 years since the fall of the junta], which is none other than the comparative divergence from Europe, mainly in terms of the economy and quality of life,” he says, insisting that Greece has not taken advantage of its position in the European Union to the extent that it should have.

“I sometimes feel that the Greece we want to create is like those huge 10,000-piece puzzles. You start putting them here and there, but they don’t make sense. You keep going and at some point you say, ‘Now I know what the puzzle is supposed to look like.’ That’s how I feel. I think we’re halfway, that the big picture is just starting to emerge faintly.”

Albania, North Macedonia and Turkey

The Greek prime minister cannot be pleased about the recent turbulence in the Balkans. What does he plan to do if the president and government of North Macedonia continue calling the country “Macedonia”? “I emphatically stated from the very first that the stance of our neighboring country’s new president and government is illegal, unacceptable and provocative. It is a view shared by the European Union, as well as by the United States. How Skopje chooses to act, therefore, will also determine the country’s road to Europe and its progress, which is something I believe the people of that country want. The road, however, passes through Athens,” says Mitsotakis.

Is Greece prepared to veto North Macedonia and Albania’s accession to the bloc? “Albania is facing problems in the rule of law and democracy by keeping Fredi Beleri, the mayor-elect of Himare, in prison. The new leadership of North Macedonia, for its part, is violating an international agreement, as I said earlier. Both countries, therefore, need to comply with community standards.” So does that mean a veto? “I think you can understand that how we choose to move diplomatically is not something that can be the topic of a premature public discussion, so I will just point to the positions I have already expressed regarding their European future. As well as the belief that our neighbors will soon understand that their prosperity depends on their cooperation with Greece,” he says.

We tend to undermine Greek-Turkish affairs. We’ve become accustomed to the ups and downs, often disregarding them. But leading a country with a serious national security problem is no easy matter. “It can be tough sometimes, when there’s tension. We experienced three years of continual tension. When you reach the point of putting your country’s armed forces on high alert, it ties a knot in your stomach. But it seems that we have thankfully put those days behind us. I won’t say with absolute certainty that we’ve put them behind us for good, but the fact that we’ve had 15 months of calm in the Aegean is a very good indication that Turkey is prepared to normalize relations,” says Mitsotakis.

Did his customarily calm attitude help? “You can’t not be calm. You have to be calm. And in those few moments when you feel like you might lose your temper, you need to keep it contained. There are such moments. And if you’re not calm, then what can your associates say? Being calm is not a choice in politics; it’s the only way to be. If it’s not in your character, then you shouldn’t be doing this job.” Indeed, his meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have become almost humdrum – in the best possible sense, of course. But Mitsotakis doesn’t like drama. “I’ve always insisted on taking the drama out of politics, on doing things quietly, without setting ourselves up for conflict.” 

Beer and TikTok 

There’s an urban myth going around that a secret public opinion poll conducted a couple of years ago found that the average Greek would rather go out for a beer with former SYRIZA prime minister Alexis Tsipras than with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, but that if both were doctors, they’d prefer the latter over the former. Is this one of the reasons why the prime minister has taken to posting on TikTok so warmly? Because he wants the average Greek to want to go out for a beer with him?

“I feel like a regular person, I don’t always take myself seriously, I like having a joke and poking fun at myself. TikTok has allowed me to show this side of my character. I don’t just do it for political or electoral purposes, I genuinely have fun with it.” 

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