DELPHI – If they can’t answer the tough questions, the decisions awaiting candidates for high office don’t get any easier, but if the cool and articulate responses of main opposition New Democracy Party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times are any indication, he is ready for his turn at the helm of crisis-ridden Greece.
During the second day of the the Fourth Delphi Economic Forum Mitsotakis joined veteran journalist Spiegel in what was billed as a Fireside Chat, a wide ranging discussion about Greek and European affairs on Friday, March 1.
With the auditorium of the European Cultural Center of Delphi packed people lucky enough to gain even standing room – many were turend away – the local and international audience were eager to hear about the priorities and ideas of the leader of the party leading in recent polls by up to 14 percent.
The veteran scribe’s first question cut to the heart of the challenges and opportunities an ND Prime Minister would face: how would Mitsotakis reduce tax rates when such large primary surpluses are required of Greece.
The President of New Democracy replied that the current government has overwhelmed the middle class with tax increases during its four years in power, and that Tsipras is now spending the surpluses gained though the people’s pain on pre-election giveaways. Mitsotakis argued that reductions in tax rates are necessary for businesses to recover and for the middle class to get relief.
Mitsotakis said the budget surpluses could have been generated by cutting fat rather than meat, by eliminating waste rather than imposing greater taxation that suppressed economic growth. “There must be growth, not only 2% but 3-4% a year,” he said.
He emphasized that taxation changes would include reforms, not just reductions, and that tax evasion will also be combatted.
The President of New Democracy said his party is committed to structural reforms, but added that he will pursue a relationship with the EU that will be mutually beneficial, while also insisting that the recently completed third bailout program signed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was unnecessary.
“It was a huge mistake” for Greece to have “missed three years, while other countries of our own size are developing economically” said Mitsotakis, who is asking people of Greece to trust a stable center-right government to make the country attractive for foreign capital and investment. “I will not waste more time on what has happened, I will look at the future,” he said.
Asked to clarify his views on renegotiating the deals with the country’s partners and creditors given the failures of his predecessors, Mitsotakis said his approach would emphasize regaining credibility during his first six to 12 months in office – Spiegel suggested the EU is simply tired of dealing with Greece -– through more serious reform efforts, and then renewing the discussion on a new basis.
He distinguished his endeavor to build a new Greece not only from Tsipras’ Radical Left SYRIZA party but from his own party’s past. Mitsotakis said the New Democracy he leads into elections has new blood and includes with new and capable people capable who will take the initiative for change. He emphasized he is guided by principles of meritocracy based on evaluation and rewarding excellence and achievement, which he says will also limits corruption.
Spiegel brought up the European People’s Party, the cluster of Christian Democratic parties of different countries that dominates the EU and includes New Democracy. Another member is the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose extremist policies and rhetoric on issues such as migrants and refugees has earned it opprobrium across the continent.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, labelling Orban a populist, said that Greece has also suffered from populism and that he is not happy about what Orban has been doing. He revealed that he has sent the EPP a letter calling for Orban’s party “to be suspended for as long as it does not change its practices.”
When he was asked if some nationalistic elements in New Democracy disturbed him, he replied that it is a large center-right party with both traditional conservative and liberal – in the European sense of free market orientation and small government views – voters. He said that he must function as a leader of all the party’s elements, but declared that there are always human rights lines that should not be trespassed, adding that anyone who diverges from its principles will not have a place in the party.
When Spiegel tried to paint New Democracy’s opposition to the Prespes Agreement as an extreme nationalist position, Mitsotakis was indignant, noting it is ludicrous to label views supported by 70% of the population as extremist.
During the afternoon’s lightest moment, when Spiegel suggested Mitsotakis’ biography had some things in common with another son of a former Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, whose own tenure as leader did not bear fruit for Greece, Mitsotakis smiled and said he doesn’t welcome that comparison, eliciting bursts of laughter in the crowded room.