Now is the time to trust Greece as its economy is turning a corner and exiting the crisis, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in a keynote address delivered at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, titled “Greece in a new era: Pillar of stability and economic hub in the crossroads of three continents”.
The Greek premier said the government is not only fighting corruption in the country but also all the reasons that led to the crisis, noting it is not the time to support its efforts to exit the crisis and the adjustment programs.
“Now is the time to Trust Greece. This is the message I tried to convey […] and the one I think [President] Trump tried to convey yesterday,” he told attendees.
Tsipras hailed Greek-American relations describing them “strategic” noting it is more important than ever. “American support for both our economic recovery and protection of sovereign rights is today as crucial as ever,” he said.
In his speech, he described the reforms and changes achieved in Greece during the economic crisis as well as the importance of its role in Southeastern Europe and the wider region as a pillar of stability.
In the Q&A session that followed the speech with Brookings scholars David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, and Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe, Tsipras was asked whether he preferred the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in or out of the Greek program.
“I am happy to hear the IMF declaring that it will change course of action without needing new measures,” he said.
“The best for Greece is to successfully complete the program with the IMF participation if this means better results on debt relief,” he said, but added that if the dilemma is to have again an “endless discussion and negotiation” on its demands from Greece or a quick conclusion of the review without the Fund, then he’d choose the second.
“Everybody has to recognize the sacrifices of the Greek people,” he noted.
Asked whether he is worried that the debt deal may be confounded now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to form a new government with, among others, the FDP, Tsipras responded negatively. “I’m not worried about the new government because first of all Greece is not in the agenda of German politics,” he said, noting that the agreement on debt relief measures agreed last June by the Eurogroup was very significant for the country, as it created a framework that reassures investors that there are no problems with debt repayments.
“The deal is an obligation of the Europeans, it will happen,” he said, adding that if the IMF requests more specifications on debt relief, “the better”.
Asked jokingly if he will miss German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, Tsipras said smiling: “I will miss him.”
He then said that the European Union should not only listen when the IMF’s demands more fiscal measures but also when it requests debt relief for Greece.
Asked about investments such as the development project in the old airport of Hellinikon, the mining activity of Eldorado Gold and whether they are stalled by bureaucracy or other factors, Tsipras said each investment is separate and should not be confused.
“I admit there is huge bureaucracy in Greece but we are not a Third World country. Everybody has to respect the rules, the Constitution and law,” he responded.
“One of the most important attractions in the country is the environment […] But I agree we have problems we must solve. We have made a law that creates a stable tax environment for 10 years, we have a fast-track procedure for strategic investments, we are digitalizing public administration,” he said.
Tsipras explained that one of the problems is the fear of civil servants to tackle the responsibility of investment projects, adding that he sometimes have to look into issues with investment files himself or his ministers to unblock the procedure.
He said the project in Hellinikon will probably start in spring.
Changing the topic to the announced Greek-U.S. deal to upgrade the country’s fleet of F-16 and its cost for Greece, the prime minister said he would rather not spend money on defence, but geography will not allow it.
“I would like to be in a position not to pay a single euro in military procurements. But this would only be possible if our neighbor was Luxembourg or Belgium. And I want to bring it down,” he said, adding that if these aircraft are not upgraded, in a few years “we could look at them but not use them”.
Another reason is that Greece has to maintain a military balance in the region. “I believe this is not a financial issue. Our experts at the ministry of defence said this is a very beneficial [deal] for the Greek side […] It is a geostrategic issue,” he said.
Responding to a question about how should the EU pressure Turkey to return to a democratic path, Tsipras said the neighboring country is sometimes unpredictable, but its EU path must be supported in order to push for the necessary reforms to democratize it.
He admitted “this is not easy” and that Greece often has to express its concerns on the repeated dogfights over the Aegean, the revisionist statements from Turkish politicians on international law and the Treaty of Lausanne. Tsipras noted that he traveled three times to Turkey to promote friendship between the two countries.
“We want Turkey in a European path, we want them as partners but the precondition is respect for international law. This is the message that the U.S. administration has to convey to them,” he added.
“It’s a huge mistake to stop the accession process and not just because of the issue of migration- it is our standard position,” he said.
The next question was on migration and on what EU leaders must do to explain to their people that the new wave of migrants that came to Europe is there to stay.
Tsipras made a brief overview on how Greece handled the problem saying “it was a very tough experience”, adding that he is “very proud” of how his fellow countrymen and women handled the refugee flows.
“The E-Turkey agreement is a difficult agreement but very necessary because it stopped the deaths in the Aegean. But we wanted to implement in in the framework of international law,” he said, adding that every asylum application is examined separately, resulting in some delays. “This created overcrowding on the islands,” he said, adding that the situation on the mainland “is perfect”, with apartments and housing available to refugees.
He said the only way to solve the problem is for the EU and the US together to take a decision to finance the countries of origin through a new Marshall Plan that would stabilize them; noting that wars and violence will not solve anything.
Asked about the rise of right-wing populism and whether it is a threat, the Greek premier said it is, and suggested that center-left and center-right forces must “make decisions” and find common ground despite their differences.
In an answer about former statistician Andreas Georgiou, Tsipras said the government respects the statistic data and that nobody doubts the numbers on which Greece’s adjustment programs were based.