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Interview: Foreign Minister Droutsas on BBC’s Europe Today

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Main points:

[on developments in North Africa and the possibility of increased migration flows]


· “It is a fact that Greece - because of its geographic position - is carrying the largest burden within the European Union regarding illegal migration. Let me give you a number: About 90% of the total amount of illegal migrants that want to go to the European Union go through Greece and they are coming through the borders with Turkey.”

· “Because of these experiences and because of this huge burden that Greece has to carry, surely we express our concern about the possible developments in this regard also with our neighbours in Egypt and in Tunisia and we think that this is an issue that the European Union - as a whole - must address. It is not an issue that a single country can take over. It is an issue for the European Union as a whole.”

· “Next Monday we will have the next meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, where - as you can imagine - the developments in Egypt and in the region will be very high on our agenda. This is surely an issue I will put forward to my colleagues in the European Union.”

[on the Greek economy]


· “Yes, we still have negative numbers regarding growth but if you see the very last figures - especially of the last three months - these are very encouraging. Here we have another trend, a very positive trend. And this shows that the measures and especially the structural reforms that Greece has undertaken, that our government has undertaken, the Greek people have done, and these are reforms like the pension system, a new taxation system in order to combat tax evasion, or opening up closed professions.”

· “And may I also give you another example of this positive trend that we can see: Exports from Greece have increased in comparison to 2009 by more than 8%.”

· “On the other hand, let me also stress the other issue that we are talking maybe about a Greek crisis. Certainly our country has to do what is necessary and the Greek people are ready to make those sacrifices, but this is not only a Greek crisis. This is also a crisis that affects the whole of Europe and it’s one thing what Greece is doing by herself. We are doing the things that are necessary to be done, but it is also in the hand of the European Union to present and to give the necessary convincing answers to the international markets that the euro and the Eurogroup as such, and the whole of the European Union if you want, is sticking by and supporting the euro.”

· “We will have by the end of March, on the 24th & 25th, the next European Council, where the European Union is expected to decide on the final comprehensive package - as we call it - the necessary measures, the stabilisation mechanism that will give the convincing answer, the convincing message to the international financial markets by the European Union that the euro is strong and that the European Union - and all member states - stick by the euro and are supporting the euro.”

Complete transcript of the interview:

Journalist: Minister thank you so much for coming in to BBC to speak to us today. We do appreciate your time.

Mr. Droutsas: My pleasure.

Journalist: First of all, perhaps we could start off talking about the situation which has happened very quickly in Egypt and Tunisia across North Africa and the Arab world. And we’ve been hearing in recent days about the situation that Italy has found herself in, with many people specifically from Tunisia heading there. Has Greece had similar problems or does it anticipate having those kinds of problems?

Mr. Droutsas: First of all let me say the obvious. This is the immediate neighbourhood of Greece. We regard our country as being part of this region and at the end let’s say that we have the privilege of understanding the region quite well. We have longstanding traditional relations of mutual respect and understanding with the Arab world, so surely Greece is following the developments very closely, with concern but also with a feeling of hope that we will finally be able to see real democracies emerging in those countries.

The issue you are referring to, migration, flows of migrants, this is also something that we express our concern to. We have not had yet in our country any kind of issues with these. It is a fact that Greece - because of its geographic position - is carrying the largest burden within the European Union regarding illegal migration. Let me give you a number: About 90% of the total amount of illegal migrants that want to go to the European Union go through Greece and they are coming through the borders with Turkey.

Because of these experiences and because of this huge burden that Greece has to carry, surely we express our concern about the possible developments in this regard also with our neighbours in Egypt and in Tunisia and we think that this is an issue that the European Union - as a whole - must address. It is not an issue that a single country can take over. It is an issue for the European Union as a whole.

Journalist: So you are calling for united action there or at least united policy on this issue. But how prepared are you for immigrants coming through from North Africa?

Mr. Droutsas: We are taking the necessary measures as Greece as I said ….

Journalist: What measures?

Mr. Droutsas: Unfortunately we are carrying this huge burden and the capacities for our country are not very high. We cannot bear any kind of increased flows of migrants. This is why, I repeat it once again, if we might be challenged with such kinds of developments, then the European Union as a whole is asked to take the necessary measures. Next Monday we will have the next meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, where - as you can imagine - the developments in Egypt and in the region will be very high on our agenda. This is surely an issue I will put forward to my colleagues in the European Union.

Journalist: You mentioned the border with Turkey being particularly porous with illegal immigrants coming through. Are you putting more pressure on the Turks to patrol their borders, to do more from their end?

Mr. Droutsas: Well, certainly. We are in close contact with our Turkish colleagues and this is an issue that we have discussed at length. I can also tell you that this was an issue that Greek Prime Minister Papandreou discussed with his Turkish counterpart Prime Minister Erdogan, during the recent visit, during the recent meeting in Turkey at the beginning of this year.

We see that also Turkey understands that this is an issue that is also of concern for Turkey, that also Turkey has to abide by her obligations and has to do the necessary thing, always in cooperation with Greece also. There is common understanding that we have to deal with this problem together.

Journalist: Let’s move on to the subject of the Greek economy. I know it’s not your area in government but we’d appreciate if we could ask you a couple of questions on it. We had new figures out yesterday, showing that the economy has shrunk again by 1,4% in the last quarter of 2010 and it’s going to be the third year of recession in the country. It’s also expected to contract still further, despite the bailout last year from the European Union. How are you going to stop this decline?

Mr. Droutsas: It is obvious and we are the first to have said yes, Greece has found herself in a challenging situation regarding the economic crisis, and this is the reason why our government - and Prime Minister Papandreou personally - committed himself. We are determined to follow this restructuring programme that we have started. You are mentioning numbers that are true, that show that still there is not the desired economic growth in Greece, but let me give you also the other side of this coin.

Yes, we still have negative numbers regarding growth but if you see the very last figures - especially of the last three months - these are very encouraging. Here we have another trend, a very positive trend. And this shows that the measures and especially the structural reforms that Greece has undertaken, that our government has undertaken, the Greek people have done, and these are reforms like the pension system, a new taxation system in order to combat tax evasion, or opening up closed professions.

These structural reforms already show the first positive results. The figures of the three last months show us that there is a positive trend. And may I also give you another example of this positive trend that we can see: Exports from Greece have increased in comparison to 2009 by more than 8%. This is very encouraging and again the figures of the last three months are even more encouraging and show that we are getting again into a positive dynamic direction.

Journalist: But the auditors from the EU and IMF they both say, OK the restructuring is under way, they are happy with some of them but they say the reforms and the measures are not happening fast enough. They have also suggested that you could put state assets up for sale and perhaps get money quite quickly that way. They are suggesting that you put the national airport up for sale, perhaps other ports and regional airports...They are estimating that you could get 40 billion euros. That’s worth thinking about isn’t it?

Mr. Droutsas: First of all let me say that all the measures taken and the reform program is highly appreciated by all those bodies that are assisting Greece in combating and addressing this economic challenge. The IMF, the European Union, the European Central Bank and all the representatives of those institutions, but also the top personalities of those institutions, have expressed their satisfaction with the course and the track of the implementation of our program.

Yes, it is true that there has been a mentioning by the representatives of those institutions to make use of state assets, but let me stress one thing: It is something that the Greek government has taken the initiative to say that yes, we want to make better use, to optimise the use of our state assets. But let me also be clear on that: That we are not talking about a fire sale of Greek assets. This is not the case. We are talking about an efficient program of the optimal use of our assets. And this is a program that our government is working on, this is a programme that is heading until 2015 and the turnout that we are expecting from that is about 50 billion euros.

Journalist: The trouble is, Minister, that your government is under increasing pressure from other governments in the EU to get this on the road quicker and to get recovery happening in Greece quicker than it is. They are not satisfied that you addressed these issues fast enough. Do you think that’s a fair criticism, or do you think that you neighbours are supporting you in your trouble?

Mr. Droutsas: I must say that we don’t have the feeling that we are being criticised by our EU partners or by the institutions that are assisting us in addressing this challenge. On the contrary. As I said we get many very positive remarks about the way the Greek government is addressing this issue and the way - and also the speed of implementing those reforms. So, I think we are well on track on that. I think the figures that I was able to present to you show that we are on the right track.

On the other hand, let me also stress the other issue that we are talking maybe about a Greek crisis. Certainly our country has to do what is necessary and the Greek people are ready to make those sacrifices, but this is not only a Greek crisis. This is also a crisis that affects the whole of Europe and it’s one thing what Greece is doing by herself. We are doing the things that are necessary to be done, but it is also in the hand of the European Union to present and to give the necessary convincing answers to the international markets that the euro and the Eurogroup as such, and the whole of the European Union if you want, is sticking by and supporting the euro.

Journalist: They need to be more positive, they need to stand up for you more internationally you are saying...

Mr. Droutsas: We say that there is cooperation and there are discussions underway as you know within the European Union. We will have by the end of March, on the 24th & 25th, the next European Council, where the European Union is expected to decide on the final comprehensive package - as we call it - the necessary measures, the stabilisation mechanism that will give the convincing answer, the convincing message to the international financial markets by the European Union that the euro is strong and that the European Union - and all member states - stick by the euro and are supporting the euro.

Journalist: Last question Minister: Is Greece going to need another bailout in the next couple of years?

Mr. Droutsas: We have a very serious program, a very full programme that we are implementing. We are sticking to this. We see that we have the first very positive results. Cutting down the budget deficit by 6% in one year is something that has never happened before in any European country. We see that our reforms are bearing fruit. So we are sticking to that. We are committed to the full implementation of our reform program and we are convinced that we will find very soon the way out of the crisis and will also have positive growth again in the Greek economy.

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