Continuing our World Leaders Forum coverage, staff writer Grace Fitzgerald-Diaz reflects on an event where the Greek Prime Minister spoke on a range of topics.
One of the (few) perks of Zoom is the ability to attend events where one starts at the exact same time as the other ends. So after attending the event where UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke on the state of the planet, I immediately logged onto another zoom to listen to Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, speak in an event titled The Greek Transformation: Overcoming a Financial Crisis, Populism, and COVID. The event was formatted such that President Bollinger posed several questions to Prime Minister Mitsotakis, followed by several questions from students and others associated with the University.
President Bollinger started off by asking Mr. Mitsotakis to give an overview of what is currently happening in Greece right now to orient those in the audience with less familiarity with the situation. He mainly touched on how the country has fared during the pandemic, saying that the country managed fairly well during the first wave and that the economy was able to reopen during the summer. Though Greece’s case counts are now much higher, with a second lockdown having been reinstated, he expressed cautious optimism that over the past few days, case counts have been inching down, and that the EU will likely approve a vaccine by the end of the year.
Predictably, the topic of COVID-19 came up in many questions. Prime Minister Mitsotakis noted that Greece’s second lockdown has not been as effective in curbing case numbers as its first was, citing the problem of pandemic fatigue. But even as of right now, as Greece is struggling with a high caseload, Prime Minister Mitsotakis was careful to emphasize some of Greece’s successes during the pandemic. The number of ICU beds in the country has doubled during the pandemic. All classrooms in Greece are online, and overall, he said that the pandemic has accelerated the digitization of many government offices. Coming out of the pandemic, Greece intends to use EU relief money to fund digital and green initiatives.
But as it has done to countries across the globe, the pandemic has hit Greece’s economy hard. Greece entered the pandemic with a high level of debt to start with, and repeated lockdowns have devastated an economy that is heavily dependent on tourism. Though Prime Minister Mitsotakis presented an optimistic view of Greece’s recovery, at points it seemed as though he was perhaps overly optimistic. Though there are many promising signs in Greece right now, particularly with the pandemic, Greece will be facing an extremely difficult next several months. The pandemic will without a doubt slow the country’s recovery from its recession that has lasted over a decade and is sure to undo some of the progress the country has made.
Even so, Greece’s plans for economic recovery include ambitious climate-oriented policies. Among other policies, the country intends to make the island Astypalea carbon neutral within the next five years in a partnership with Volkswagen and to close all but one of the brown coal plants in the country by 2023 (with the last one closing by 2028.) As the country transitions to renewable power sources, the government will turn to natural gas. The country already had many such plans, but the stimulus money from the EU will help turn them into reality. Prime Minister Mitsotakis emphasized, though, that climate is an issue that requires global cooperation, saying, “If COVID has taught us one thing, it is that these global problems can only be addressed through global cooperation.”
This was not the only subject where Prime Minister Mitsotakis stressed the importance of international cooperation. On the topic of migration, he called for a more unified approach to the issue at the EU level. Though this would ultimately be beneficial, and potentially help alleviate negative feelings toward migrants in the countries where they often first arrive, Greece should first focus on its own policies.
During the event, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said that Greece has accelerated the process for asylum seekers. But that’s not the full picture: the policies that Mr. Mitsotakis’s government has implemented have not only made it significantly more difficult to receive asylum, but also significantly reduced the resources available to those approved for asylum. He has said that from now on, Greece will only welcome “those we choose.” During the event, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said that there must be a distinction between economic migrants and refugees, and that refugees must be protected. But at other points, he has put forth the untrue statement that most of the migrants arriving in Greece are economic migrants, when in fact about 85% are arriving from countries that are experiencing war or political turmoil.
These policies breed inequality that Mr. Mitsotakis didn’t seem willing to acknowledge. In a COVID-19 related question, he said, “COVID is an equalizer—it treats everyone the same.” But research has clearly shown that the virus impacts marginalized groups—such as refugees and asylum seekers in Greece—far worse than it does affluent groups.
Overall, the event provided an interesting overview of an array of current issues in Greece and how the government plans on recovering from the pandemic. But for those who attended with little background knowledge of the current situation, it likely painted a somewhat rosier picture of the country than the reality it faces.
Map of Greece via Bwog Archives