Sunday

26th May 2019

Interview

Greek opposition leader promises end to 'surreal' era

  • 'We've had too much austerity in Greece and too little reforms,' Kyriakos Mitsotakis said (Photo: European People's Party)

Greece's main opposition leader will shift the focus from EU-inspired austerity to pro-business reforms if he gets elected, he told EUobserver.

"Austerity should not be confused with reforms. We've had too much austerity in Greece and too little reforms," Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in an interview.

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  • 'The Tsipras experiment has cost us a €100 billion,' but creditors 'have their fair share of responsibility,' Mitsotakis said (Photo: Consillium)

Mitsotakis, the 49-year old leader of the centre-right New Democracy party, is leading opinion polls in Greece and is favourite to become the next Greek prime minister.

"Until now, unfortunately, every time we talked to Greeks about reforms, the first thing that comes to mind is tax increases and pensions cuts," he said. "I think it may be about time, without escaping from our obligations, that we consider rebalancing our policies in favour of reforms."

He said that his priority would be to "create jobs though private investment, that means a business-friendly environment."

Elections are scheduled in 2019. But with the current bailout programme ending next summer and prime minister Alexis Tsipras leading a fragile coalition between his radical-left Syriza coalition and the right-wing Independent Greeks party, early elections could take place as soon as next year.

"No election is a given," Mitsotakis told this website. "I'm sure we will prevail and win by a significant margin but it's still going to be a long and rough road."

He said that New Democracy is "the only political party that has a clear reform programme that looks past the end of the current programme."

"We know the road ahead is going to be difficult and a lot will depend on our willingness to continue with the reforms and to also articulate the reforms that we consider to be the ones necessary for the country," he said.

He insisted that Tsipras "doesn't want to make real reforms and he doesn't know how to do real reforms."

The Greek PM has been insisting that Greece will make a "clean exit" from the bailout programme, in August next year, and will be able to come back on the markets to finance itself.

Mitsotakis noted that "a fourth [bailout] programme is out of the question for everyone" but that "there is going to be an arrangement" to cover Greece's immediate financial needs. 



In a report last week, the EU Court of Auditors noted, for instance, that in 2019, Greece will need €21 billion in capital payments and interest.

The opposition leader insisted that "it is Tsipras' job to negotiate that," but noted that "the more consensus we'll get, the better it will be for everyone."

"Ideally, we would want an exit as clean as we can get, with as little conditionality as we can have," he said.

"The only thing that Tsipras talks about is how to exit the programme without presenting any roadmap as to what would happen after that point," he said.

He added that "the logic for a clean exit is colliding with the reality of a tough austerity package that will constrain the next government."

'Creditors share responsibility'

Mitsotakis argued that by agreeing a €5-billion economy package for 2019-20 and a 3.5-percent primary surplus until 2022, Tsipras has accepted measures "that go beyond his current term".

"What is happening in Greece is so surreal," he said, accusing Tsipras of having "overtaxed the economy" and "killed whatever growth we could have had."

"The numbers don't lie," he insisted, slamming the "catastrophic first months of 2015 and Tsipras' constant procrastination ever since."

"The Tsipras experiment has cost us a €100 billion," he said.

He added that "creditors have their fair share of responsibility" in the situation, by accepting "a wrong fiscal policy mix which have not helped the growth prospects of the economy."

In recent months, Mitsotakis, a former banker and consultant, had been talking with business circles and politicians outside Greece in order to polish his credentials as a potential government leader. Some contacts have also been made with the IMF.

He answered EUobserver's questions in Strasbourg, where he was meeting leaders of the European People's Party (EPP), his political family that includes European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Juncker's commission has been part of the creditor institutions - along with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - that have imposed tough conditions on the Greek government, while Merkel's government has been the most opposed to relaxing conditions and offering debt relief to Athens.



Unblocking investment

When asked how he will convince the creditors and European governments like Germany to be more flexible, the Greek opposition leader pointed out that "the Greek people deserve more respect that they are sometimes given."

He said he would not comment on the departure of German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the EU's arch-hawk in the Greek crisis, but he added that he did "not expect any dramatic changes" in Germany's position under the next government.

He argued that "the less credible you are on structural reforms, the more pressure creditors put on the fiscal side", and that his reform agenda would help improving relations with Greece's partners.

"My priority is straightforward," he said, adding that the "main emphasis is going to be placed on leveraging our competitiveness and bring real investment on the ground."

"That means a business-friendly environment, commitment towards a stable tax regime, gradually lower corporate tax, while at the same time improving the ability of our tax authority to collect taxes," in particular through developing electronic payments to address small-scale VAT tax evasion.

Mitsotakis added that he would also try to improve Greek regulation on land-usage and the licensing processes. 

He also insisted on the need to pursue privatisations, by "unblocking some of the more emblematic investments which are going to generate tens of thousands of jobs", like projects at the former Helleniko airport in Athens and the Eldorado Gold mine in the north of the country.

No success story yet

He noted that Tsipras, when he was opposing the previous New Democracy government, led by Antonis Samaras - and in which himself was minister for administrative reforms -, was threatening every single investor who was contemplating investing in Greece by basically telling that whatever contract he signed it would be null and void."

"I'm not doing the same thing. I'm acting in a very responsible manner," Mitsotakis insisted.

As the Greek government and the creditors are about to start the third review of the programme, which will focus on issues like privatisation, the energy market, pensions and administrative reform, the opposition leader called on Tsipras to avoid any delay.

When asked whether he shares the assessment of the EU finance commissioner Pierre Moscovici that Greece is "building a success story," he pointed out that "an overwhelming percentage of Greeks think that the country is moving in the wrong direction."

"When that changes, we'll be able to talk about a real success story," he said.

"Back in 2015 we could have exited the programme through a precautionary line," he noted. "Now we're entering 2018 and it's still groundhog day."

Greece looking at bond market return

Greece could issue 3-year bonds as early as this week, for the first time in three years, amid mixed signs from its creditors and rating agencies.

Greece to get €7.7bn loan next week

The ESM, the eurozone emergency fund, agreed on Friday to unblock a new tranche of aid as part of the bailout programme agreed upon in 2015.

Opinion

Greek government's steady steps to exit bailout programme

Growth predictions are positive, exports increasing, unemployment dropping and credit-ratings up, says the head of Greece's Syriza delegation to the European Parliament. Now the government in Athens is looking to design its own reform programme.

Greece and creditors prepare bailout exit

Greece's creditors agreed to unblock €6.7 billion of new aid by April and to open debt-relief talks, ahead of the end of the programme in August.

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