ATHENS – In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post – which said Greece was in trouble and wanted to know how the ship was righted – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described challenges ranging from dealing with Turkish aggression to refugees, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, tourism and a new law that could jail journalists for fake news.
Predictably, he defended his New Democracy government for taking tough stances in dealing with refugees and migrants as the newspaper’s Senior Associate Editor Lally Weymouth pressed him about reports from critics that they had been pushed back into the sea and across land borders.
He was also questioned about the growing US-Greece military ties, China’s influence with the Chinese company COSCO running the port of Piraeus, Greece’s role in NATO and dealing with rabid anti-vaxxers who refuse to be inoculated against the Coronavirus and aren’t being compelled.
He was pushed mostly about the dealing with refugees and migrants, asked about the pushback allegations and that, “Turkey appears to be turning the refugee flow on and off. Refugees are arriving again in Greece. But human rights advocates say your country is forcibly sending them back to Turkey.”
In edited excerpts, he went right at Turkey, which is allowing human traffickers to keep sending refugees and migrants in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
“No country has a right to weaponize migrants. . . . We won’t let people come in as they please. This is my duty towards my citizens, and I’m also doing the job on behalf of Europe, because the borders of Greece are also the borders of Europe.”
He said the alternative would be, as did the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, to open the doors, which saw more than a million come through Greece on their way to other EU countries before the borders were shut.
There’s still some 100,000 in Greece, most seeking asylum and he said that, “The moment we allow unregulated flows of migrants into Europe, we will have a repeat of 2015, and that’s the day that the Schengen Agreement is going to collapse, because everyone is going to start imposing internal restrictions on the movement of people within Europe. Turkey has an obligation to pick up boats that start from the Turkish coast while they are still within Turkey’s territorial waters.”
HOW’S THAT WORKING OUT?
When Weymouth retorted that Greece was getting bad publicity for turning away refugees, he snapped right back that, “II don’t think we are getting terrible publicity. . . . I find it difficult that people point the finger at Greece while they’re not pointing the finger at Turkey, a country that is engaging in gross violations of human rights.”
It’s a sensitive subject for him as the European Parliament wants a probe and a Dutch journalist at a news conference in Athens accused him outright of lying in government denials there weren’t any pushbacks despite repeated reports from human rights groups, activists and major media, including video evidence.
Turkey is the common denominator and the cause of much of Greece’s troubles, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to unleash potentially millions more refugees and migrants on the EU through Greece and its islands.
Turkey has become more belligerent as the EU has refused to get tough on him for provocations and Erdogan said he will send an energy research vessel and warships to hunt for energy around Greek islands even as he’s upset about a growing American military presence in Greece.
The newspaper pointed to a renewal and expansion of the US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement that he lauded, saying that, “It opens up new (bases) for the US in Greece. The most important is the port of Alexandroupolis, which is in Northeastern Greece, very close to Turkey. That would be the natural entry point for US or NATO troops into the Eastern European region.”
All three countries belong to the defense alliance which has said nothing about Turkish violations of Greek airspace and waters with fighter jets and warships, bringing fears of a conflict, accidental or otherwise.
The Post noted that Greece’s spending on its military is higher than almost any other country in NATO and wondered why, and as Greece has made deals to buy French Rafale fighter jets and warships to deal with Turkey, and signed mutual defense agreement with France.
Mitsotakis said that Greece spends about 2 percent of its annual Gross Domestic Product of 178.52 billion euros ($200.3 billion) or nearly 3.57 billion euros ($4.01 billion) on defense “because obviously we have real security threats.”
That has had Greece also upgrading its fleet of F-16 US-made fighter jets and wanting to acquire the F-35’s that Turkey was prohibited from buying because Erdogan made a deal to get Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems that undermine NATO – from the alliance’s ideological enemy – and could be used against Greece.
NOT TAKING A SHOT
The toughest questions came on a law pushed through Parliament by his government that criminalizes misinformation about COVID-19 in a bid to prevent anti-vaxxers from spreading fake news as well as the virus.
But that also could allow jailing of reporters and publishers and penalties against media for publishing what is declared to meet that vague guideline and Weymouth pressed Mitsotakis hard over it.
“We have tried to limit what can be published so “fake news” stories, especially related to public health, are not given too much exposure,” said Mitsotakis, but Weymouth said, “That would be a big mistake. What do you need with attacking the media?”
“What we are doing is very measured and very valid,” he said.
“Why don’t you just not do it?” she came back and he conceded that, “You’re such an experienced journalist. I’ll take your point very seriously.”
She wasn’t done though and after saying it was a “very successful Prime Minister,” she closed in again and asked, “Why do this? You of all people should be used to the media. You’ve been in the public eye for years. It’s a slippery slope.”
“I’ve had my fair share of attacks. But it’s not about me. It’s about . . . public health. On the other hand, you could argue that the stories are already on the Internet and no one can censor the Internet.”
Weymouth said, “ I disagree with the anti-vaxxers, but I wouldn’t censor them.”
He answered: “I’ll take your point. In terms of anti-vaxxers, what we are doing is making life difficult for those who don’t want to get vaccinated. We are not making vaccines mandatory, and we are not locking them down.”
That came after he talked about trying to hold down the pandemic but didn’t mention he had backed away from pledges to make shots mandatory if the crisis worsened, and it has.
Instead of another lockdown or required inoculations, his government has tightened restrictions on where the unvaccinated can go, locking them out of many public gathering spots apart from supermarkets, pharmacies and churches.
Greece is in the midst of a record number of cases, hospitalizations, people on ventilators in public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and deaths and vaccinations are only now picking up after a campaign had stalled over the summer.
THE FIFTH WAVE
“We are seeing a flare up now, but we are going to probably see the peak by mid-December. If you look at our performance from the beginning of the pandemic, we have done better than most European countries, which was a surprise given the fact that we had a relatively underfunded health-care system,” he said in a sideways shot at the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA.
Greece has turned toward urging the fully vaccinated – who make up 40 percent of new cases of COVID as the shots given six months and longer ago are wearing off – to get boosters and pressing the unvaccinated to get their first of two shots of most required versions, the Johnson & Johnson version from the United States requiring only one.
Greece had a better-than-expected number of tourism arrivals after opening to visitors in July as the pandemic was ongoing, taking a bet that people locked out of travel in 2020 would be crazy to come, and they did.
That has boosted a slow recovery from COVID and lockdowns of non-essential businesses for half a year and as he has turned his attention toward luring more foreign investors, especially from the United States, a key tourism market this year.
He said the economy is doing “remarkably” well and that a growth rate of more than 7 percent is expected this year although that’s measured against the almost shutdown of business in 2020.
“My aim is to make Greece the success story of the Eurozone,” he said. “Unemployment is coming down. Young Greeks are returning to Greece for the first time. The future is bright.”
Greece, however, will need decades to repay 326 billion euros ($365.76 billion) in three international bailouts needed to prop up an economy brought down by generations of wild spending and runaway patronage.
As for that debt, he said: “We will grow our way out. Greece will be able to produce a primary surplus in 2023. We will also be able to repay part of our debt through our annual fiscal performance.”
He was almost giddy in praising his government. “We were elected with a clear mandate: to create jobs, lower taxes, modernize the state, drive the digital transformation and drive the green transformation. We never stopped pushing reforms, even during covid. The government is still quite popular, and we have a reasonable chance of winning the next election,” he then said.
The full interview can be viewed on the Washington Post website here.