The Greek Prime Minister speaks about austerity, debt, migration and much more in a wide-ranging interview with The Global Conversation.
In this edition of the Global Conversation euronews' Efi Koutsokosta went to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to speak with the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.
Efi Koutsokosta, euronews:
"I would like to begin by making a comparison with the past. When you first took over the Greek government in 2015, you were strongly criticising Europe and the way it makes politics with the member states and especially economic issues. How have you changed since then and how has Europe changed?"
Alexis Tsipras, Greek Prime Minister:
"I criticised Europe again for its mistakes and for the mistakes the previous Greek governments made. And for the fact that Greece needed eight years under tough programmes of fiscal adjustment, while other countries managed to get out of them in three years and of course I strongly criticised also the fact that these programs and policies were decided behind closed doors.
The "democratic deficit"
There was and there still is a democratic deficit which consists along with the fiscal fetishism, a neoliberal economical approach of crisis management, the main reasons for which Europe stopped being attractive to its citizens and the main reason for the rise of the far right. Well, if you ask me about Europe, Europe has been forced to adapt but it didn't do a lot and it did it too late.
The changes were done late and should have been deeper. As far as I am concerned, all people change, adapt themselves in order to deal with difficulties but my main direction hasn't changed. The main core of my ideas, of my ideology and my ultimate goal, was to get the country out of the crisis, I did this with the fewest possible losses for the majority."
"Ahead of the European elections and given that the whole political landscape in Europe has changed, who would you support? And as you just met Commissioner Moscovici, would you see him as a possible Commission President although he is a member of the Socialists and not of the Left?"
"What is most important before we consider the individuals is to look at the policies. And Syriza is a party that plays a special role in Europe. SYRIZA can play a crucial role in order to create a broader context of convergence between the progressive and democratic forces from the political left, from social democracy to the ecologists. We are working towards this without changing our political family.
But I find it very positive that for the three years that I have been going to the meetings of the socialist leaders, invited but as an observer because I have chosen that, I am very close to all these procedures. I think that something new has to be created for Europe and the political forces that support the social majority."
Crawling back to health
"Coming back to Greece and economic issues, Greece is no longer under a bailout program, the EU officials congratulated Greece for all its efforts but the people are still worried about measures to come, and I am referring to new pension cuts that are already agreed with the institutions. Are you in a position to ignore the IMF that asked for that measure and cancel it even if it would be a unilateral act?"
"The structural change compared to some months ago is that the country has finished the adjustment program. It is over with the memoranda and it's now a normal country, with some restrictions of course,which are predicted for all the Eurozone countries. We will have a special context of communication with the Commission and the institutions, just like every other country emerging from an adjustment programme.
What has changed, and this is very important, is that Greece has to reach the fiscal targets agreed but each government will decide for itself the means and the policies through which the targets will be achieved.
So here we are committed to reach a primary surplus of 3,5 percent of GDP in 2019. To the extent that this target is achieved, we will then submit the budget for 2019 on the 15 of October to the EU Commission.
We will discuss with them and I believe that what will prevail is what will be beneficial in order to keep the pace of growth of the economy and of course for the social majority.
What is beneficial for the economy is to stop the cuts and austerity which create an anticyclical policy and reduce demand and consumption, which will again push the economy into a recessionary spiral, from which we have only just escaped. So, I am optimistic that the figures will be positive and therefore we will manage to achieve something good, the best for the economy but also for the best for pensioners."
Pensions before profits
"So, what you say is that if you reach the target you won't cut the pensions. Can you say that clearly?"
"I say that clearly. If we reach the targets, I think we will manage to avoid a measure that is not needed, it doesn't help growth and it's not structural."
"The chief of the European Stability Mechanism said in an interview that if you don't implement the agreed reforms, the measures for the debt will then be frozen. But he also said that the pension cuts are included in the structural reforms and it's not a fiscal measure."
"I will explain. This is right, what has been agreed is the 3,5 percent of primary surplus that we have to reach in order to repay the debt. Greece doesn't have to go back to the era of deficits, extreme spending, corruption and mismanagement. Greece has to keep on the road of structural reforms. Among them, it's also the pension reform which gave the country the ability to restore the public finances. So, the structural reforms don't have to be reversed and they won't. The «personal difference» cut is not a structural reform, so that's another argument which is added to the view that if we reach the targets, the pensions won't be cut."
"If you finally don't reach the targets?"
"If we don't we will have to find a way to make it. This is our obligation. When a country has obligations, it's like when a household has obligations, it has to save the money and pay for these obligations.
Unfortunately the previous governments left Greece with a huge debt, a country not on the edge of default but already bankrupt. Greece is a country with a debt of 180% of GDP. What we managed to do is to make the repayment of the debt sustainable.
This has given security to the markets and investors along with the cash buffer of 30 billion euros that gives us the ability to choose when it's the right moment by 2020 to borrow money from the markets with low interest rates."
The "M" factor
"Let's go now to another major issue for Europe, one that has even changed it; migration. Greece remains on the frontline and I would like to ask you about the most recent warning coming from the Northern Aegean region, that the hotspot in Moria, Lesvos may close down in 30 days because of the migrants' deplorable living conditions. So, why has Greece never managed to deal with this situation all these years that it has faced the problem?"
"For the very simple reason that even if we had a luxury hotel with a certain capacity but were obliged to host five or six times more people than we could, it is certain that we couldn't cope. This is the reality on the islands. And this is a reality which is defined by the very difficult agreement that we signed with Turkey and we have to implement."
"Isn't it implemented now?"
"It is and we are trying to do it in a way that is in line with international expectations, international law and human rights. And that means that we can't drown people in the Aegean and we don't want that of course.
It also means that we can't return people without having examined at a first, second and third level their claims as it is laid down in International Law and Conventions which we respect and we have to be very careful so that not even one single person that has the right of protection and asylum is sent back. This is something that brings delays and the flows are not getting reduced.
They have been reduced compared to the tragic situation of 2015 but we still talk about tens of people coming every day and they create this overconcentration of people and believe me, no single country, no structure could effectively manage given that the priority is to meet the demands of international expectations and law."
Nationalism & its discontents
"What is your relationship with Mr Salvini and the Italian government? Are you on the same page regarding the refugee issue?"
"I wouldn't say so. However, you give me the chance to tell you that the Italian government reveals the big contradiction between those who are considered as hardliners and have the same far-right approach regarding refugees but they are divided depending on where they live, either in the south or the north.
Because on the one hand the far-right forces in Italy have the same political background as those of the North, yet when it comes to the crucial question whether the country will be left alone to deal with the problem, a northern country that is not surrounded by the sea and can build walls can say that 'I will face that alone and don't care about the others.'
Italy cannot say that and this is the big contradiction among those who think that a huge global crisis like the migration crisis can be solved without solidarity and cooperation."
"So you think that Italy is right to keep this tough line?"
"The Italian government has a contradictory attitude. On the one hand, it refuses to receive boats with migrants, on the other hand when they arrive inj its waters it asks others to save them. So, it cannot solve the refugee crisis problem itself, and nobody can do it but I don't think it's right just to criticise another government.
So I will tell you my view and the Greek government's view and this is that this is a European and international crisis, it's not a Greek crisis, or an Italian crisis, or a Spanish crisis, it is a European problem. Anyway, the majority of these people don't want to stay in the countries of first entry. Their ultimate goal is to go the countries of Central Europe. Therefore there is only one way to address that and it's a collective way. To a collective problem we have to find a collective solution."
It's all in the name
"Let's go to a geopolitical issue where Greece is in the centre and I speak about the agreement you made with Skopje after a long dispute over the name, "Macedonia". According to recent polls, most of the people say that they will approve the agreement. If finally everything goes well on the other side and the agreement comes to the Greek parliament, what will happen? And I am saying that because your coalition partner clearly said that it won't support this deal. What will be the legacy of your government then? Could we see elections because of the Macedonian issue?"
"First of all, I wish and hope that this agreement goes ahead, I wish, I hope and support Zoran Zaev's effort to win the referendum and of course the even harder effort to find the 2/3 majority in his parliament in order to approve the constitutional change that is needed.
It’s a big chance for Greece, it’s a big chance for the region. It solves a problem that has existed for decades, it solves it in a positive way for the country. Anyway, 140 countries all over the world recognised the neighbouring country under its constitutional name, (Macedonia). Now there is the geographical definition for everyday use and there is mainly the recognition from our neighbours who admitted that the history of ancient Macedonia is Greek and this is a huge achievement.
For the second part of your question, I will be direct. The agreement will come to the parliament as it is defined by the agreement itself when the constitutional change on the other side is completed and when the accession protocol to NATO goes ahead and is signed, and the membership procedure begins so that we can also approve that protocol.
The agreement will find a total majority in the Greek parliament and when it comes to the last part of your question, I respect and disagree with my coalition partner's position with whom I have an honest cooperation and I am sure he will meet his principles but he won't shake the smooth pace of the country towards economic recovery and political stability."
Serving a full term
"As we are speaking about elections, in the last few days you didn't close that chapter. Can you do it now? Can you say with certainty that the elections will take place when you complete your four years or should we expect something else?"
"I think I was clear. The goal and strategy of the government is to complete the four years and I explained that this is something in our political interest to the extent that during the European elections that come before, we will have the chance to see the mood and balance of Greek society, on issues that have nothing to do with the downgrade. I wouldn't say on purpose but probably for methodological reasons, the polls were recently released. So, our goal and strategy is to hold elections in October 2019."
"So, you rule out the scenario of the triple elections, (national, European, regional), in May?"
"It is not our goal or will to have triple elections."
Wildfires portent of things to come if policies don't change
"To conclude, I would like to ask a more personal question on an issue that also shocked Europe over the summer and I am referring to the wildfires in Attica, Mati, where almost 100 people died. Did or do you feel the need to apologise to the people that experienced this tragedy in the summer?"
"Mrs Koutsokosta, I apologised with my actions not for communication reasons, not to face this tragedy in terms of communication when I took on the political responsibility, not only in the name of my government, but also for others. Because one of the main reasons for this tragedy was not only the natural phenomenon, the strong wind, but also the mistakes that have been made.
This will be judged by others, not by me. Everybody realizes how difficult it is for someone to face a disaster within 1,5 hours - this was the time from the beginning of the fire until it reached the beach. But I would say that the way that these areas were built is largely responsible. People didn't have the right of way to reach the beach. They were stranded because of illegal constructions, which is not my government's responsibility."
"However it was your government that had to manage this."
"However, I accepted the full political responsibility and along with that we took on a huge and difficult effort to begin the fight for the area to recover, to heal the wounds, We cannot bring back the people who were lost but we are fighting for those who were left behind so that Mati can be reborn as soon as possible."