For years Vangelis Meimarakis has served in centre-right governments accused by the left of leading the country to the brink of financial crisis now, as leader of the opposition New Democracy, he’s challenging Alexis Tsipras to become prime minister. Euronews spoke to Meimarakis ahead of the election.
euronews: Nine months ago your party suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Syriza, but now polls suggest you’ve closed the gap with Tsipras’. What has changed since then?
VM: “Greece has changed, we changed too. Mr. Tsipras lied a lot last January. Nine months ago Greece had a fiscal surplus and the prospect of growth was in sight. Now the country is back in the red with high deficit and high unemployment. Investments have gone, because Tsipras ousted them. In the past nine months, Greeks had the chance to compare what the country was like back in January with the false promises Tsipras made. And now they can clearly see what they were promised and what really happened. Everyday living is by far worse compared to what it was back in January where things were getting better and most Greek citizens have been affected.”
en: Yes, but you are saying that if you win the election you will seek alliances with other parties, including Syriza…
VΜ: “The truth of the matter is that in recent years we realised that without understanding and collaboration Greece cannot go forwards. It’s no coincidence that in all the other countries that were in a bailout program or are still in one, or are about to come out of one such program, their political powers and all their ruling parties got together in order to implement a program they agreed in common, without giving up at the same time, their political or ideological autonomy. That is why I strongly believe that at the present time, it is only through the cooperation of political forces as well as institutions that the country move forward.”
en: Your party has voted in support of the agreement between Tsipras and the country’s lenders. If you are the new PM next Monday will you honor this agreement or you will try to change it, at least to some degree?
VM: “What we actually voted for was the continuation of Greece’s European pathway, because we are well aware of how devastating it would be if the country left the EU. Right now, as we speak, Europe is helping us in the form of the subsidies our farmers receiving for their produce, we have the NSRF funds, the solidarity funds, the Juncker package and help with the banking sector. All these would be lost if there was no deal with Europe. But the actual austerity measures are the result of how Tsipras negotiated. I know that Europe doesn’t want to want to destroy us. Europe wants to help us.
With that in mind, if Europe sees that a new Greek government during its first year in office wants to put things in order, wants to rationalise, wants to send a message that there is a strong political will in the country to implement the bailout program, then I am confident that the commitments that were undertaken but cannot be implemented because they create more recession may be put back on the negotiation table but only after some time has passed.”
“It would be wrong to believe that in the first year of the new agreement we will be able to go back to negotiate with our lenders as they expect the full implementation of the deal. If we are to win back their confidence we must go ahead with the privatisations, the reforms and the structural changes that were agreed while we take advantage of the benefits of EU funding and the big investment opportunities that we need to open if we are to have a better cooperation and understanding with Europe.”
“Unfortunately during the negotiation, the Tsipras government presented no serious arguments in many key policy issues as we found out when we discussed those issues with our European colleagues. I will give you an example relating to the farmers’ income. We explained to our European counterparts that this is not a fixed monthly income and for that matter it cannot be fully taxed in advance. They told us that this was never mentioned by Tsipras’ ministers. Therefore, the Greek ministers ill prepared and misinformed as they were, negotiated wrongly and that led to the wrong deal.”
en: Should you win the election, you will soon find yourself seated at the same table with Juncker, Merkel, Hollande and other European leaders. What could you tell them that is different to what your New Democracy predecessor told them?
VM: “First of all I will explain to them that until the end of 2014 we tried to implement the 2012 bailout agreement in the best possible way, trimming off the rough edges that were in this deal. We pushed ahead with reforms. Sure we lacked the necessary resolution and speed but we were operating in extraordinary circumstances. The market was at its lowest and no prospective buyers showed up to pay the prices the Greek government considered satisfactory. Personally in my capacity at that time as Speaker of Parliament, I managed to augment the views of the three parliamentary groups that made up the government’s majority of the day. And in spite of their significant ideological differences in crucial bills we managed to have a working parliament and we did that in the presence of populists and extremists inside the chambers as well those who were demonstrating in numbers outside of it. And we managed to bring the country back to a normality that would have continued to improve had it not been stopped by the early general election that was the result of the presidential election last December.”
en: Over the last few weeks there’s been massive refugee movement across Greece. What are your thoughts on that situation and on the reaction of the European countries that are the final destination of many of these people?
VM: “The refugee crisis is a time-bomb that we will have to deal with when we win the election. The reason it became explosive is because the Syriza government did not handle the situation as it should have done. One has to be proactive on such matters, because if the problem catches up with you then you can opt only for emergency measures. And now we are in such a situation. Even the caretaker government that has replaced the Syriza administration has done more in seven days than Tsipras did in seven months. I am confident that the way the caretaker government handles it with the valuable help of the president of the republic who has pleaded for an EU summit, will provide a solution. We need to see how many refugees can leave the country, and mind you, the refugees are not illegal immigrants. They are victims of the war in Syria, victims of something extraordinary that happened in their lives. The issue has a deeply humanitarian aspect and we will go along with the view that European policies must adapt to the new situation. A summit must decide these new policies and the United Nations should also get involved and contribute. More over what we need is better coordination, better border controls, better refugee centers. We must also put to effective use the economic assistance that we are receiving from the EU in order to be able to cope with this pressing issue.”