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Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Miltiadis Varvitsiotis’ article in the ‘Sunday Kathimerini’, on ‘The Brexit challenge for Greece’ (28 July 2019)
The election of Boris Johnson in Great Britain creates a new political environment for Brexit, with a higher probability of a ‘no-deal’ exit from the European Union. And this probability is growing, with the new British prime minister calling the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the May government a “dead letter” and warning that, if the EU does not back down, the United Kingdom will go ahead with a no-deal Brexit. The European Union’s dilemma in this context is clear, as it has to decide whether to step up the pressure for a quick and definitive solution at all costs or wait for Great Britain to stabilise itself politically and decide on its future.
The Greek government’s strategic choice is to avert a disorderly exit of the UK and limit the negative repercussions from Brexit by ensuring the unimpeded continuation of trade and tourist flows to and from the United Kingdom. From the outset, Greece politically supported giving a reasonable extension to the UK in order to provide time for a decision on a deal for or cancellation of Brexit. Greece’s trade and economic ties with Britain have a long history and are of vital importance, with the relations between the two countries extending across a wide range of critical political, economic and social activities.
Our relations extend beyond trade to the sectors of tourism, shipping, investments and financial services. In 2018 alone, based on ELSTAT data, the United Kingdom ranked 11th as a source of imports into Greece and 8th as a destination for Greek exports. Since 2002, some 115,000 Greeks have obtained a UK National Insurance Number, the number of UK businesses headed by someone of Greek origin stands at 38,000, and some 10,000 Greek students enrol in UK universities every year. Also significant is the number of British companies that have invested in our country, in the sectors of telecommunications, retail, tourism and financial services, and Greece is among the most popular destinations for British tourists, 2.5-3 million of whom visit our country each year.
It is predicted that Brexit will make trade and financial transactions between the UK and the EU more difficult, create obstacles to tourist flows, possibly impact the supply of certain products – such as pharmaceuticals imported from the UK, even effecting hospital care for Greeks in the UK, given that many Greek citizens receive treatment in Great Britain, possibly causing an increase in hospitalizations of Greeks in British hospitals and difficulty in paying for these hospitalizations via Greek insurance funds.
The prospect of a no-deal Brexit will also test the reflexes and preparedness of Greek administration. The breadth of the co-competencies of Greece’s ministries and the large number of sectors that will be affected by a no-deal Brexit require effective interministerial coordination under the supportive umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an action plan with a clear timeline. A list of 128 actions has already been drawn up, covering all sectors, including the social security of British citizens in Greece and Greeks in the UK, recognition of academic and professional qualifications, completion of an emergency plan for continued imports of products and movement of persons to points of entry into and exit from the country, ensuring the smooth functioning of Greek educational institutions in the UK, ensuring adequate supplies of medicines and medical equipment imported from the UK, and informing citizens and enterprises of the repercussions for day-to-day life and business operations.
All of these point to how challenging it will be for Greece to maintain and enhance its current excellent bilateral cooperation with the United Kingdom. Cooperation that will reflect the historical and geopolitical relations between the two countries. Greece has a historical legacy, and it is in our interest to maintain close cooperation with Great Britain.