“A strong social pillar is a prerequisite for EU’s stability and sustainability”

Press conference, following the sessions of the European Council in Brussels

Press conference, following the sessions of the European Council in Brussels (December 14-15), Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stated:

In the framework of the European Council, which is the last of the year, we addressed crucial issues regarding Europe. The issue of the social dimension of the European Union, the debate on the future of the Eurozone, the issues of security and defense, the refugee issue, Euro-Turkish relations, Brexit, cooperation in the fields of education and culture, support for the French initiatives regarding climate change and, of course, the EU’s foreign relations, particularly with regard to Minsk and the peace process in Ukraine, as well as the recent developments in Jerusalem.

A common issue of the European Council, as well as of the EuroSummit held this morning, was the extensive and intense debate on the social dimension in Europe. I have repeatedly stressed that today’s Europe has an excessive social deficit and indeed a social deficit that is not adequately addressed. The Göteborg Summit was indeed an important step, but we cannot announce measures such as the social pillar without making sure that these measures are implemented. It is not acceptable, in the name of various pretensions and refinements, to constantly find ourselves in the same position. No substantial change made regarding the crucial issue of social convergence. That is why we launched yesterday an initiative for a Social Europe, for a credible European pillar of social rights, so that it has concrete binding social goals in the European semester. Because without binding goals we cannot be sure that there will be substantial steps in the direction of social convergence. This initiative, which will in fact be an initiative to deal with pathogens that, especially in times of crisis, have become more prominent – such as widening inequalities, unacceptably high unemployment and, in particular, youth unemployment, widening poverty in a number of EU countries, and the phenomenon of social exclusion, so the initiative has been supported by several countries. It was supported by the Commission, supported by the French President, supported by Italy, Portugal, and Sweden. I would say that, in one way or the other, almost all of the leaders seemed either ready to accept it or open to finding the right way to establish this monitoring – if you wish – of the implementation of the social pillar. The Netherlands and Hungary have expressed their concerns, and that is why the issue will be reintroduced by the leaders at the next Summit in March, hoping that, even in March, the necessary steps will be taken. Because there cannot be a monetary union or a union of states which can, according to our estimation, proceed based only on financial rules. This debate is of particular importance for the monetary union, and even greater is the debate in the framework of the “28”. This debate is much more important for the Eurozone because you can realize that a monetary union without convergence of its Member States and this convergence to be reflected on the social field and of multiple speeds cannot move forward, it cannot be a real monetary union.

With regard to the management of refugee and migrant flows, as you all know that the debate was a bit more intense than previous times, because of the mistaken, in my opinion – as I have stated before I came here – the mistaken intervention of President Tusk, a note, which surprised us all. I underlined that the way in which President Tusk attempted to raise the issue was unacceptable, not only because such perception makes it difficult to manage a huge crisis that surpasses us all but above all because it undermines the concept of solidarity. A concept which cannot stay in words. It is inscribed in the Lisbon Treaty, so it is a constitutional principle of the EU. Therefore, what I stated yesterday was that the way in which the principle of solidarity is being questioned does not undermine the debate on refugee management alone. It undermines the future of Europe. We or the other initial countries of reception will not be saved if three, or four countries that are basically those who refuse to accept refugees or immigrants through the relocation process are eventually forced or accept to receive 1,000, 1,500 or 500. The sizes that we are managing, this will not save us. But what, in my opinion, is crucial is that, through the initiation of this debate, the European structure is challenged in its entirety. When I first attended the Summits, I expressed my great disagreements, which I maintain, about the way in which the EU is tackling the economic crisis or establishing rules. And I expressed my disagreement on these rules. Greece, however, respected them. It tried within the framework of these rules to negotiate in order to achieve what was best, but it respected these rules.

When the crucial question of sanctions in Russia was raised, the sanctions that hurt our economy, we did not say: ” We will not contribute, we will not participate, because this problem does not concern our affairs, let it be solved by the countries that have issues with Russia.” We did not say that. It is not possible for some people today – because the refugee issue does not affect them, -it is not possible for them to force the change in the way of thinking, debate and decision that the European Union has established for many years and is also its constitutional principle. This is a bomb in the foundation of the EU’s operation. That was the framework of the substantial debate that I expressed yesterday and I think it is a dispute that we will find in front of us in the future because I believe that we must make it clear in June, but at some point we have to make it clear that it is not possible to believe that someone can enjoy only rights without obligations.

Apart, of course, from the refugee issue, you can realize that the visit of Turkish President Erdoğan in Athens last week was of great interest in our discussion. I had the opportunity to inform our partners, to inform the European Council of the results of this visit, although I noticed that most of them had followed at least the statements and the dialogues with President Erdoğan, so they had a rough knowledge. I, also, had the opportunity to inform about the substance of this visit, a visit which, in my view, was necessary, because – despite the fact that there are huge differences with the Turkish President – we must keep the channels open for us to try to find very convergences not only for Greek-Turkish relations but also for Euro-Turkish relations.

The wider region is a region that is plunging into destabilization, so support for eastern, south-eastern European borders is becoming increasingly important, more important for security in Europe but also for the management of refugee flows, seeking to enter the EU.

At the same time, security challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean make even more urgent the need for a fair and viable solution to the Cyprus issue, in the context of UN resolutions and without Turkish guarantees. So the need for peace, respect for international law and for cooperation in the Aegean and the Mediterranean is a European issue, a European issue that is perhaps more important today than ever. In this context and at my private meeting with the German Chancellor, the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker and my Bulgarian counterpart today, I had the opportunity to welcome their statements after Erdoğan ‘s visit to Athens on the issue of revising the Treaty of Lausanne, where they gave a very clear answer and support for the Greek positions, and I had the opportunity to emphasize that in this particular period it is necessary for the EU to send those messages to Turkey that will make sure that the EU – Turkey Agreement is properly respected, also the Refugee Crisis Agreement as well as the international treaties and international law .

Allow me to close by saying that in the following period our contacts at a European level, as well as the contacts that are related to the wider region and our strategy for establishing relations of stability, these contacts will be intensified. I will visit Rome in January as we have decided that the seven leaders of the European South, the southern EU countries will meet in Rome on Jan. 10, and of course I will also have the opportunity to visit Cyprus for trilateral meetings with Israel, but also with Jordan, while we are also planning trilateral talks with Palestine. At the same time, as you are informed, we are also preparing the EU-Western Balkans Summit, as well as the meetings of the four Balkan countries in Bucharest and Thessaloniki, in February and May, respectively.

I want to close my initial statement by telling you that, apart from the issues that have been addressed at the Summit, today is also a special day- and I would say – a sign of the country’s exit from the crisis. Today, 1,313,000 households, or about 3,250,000 beneficiaries, have seen the social dividend in their accounts, 727 million Euros.

This is just over 30% of the population. This number will rise as the platform will open again to deal with micro-injustices or micro-difficulties of a technical nature that prevented some of our fellow citizens who are entitled to receive the dividend. I think this is a very important – both symbolically and essentially – development. I want to thank the people of the Ministry of Finance who have really made a superhuman effort, in order to create a mechanism that is particularly useful and necessary, a mechanism above all fair because the dividend will not be given to specific groups serving clientele relations, but it will be given horizontally to those who really need it, more than anyone. To one third of the population that meets the poverty line, the limit of social exclusion and, of course, on property and income criteria, that is, in conditions of absolute social justice.

But this is not the only thing today; we have other good news, and I am telling you that the signs are positive. Today we have a week in which Greek government bond prices are rallying and we seem to be close to breaking the 4% threshold, which is to go below 4% in the ten-year Treasury bonds. I want to tell you that last January, a year ago, at the beginning of the year, the price was 7.35, today it is close to 4, we have a 45% price reduction, and we are at a similar level as in December 2006, 11 years ago. In December 2006 there was not even the sense of crisis. Therefore, Greece already seems to have access to the markets, which is the same as before the crisis. Of course, we want this phenomenon not to be temporary, but become stable, to be permanent, the price of Greek bonds to be even lower, to make Greece’s recovery in money markets even more clear and stable, even more clear and stable the prospect of definitive exit from the bailout programs, from the memorandum that troubled the vast majority of the Greek people. So, these two signs, positive signs that we are coming out of the crisis, that we are exiting a very difficult adventure, but we, also, keep the weakest protected as long as we keep society on its feet. This is signified, on the one hand, by the numbers relating to markets and bonds, but on the other hand, by the fact that we now support about 3.3 million of our fellow citizens, 30% of our weakest fellow citizens, with the social dividend.

I am at your disposal.

IOANNIS FASOULAS (ERT): Mr. President, these two days there was a heated debate, as you said, about the refugee issue. We learned in the past years about the North – South segregation in terms of economy. We have now learned from Mr. Tusk that there is also an East-West segregation regarding the refugee issue. I wanted to ask you until June, when the decisions will be taken.
PRIME MINISTER: Are we in the East or in the West?
IOANNIS FASOULAS: We ought to be in the West. So do you believe, until June 18, that this gap will be bridged as it is presented because I read now that a total of 1,265 refugees and immigrants arrived in the North Aegean islands in the first two weeks of December, that is, we see from the coast of Turkey, that even though the flows are reduced, there are still flows to our islands.
PRIME MINISTER: “Yes. Firstly, President Tusk is right, there is a gap. But I do not know if it is an East-West gap, but rather one between those countries, the member states that, I would say, respect and accept the rules, and realize that there cannot be an EU without rights, but also with obligations, and against those who believe that being a member of the EU means only having rights. I do not want to focus my criticism on certain countries at the moment, but I think that this will be a contrast that will concern us very much in the next few years. And it will trouble us, and from our side, if you like, we feel that there is a great injustice here. Because those countries, especially the European South, which were found once to have excessive deficits, they did not decide on their own if they proceeded with fiscal adjustment, and in a very unfair way so that the European banks to benefit first and then the economies and the citizens, but this adjustment was imposed in the toughest and most painful way, and Greece is the most representative example. So it is not possible for Greece and the other countries of the South in economy to have the pacta sunt servanda, and for some others to apply the policy of “go if you want, if you do not want to, you may sit in the living room.” This is not the case. Well, I think it will be a crucial issue and, if you want, it is also the core of the debate on the future of Europe. How did this debate start on the future of Europe? It started based on whether some can prevent the many from moving forward. I think that this is the first question we must answer, because nobody can force anyone, but if some do not want to participate in this joint effort, at least they cannot prevent those who want. ”

EFI KOUTSOOKOSTA (EURONEWS): On the same subject, the refugee issue. Beyond the mistaken intervention by Mr.Tusk, as you described, but also Commissioner Avramopoulos, beyond that there is some truth in what he says, that finally the quota system as implemented in the last two years, was not effective; And I want to ask you if you insist on the same system, if you state the issue of penalties, strict sanctions towards the Visegrad countries, and I would like a comment on the last proposal made by these countries for funding to guard the borders.
PRIME MINISTER: “Firstly, there is no doubt, we would all like to be more effective, but we must note that so far over 22,000 refugees have benefited from the measure of relocation from our country, an important step. As well as the resettlement mechanism from Turkey has benefited more than 10,000 refugees. Surely we would like all of these numbers to be even bigger. You can realize, however, that in front of the perception that prevails and continues to prevail in many in Europe, that Europe must be a closed fortress and that no one should pass, these numbers mean something. So, I cannot understand if this is the argument that the numbers are not high enough and we have to increase them. If this is the case, I agree with them, with those who express this argument, to increase the numbers. If, however, in the name of ineffectiveness, we are proposing to abolish this measure altogether, then something is wrong. Well, here, at least between us, when we are at these Summits, we have to speak the language of truth. And the language of the truth is not that the problem of these states and the spirit of the original statement of Tusk, because after that he rephrased it, yesterday he referred to exactly what you say in your question. But the original spirit was not that, it was that “because it divided us, we must review it.” So I think that what divided us was not the measure of relocation and resettlement. What we were divided on was the refusal of some states to take on the responsibilities they had. Now, as far as the essence of the problem is concerned, there is no doubt that no easy solutions exist. And there is no doubt that this problem will not end quickly. We all hope, and wish, to have positive developments in Syria, but realize that the refugee – migration issue has to do with the overall situation in third world countries, poverty, hunger, conflict, not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa, with demographic imbalances. We have a third world that is rapidly growing in population, an aging Europe, but which is still much richer than these countries, so we will face this problem. And this problem cannot be solved by putting our heads in the sand and believing that we were saved. This problem will only be resolved by very brave interventions, with financial support from these countries, it will be solved and, in my view, it will be settled rather that solved, by effective mechanisms, such as mechanisms to support third countries address traffickers, reduce flows and accept returns. With return mechanisms, a European return mechanism and a European resettlement mechanism with application centers in third countries of transit and origin, these are our suggestions. At the same time of course with our action to be stepped up – and a commitment that will be intensified in the near future – for optimal implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement for the decongestion of the islands, but also to speed up the asylum-granting procedures. I think it’s not the time to talk about the sanctions. ”

ANTONIS ANTZOLETOS (SKAI): Mr. President, there is an excerpt from an interview with Mr. Gavroglou, the Minister of Education, who stressed that a very serious debate with the minority should be commenced, for the election of the Mufti, and he speaks of a determination of the elective body. I wanted to ask, after the visit of Mr. Erdoğan in Greece, has the government started such a discussion?
PRIME MINISTER: “The government started this debate long ago and it is an objective need that does not concern Greek-Turkish relations and does not concern the Turkish President. It is a debate that has begun for a long time and is a debate that needs to be extended publicly and openly to the minority, the Greek citizens living in Thrace. With the Muslim minority, as the Turkish President himself said, it is not Turkish; it is Muslim and is of a trivial origin. So I would say that we have already started initiatives in the direction of reforms that will improve the quality of life of our fellow citizens in Thrace, which have to do with education, with their schools, with the incentives and possibilities for raising their living standards, for work. At the same time, we have discussed and have already brought to the Parliament a bill concerning Sharia, that is, the non-compulsory affiliation of every Greek citizen belonging to the Muslim minority in this, in my opinion, a medieval perception and a framework that defines family relationships, which should be defined by the law in force in the country and not by the religious law. This was, if you wish, an obligation that we had both towards the Greek Constitution and the European law, but also towards our own perception of humanism. Beyond that, the debate on how we can alleviate existing contrasts in the minority, which have to do with the fact that a large part does not recognize the official religious leader recognized by the Greek State, is a debate that we have to open. We have to start this debate, because it does not honor the Greek State, nor make the minority the Muslim minority feel comfortable with such a reality. We would therefore like to reach the point where – and this will not happen tomorrow, but in the course of time – those who the Greek State will recognize as religious leaders will not be questioned by the minority or part of the minority.

This debate must be conducted with the Greek citizens of Muslim faith and must come to an end as soon as possible, so that we can have the corresponding legislation, which in the long run will create developments to overcome these obstacles and these problems. It does not concern Greek-Turkish relations. And – to express a wish – I wish this will not be boycotted by some but will be accepted by all. But, I repeat, this is not something new and it does not concern the next few days. ”

AGGELIKI LAZOS (RES): Mr. President, I would like to ask you one question on economy, in two parts, if you allow me. You talked about the Greek economy and you said that Greek bonds have rallied last week. Regarding the figures of the economy, I would like to ask you whether this was discussed this morning and whether it was commented by Mr. Draghi and in what way and if you would like to comment on the statement made yesterday by the head of the main opposition Mr. Mitsotakis, who said that it is his personal commitment, and non-negotiable, to reduce taxes.
PRIME MINISTER: “In relation to the first, I had the opportunity to meet with Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB. I had a brief conversation with him. Indeed, he came to find me to express his admiration for the achievements of the Greek economy and the excellent work we have done lately, particularly in reforms that have created an outstanding dynamic in the performance of the economy, which was also recorded to the surplus, but also to growth rates in 2017 and to the possibility to distribute the social dividend, but also regarding forecasts, and estimations for 2018. Now that i am given the opportunity to tell you that I had the opportunity to joke with him, telling him that ‘I heard a statement that if you want, we are here to support you if you want to enter a fourth program’ and I told him “no thank you, what we received were enough, now it is the time to end the programs’. He also smiled and explained to me that it was a perfectly normal, technocratic answer to a question, which in no way reflects his own appreciation of whether we will receive a fourth program. I think that all, based on the developments in bond markets, have made the assessment that Greece – and now, if it wanted to, today – could end the memorandum. However, we will successfully complete the program until the summer, precisely because what we are concerned with is not only the temporary access to low-interest markets but also a debt settlement that will create a stable, permanent, long-term – if you wish – trust between the Greek economy and the investors, between the Greek economy and the markets. Now, as far as the second part of your question is concerned, because I think the world understands, but I will comment on it anyway, regarding taxes. I think that only the non-negotiable commitment, by Mr. Mitsotakis, to his program and his intentions is that he intends to cut wages and pensions, that he intends to make mass redundancies, is that he intends to plunder what is left standing or what we have done all these years with great effort of the welfare state. These are his real intentions and in this way he can find money to cut taxes on high incomes because that’s his concern. I believe that the Greek people will never allow this throwback to happen “.

IOANNIS ANTYPAS (PROTO THEMA – NEWMONEY): Mr. Prime Minister, in the permanent quota program we are talking about refugees and people in general who can apply for asylum. Mr. Tusk said a few minutes ago at his press conference that even if there is a full relocation; we are at 2% of the total flows. Therefore, in the optimal first scenario, this effort is made to change the percentage of total migrant flows. What about the rest of the people in Greece who cannot apply for asylum? And can you commit to some tangible solution and timetable? Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: “There is no migrant or refugee in Greece who cannot apply for asylum. All those on Greek territory can apply for asylum. The process is, of course, more time consuming than we would like, but every asylum application is examined, ad hoc, with the procedures provided for by the international conventions. If the applications are accepted, these people go to the hinterland and can, like other immigrant, stay in the country. If rejected, they are not accepted, and then these people return to Turkey on the basis of the Euro-Turkish agreement. For everyone who is returning – this is what the agreement says – respectively another arrives according to the resettlement process, which is the legal process. I have to say to you here that because the process is time consuming and we we are lagging behind in returns – and that is the reality and we must admit it – there have, been much more resettlements from Turkey than returns. So I say this to underline that the point of the Euro-Turkish agreement is not to build a fortress Europe so that no one can come here. The point is to promote and strengthen legitimate roads and not the road through traffickers, which, of course, in addition to exploitation of man by man, brings us many times in the face of drowning and wrecks in the Aegean, which are fortunately drastically reduced after the Euro-Turkish agreement “.

MANOLIS SPINTHOURAKIS: Mr. President, I want to ask about something that you have not mentioned and concerns European defense. And I wonder if you have not mentioned it because you do not believe in European defense and if you do not believe, you may be right, 60 years Europe is trying to build its defense and has not yet succeeded. Still, do you think that there is something new now? And the second question is that Greece traditionally, the previous governments, at least, the one thing that interested them regarding European defense, was on the one hand to Turkey to stay out, not be a part of this story at all and Cyprus similarly. Do you think this is the right national policy, Turkey to stay out? And also, for European defense, it would be best Britain to be banished totally or this defensive giant would better have some relations with Europe? Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: “I referred to this issue initially, but briefly. In fact, we did not have an extensive discussion, but we ratified the agreement and in a festive way, as you would see yesterday. Indeed, it comes after 60 whole years, but it is a step essential, in my opinion. However, a number of crucial issues remain to be clarified, despite the fact that the agreement has been signed. Look, my point is that we need to support a country like Greece, which is in the east – and a crucial – EU border, you know, we have this disadvantage not share borders with Luxembourg, with the Netherlands and with Belgium, but with Turkey, this flammable zone of the Middle East is near us, a very unstable region. These crucial EU eastern borders must therefore be supported, and should be supported by the same forces, since they are not only the borders of Greece; they are the borders of the EU So a country such as Greece, which is under great pressure and financial strain over time, because it is forced to spend a lot of money on equipment, it can only benefit from a European defense and security policy. Beyond that, if you ask me about the necessary security architecture in Europe, I would tell you that Europe should not be locked in its shell. If we want effective security architecture, we ought to build it by organizing our security and defense framework, but by opening channels of cooperation apparently with the UK – and even as we speak it has not left yet – and, also, with other critical forces, with Russia, with Turkey. There is a need for conciliation; an open dialogue is needed to build this security architecture on the European continent. “