As Europe starts its countdown to the European elections of 2019, Greece is also counting towards to its own national elections to be held before mid October of 2019. Centre-right party New Democracy currently has a strong lead in the polls, and is expected to knock SYRIZA and Alexis Tsipras out of the driver’s seat for the first time after January of 2015. A New Democracy win would mean an additional EPP seat at the European Council after the 2019 elections, a period of time where the slimmest of margins are expected to make all the difference.
Adonis Georgiadis, the Vice-President of New Democracy Party, and former Minister of Health, spent three days last week in Brussels – meeting leaders of the EU Institutions, the European People’s Party, and speaking with the large Greek community in Brussels.
Georgiadis sat down with New Europe Editor, Alexandros Koronakis, to discuss a series of topics ranging from the past and future of Greece, the rebalancing after the European elections, France’s Emmanuel Macron, the non-negotiation over the FYROM name issue, Turkey’s European path, and much more. The interviewee, navigated both national and European issues comfortably, leaving no question unanswered at the Brussels Press Club.
In the last few months, many Greek government Ministers have announced that Greece will permanently exit the memorandum programmes. Most importantly, they have declared that the country is ready for a “clean” exit and an entrance to the markets. How realistic is that approach and why?
Since the European lenders don’t want to give us more money, it will happen. Not as an achievement but as a fact. This clean exit story is just [wasting] time. The real discussion for Greece is how we will increase our GDP. If we start increasing our GDP, then the markets will start feeling more confident in Greece and we will be able to sustain ourselves. If our economy will [continue to] be stocked like it is now, the exit will never be clean.
Greece will have to prove that the country can achieve robust growth, while the EU budget is expected to shrink, heavily affecting the cohesion funds. What has to be done to balance this difference?
It’s bad for Greece of course, and for all of the countries of the south … Our main goal should be to collect private investments. If we manage to transform our country to be a business-friendly country and we persuade the business world that they can find opportunities for profit in Greece, then we will have the money we want.
I want to talk a bit about the European elections. You’ve come here and had visits with the EPP. Macron is this big question mark hanging over Europe. How do you expect Europe to change after the elections? The balances, the dynamics?
The elections that are coming raise questions for everyone. It is very possible that, for the first time, the two major parties will not have the majority in the Parliament. This is a matter of concern because, if it happens, it will be a new reality for everybody. On the other hand, I think that Euroscepticism is starting to be defeated. I think that the most difficult days for the European idea are in the past. In France, Le Pen lost the elections; in Greece Syriza, which originally was a very anti-European party, transformed. PODEMOS in Spain have gone down. Italy is a question, but even there, now they are facing problems of reality and that will make them be more reasonable. So, in the end, I believe Europe will be stronger. Macron has a vision for Europe and we share this vision.
You share Macron’s vision as a party? As New Democracy?
New Democracy is a very pro-European party. Our founder, Konstantinos Karamanlis, was the Prime Minister that made it possible for Greece to enter into the EU at that time. We believe that we have to fight for a more strong Europe, and even a more, let’s say, federal Europe.
The European Commission’s strategy opens the accession door to the Western Balkans. Especially on Albania and FYROM, the EU executive has proposed to the Council the beginning of accession negotiations. Along with the two neighbors, Serbia and Montenegro, that could be set to join the European Union as early as 2025. How do you see the Balkan enlargement of the EU and what will Greece’s role be?
Greece traditionally is a country that was and is very in favor of the Balkan countries entering the EU. Of course, there are problems with some of them that have to be solved first, but, in general, it would be very good for both the Balkans and Greece.
You have seen the progress with Romania and Bulgaria after they entered and how our relationships have been better. There is peace and calm in the region. So, if Albania, FYROM, or Serbia would manage to enter the EU, this would be good for the region.
When you talk about problems, I imagine one of the problems for Greece is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the name. How are developments there and the negotiations?
They are not really ‘negotiations’ any more, I think. Since the Prime Minister of FYROM said they won’t talk about an erga omnes name there are no discussions from the Greek side. No Greek government could ever discuss a name, with Macedonia inside, that wouldn’t be for everybody … If Tsipras would sign something like that the government would fall.
What are your thoughts about a European Monetary Fund (EMF)? Are you in favor? Do you think this is dangerous or positive?
It should happen. We need a European Monetary Fund for the future and we now have the experience from the crisis. Everyone is much wiser than they were at the beginning. I remind you that, in 2010, when Greece said ‘We might be bankrupt’, nobody had imagined that a Euro country could be bankrupt.
So, it is good to have a European Monetary Fund to solve the case in Europe up front.
But, if we were to establish something like that, it should be separate from politics and be able to gain the trust of the markets. If the markets don’t believe in this fund, then the fund will not work. The main problem in Europe is that politics always interferes with the economy very much; more than it should.
What are your thoughts about how Europe and European politicians handled the crisis in Greece and how they handle it to this day?
We, as Greeks, made many mistakes and from the European side, many mistakes were made since the beginning.
There were also many misunderstandings. But, the crisis was big and nobody was ready for it.
You’ve been a little bit more vocal about the faults of Europe. Have you had meetings here that have led you to believe that Europe has, in some cases, not been judged properly? Or do you think the climate in Greece, especially in the media, has been less critical or more critical than it should have been?
In the beginning, in 2010, the biggest mistake was that many people from the European side accused the Greek people of many things in a way that was inappropriate and that insulted the national pride of the Greek people.
This was not good, because the people should be persuaded about what they should do. They were in the middle of a big crisis. Many of them had lost their jobs, their salaries, and their pensions. They didn’t like to hear someone judging them.
So, that was a fundamental mistake. This led us to a state that even though the European countries had helped Greece more than anybody else, those European countries that had helped us were the most unpopular countries in Greece. That was a [crazy] thing, but that’s what happened. After Syriza was elected, I think the European side made a fundamental mistake again, because they compromised with Tsipras, they changed the program, they let him over tax everything in order to avoid the real reforms. Now that the program is ending, everyone has to face the reality that the reforms haven’t been implemented. And the markets know that. Even if [European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre] Moscovici doesn’t know that, the markets know, so, this is a problem.
Going to Greece now, and the possible elections in the next 12 to 18 months. You were part of the previous government, now New Democracy has a new leader. How has his philosophy changed the party?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the right person at the right time because he is a very reformist politician. He believes in free market reforms. He doesn’t want to make free market reforms for troika, for the Commission or the IMF but he wants to do it because he believes in it. So, he will implement the reforms – and even more reforms that our lender have asked us to make, and this is the reason that I strongly believe that when he becomes Prime Minister he will transform Greece into a business-friendly country very fast. Much faster than anybody thinks.
Internally, has the party, in your mind, gone through a lot of changes since he took over?
He is trying to change the party. It is not always easy. New Democracy is traditionally a conservative party. The people in conservative parties don’t like big changes. Mitsotakis is a very modern politician. He tries to open the party to society, to give roles to younger people, to give chances. It is not always easy, but he is doing it.
Talking a little about New Democracy’s program, one of the biggest problems in Greece has been over taxation. How is New Democracy going to change that if and when you are elected?
We will decrease public expenditure as much as we can and we will use the money saved to decrease taxation.
What about the taxes that people feel most about? ENFIA? The tax on property for example?
We think they will follow our program and in the first two years we will be able to decrease ENFIA by approximately 30 percent. This is good for our economy because this will help to increase property values and will allow the construction sector of our economy to grow again, which is important in our economy.
The last thing I want to talk about is the most sensitive one in terms of Greece and Europe at the moment, it is Turkey. With elections and handling of the migration crisis, but first of all, elections and Erdogan, what does this mean for Greece and what does this mean for you and Europe?
I think it means that in the next 60 days we will have some turmoil in our relations with Turkey because in order for them to win the elections they will say many [things]. But I don’t fear that we will have anything more than words. We are a little bit disappointed in Greece because our country has supported Turkey’s road to the EU strongly in the past years.
It seems, Mr. Erdogan has picked another way for Turkey, a more Eastern way. We always prefer a more Western Turkey, so this is bad. We understand that he has the pressure of the migration issue in Europe and he always black mails Greece and the EU in order to take more money or to political benefits.
As we speak, he is holding two Greek soldiers, which is a very sensitive matter for the Greek people because for 60 days now these two young people are in Turkish prison with no charges brought against them. Which, for our standards is impossible, and for our justice system.
This makes us feel a bit more afraid for the future. But this is our geography and we can’t change our geography.
We had European reactions last week about these two soldiers. There is some international pressure as well. What more can be done?
I am not very optimistic that we can do very many more things. I will give the example of the American pastor Andrew Brunson.
He has been in Turkey almost a year in captivity with no [charges brought against him]. The American President, the American Congress, and many American organizations have pressured Turkey to release him and Mr. Erdogan still keeps him in jail. So, if the United States is not able to press Turkey, how could Greece or the European Union press them? They keep the American priest because they want to exchange him with [Fettulah] Gülen and they always say ‘give us a priest and we will give you your priest’.
Now they say give us our eight Turkish soldiers [who fled after the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016 and requested political asylum in Greece] and we will give you your two soldiers. The difference with the eight Turkish soldiers who are being accused in Turkey of being in the coup, is that they came to Greece and asked for asylum.
We haven’t arrested them. They came, they asked for asylum, they are in court and the court decided we can’t let them go back to Turkey because their lives will be under threat. According to European human rights law and the international human rights law, we can never send someone back if his life is under threat. So, even if a Greek Prime Minister would like to exchange them, he couldn’t do it. So – what Mr. Erdogan is saying is totally insane for us. We cannot do that.