SYRIZA Is Not Perfect, but Definitely, We Have Taken Our Lessons
After four years in office, the key for SYRIZA is to create a much more sustainable path of growth that provides opportunities to all.
Lefteris Kretsos is the SYRIZA-led government spokesman and vice minister for digital policy and media. A few days ahead of Greece’s national elections he visited AthensLive and talked about the broader significance of Sunday’s vote not only for Greece but for Europe in general. Here is the full transcript of our interview with him:
Why are these elections important? What’s at stake?
Everyone knows that we are ahead of crucial elections in Greece, crucial elections not just for the Greek people but also for the broader European setting. Because to be honest SYRIZA is a political exception. We are in the center-left broader orientation as a political party, but at the same time we are a much more radical left-wing party, and we believe we can also affect and save the agendas that are currently the significant issues at stake in Europe. I am talking about the refugee crisis and talking about human rights. I’m talking about the rise of far-right wing extremism. I am talking about a much more let’s say human-centric orientation of public policy as far as Workers Rights, collective agreements, employment rights, benefits, jobs, and so on are concerned.
Can you name some groundbreaking policies that your government has implemented throughout the past four years?
The SYRIZA government has done a lot of innovative policies for Greece. For example, the right of LGBT people to get married and live together and be recognized as ordinary citizens. Or for example the right of workers to sign collective agreements. That was not the case with the memorandum agreements — the right of young people to have an increase in the national minimum wage. I can tell you numerous things that took place in Greece for the first time in the public domain during our governance. Moreover, a lot of those reforms are already working, and they are already creating very positive results for the people’s lives but also for the economy. Greece is not at the forefront of negative news anymore. Greece is a pillar of stability, economic growth, and a reliable partner of the European Union regarding the resolution of crucial and urgent issues like the refugee crisis.
But your main opponent, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been strongly underlining the need for more investments, for more growth. Do you think that your government has achieved growth rates that are enough to make Greece sustainable?
We have the highest economic growth rates compared to all our European Union member states. And we have done this after a long recession period. We have managed to take Greece out of the memorandum agreements that were establishing very hard austerity policy measures. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is following Trump’s campaign. It’s the same. He’s talking about radical tax reduction, especially for corporate profits. After the results of the European election that showed New Democracy ahead in the polls, he has now started sending contradictory messages. He says: “I can and will reduce the taxes as long as I get 4 percent of economic growth in the GDP”, which practically is extremely difficult if you consider that according to the official forecasts, the E.U. is turning into a recessionary period with not so high economic growth achievements.
We see Kyriakos Mitsotakis leading the polls with a difference of 7 to 11 percent. Despite what you said before about SYRIZA creating growth, why do you think Greeks have turned to New Democracy and Kyriakos Mitsotakis who is a member of the well-established Mitsotakis family. Why do you believe Greeks turn to conservatism once more?
Greeks are fed up with austerity. And they are right to be fed up because the truth is that we’ve had the most violent program of economic stabilization in the country with very regressive reforms, especially for the vast majority of the people. Mitsotakis has the same motto as Trump’s administration: reduce taxes bring new investments, create good jobs. And to be honest, we don’t disagree with that. I mean, we have already started lowering taxes, and we have already begun attracting foreign direct investments. We have the highest level since 2006, and we have already started creating a lot of good jobs. We have reduced unemployment more or less by 10%.
But why aren’t Greeks taking this into account?
Because Greeks are fed up, they are really tired and the trauma of the memorandum agreements and the economic stagnation that turned into a humanitarian crisis. It’s really big. They demand a more drastic change in their lives. Of course, I have to say that perhaps we didn’t explain to the people what we have done to make their life better. We haven’t explained to the people how crucial is the fact that Greece has at the moment regulated its debt. There is a debt resolution that works. We have the lowest interest rates so we can borrow from the markets with the lowest interest rate ever. We have the highest foreign direct investment activity. We have improved a lot — the balance of payments. Also, export activity is growing. But most people haven’t seen this yet into their daily life. They’re expecting more. And they are right to this and to ask for more.
Today marked the anniversary of the Greek referendum four years ago. Greeks voted NO in the referendum, but Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA turned NO into a YES. Do you think that four years later you’re being punished because of this U-turn?
I don’t think there was a U-turn there. I mean Syriza was elected with a clear mandate. Go in there. Go to Brussels and start very hard and tough negotiations with our creditors because they are killing our economy. They are ruining our lives. This is what Alexis Tsipras did. It was the first time that we have a proper negotiation with our international creditors. We managed to save the Greek economy and Greek people from an extra austerity package of almost 20 billion euros.
However, we have at the same time to agree to an austerity package as well so to reach a compromise, and this is what we did. When we signed this agreement, we went to elections to give a chance to the people to punish SYRIZA or to reward SYRIZA for all the effort during the first eight months of its government. So people gave us the mandate to continue. And we continued and managed to take Greece out of the memorandum agreements to expand our national sovereignty that was lost during the memorandum agreements and to achieve a lot of good performances in a lot of macroeconomic indicators. However, as I said, we need to do more. We need to do more to make this society more open, more inclusive for everybody.
So what are you planning to do?
We are planning to reduce taxes according to a specific package that work has already been submitted to the European Commission. It’s a package of 5.5 billion euros that will be spent to reduce taxation levels, and at the same time, we are also planning to work harder in the field with new development tools that we have established. We have for the first time a Greek Development Bank. We’ll have many funding streams that support small and medium businesses. And of course, we are creating step by step a new ecosystem of startups in the area of digital technology.
We want to continue this momentum of reforms that work for people work for our economy, and work for our society. The plan and the vision for us are to be more open, more inclusive, and more democratic.
You talked about openness and inclusiveness. My sources on the Greek islands and NGOs tell me that people from Turkey keep arriving on Lesvos. We have about 50 to 100 refugees coming every day. And the conditions on the other camps remain as they used to be 2016 when the crisis started. What’s happening on this front?
The key thing with the migration crisis and the refugee crisis was the fact that the European Union did not operate as a unit. As a coordinated unit to deal with this massive humanitarian crisis after all and Greece had to let’s say bear the burden. An excessive burden on its own because as we all know, Greece had also to face the effects of the economic crisis. Nevertheless, I think we the most common approach to deal with this issue was a humanitarian approach in comparison to other countries across Europe that their approach to the refugee crisis issue was to deal with the security and safety aspect. For us, it’s a humanitarian crisis that’s going on, and we need much more coordinated action from the European Union and our partners and being there to minimize any risk that has to do with human dignity and human lives.
But three years later, refugees still live in squalid conditions.
There are serious issues. I have to admit that but trust me; sometimes, those issues cannot be overcome. Those issues are there because there is a lack of coordination well with many services with the European institutions with other countries and in general phobia of openness to migrants from other countries. They want to close their borders; they don’t want to be more positive to asylum seekers. To a great extent, this is huge hypocrisy because it’s a shame to say that Jordan alone has more refugees than the European Union, which is one of the biggest trade and economic blocs of the world.
Let’s stick to the country that you just mentioned. Turkey escalates its aggressive actions when it comes to issues like Cyprus and oil drilling. We are now witnessing an intra-NATO conflict. How is Greece’s foreign policy going to prevent that?
We have a foreign affairs policy that aims to establish greater peaceful relationships across our neighboring nations. And this is what we managed to do with the Prespes agreement which I think it’s a very historical and emblematic agreement for modern history not just of Greece, but also of Europe. We want the same from Turkey, and we want to live with Turkey in peace to expand our bilateral commercial relations, our cultural relations et. al. At the same time, we are ready to take any action that needs to be taken to protect our borders our people and of course, to respect the international law. So Greek foreign affairs policy is going to take all the diplomatic and legal means to protect our sovereignty. But at the same time, we are ready to answer to any other potential threat to our security.
Answering any potential threats means that Greece will have to coordinate its defensive actions with the NATO alliance, meaning more cooperation with the U.S. You’ve been strongly criticized that despite being a radical left government with a strong anti-US sentiment, you have collaborated widely on defense issues with the U.S. Recently Greece received about 80 reconnaissance helicopters from the U.S.
We don’t have an anti-USA sentiment. There are a lot of nice things in the USA. I personally love New York and Los Angeles. However, we have an anti-imperialistic sentiment, of course. Being in power means that to protect our national interest, of course, we have to be in the same table with every leader. So having your views about how the economy works, is a different think of isolating yourself from global affairs. What we have managed to do is to create an image of Greece that is a reliable partner in the resolution of serious issues like the global financial crisis, as the global refugee crisis. We are a government that can deliver as we managed to do with the Prespes agreement, which was an issue that was unresolved for ages and was creating conflict with our Balkan neighbors.
But it looks like Greeks didn’t appreciate the Prespes agreement. You were talking about the Prespes deal and its significance for Greece’s position. For me, it feels like this is a second key issue that keeps SYRIZA behind in the polls today.
There was so much speculation by the media and other conservative political groups that were playing this game about North Macedonia wanting to invade our country. But let’s stick to to the facts. The key thing is now is that we have managed to create the most peaceful and fruitful relationship with North Macedonia, economically speaking. This opened a new room for initiatives for creativity between our countries and to be honest, this is what Greece’s role is about, historically speaking. What our culture is about. And we want to expand our collaboration and our friendship networks with everybody that can appreciate Greece as an ideal place to study, invest, travel and to get inspiration. And this is what we do. And I think the Prespes agreement provides a lot of optimism for the Balkan people that the Balkans is not a place of anxiety but a place of peace and a place that a lot of nice things can happen. And we do have very strong traditions like Balkan music, for example, which is one of my favorites. Or for example, the fact that in Thessaloniki there is an Israeli American company that is going to invest in creating a new film studio with a lot of professionals from Greece, Bulgaria and other Balkan countries who are going to work together to produce films. We provided economic incentives and tax incentives to provide support to those who want to invest in infrastructure for the film and entertainment industry. We tried to attract international media companies like NBC, Universal, Paramount, Netflix. And of course, there is a business argument there because this industry is thriving. But at the same time for us, it’s not just about the economy. It’s also about culture because we want to attract people that they want to get inspiration for any art or technology. And this is the key thing. The nexus between digital technology and culture is going to redefine how Greece is going to pave its way out of the crisis.
Is this the way you assume Greece will exit the crisis?
Again, despite the booming economy, SYRIZA is a voice that promotes more democratic claims and promotes the social democratic, in the broader sense, agenda to help sustain the tradition of social welfare and social policy of Europe. SYRIZA is a voice that is going to fight back in this broader neo-liberalization process that is being established and is inspired by the Donald Trump administration and David Cameron and in the U.K. And for Greece. Of course, we don’t want to put at risk all those sacrifices we’ll have made as a nation because now it’s a time for people to get more out of the memorandum agreements and the austerity policies that they suffered through in the past. In SYRIZA we are not perfect, but definitely, we have taken our lessons, and we are ready to do more for our people, for democracy. The critical thing for us is not just a victory in the elections. The crucial thing for us is to be there to defend social and worker’s rights. To create a more open and inclusive paradigm of economic growth and development because it’s not just about economic growth. Greece used to have economic growth in the past. And at the end of the day, we ended up with massive debt and deficits and a lot of pathologies across the economy.
The key thing for us is to create a much more sustainable path of growth that provides opportunities to all.
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