Thank you, Mr Tzikas, Mr Regional Governor, Mr Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, this year’s meeting, here in Thessaloniki, is literally an unprecedented event.
As you said, the pandemic did not allow the 85th International Fair to take place as planned with many trade stands. This time, the usual business meetings have not been organised, nor have we had the parallel events that traditionally accompany them. And this image, in this very hall, with only 50 participants wearing masks, keeping our distances, demonstrates the extraordinary conditions we live in.
But that is precisely why I chose to be present here again. Firstly, Mr Mayor, Mr Regional Governor, to honour the city and Northern Greece and to take stock of the consequences that the coronavirus brings to society and the economy; and talk about the challenges of our national policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. I will, of course, present the government’s broader strategy for the coming period.
However, one of my priorities today is to speak specifically about the firm steps that the country will take in the volatile environment of the coming autumn and winter. Because nothing in the world is what it was yesterday.
Society is understandably frightened, and it has questions. Next to the anxiety and insecurity, however, a new confidence emerges, a new national optimism that together, the State and citizens, we will succeed once again, and we will emerge from this situation stronger.
Indeed, last year when we were in this venue again, no one could ever have imagined what would follow. The health crisis has affected the entire planet, taking lives, shocking robust health systems, literally blowing all economies up in the air.
At the same time, in Evros and the Aegean, Greece was forced to defend itself against the successive waves of attempted entry of illegal immigrants. A two-sided, multi-faceted wager that must be won day by day, by each and every one of us individually. This is why there are few of us present in this hall, but we are all here. Because apart from the city representatives, we have among us the true protagonists of our times. Nurses and doctors who fought the virus, our fellow citizens who became ill and defeated it, retail employees and tourism workers who saw their jobs threatened, teachers and students who missed classes, but continued their journey to learning using technology. And all representatives of a society that has been tried, but ultimately stood united, endured, succeeded.
It is true that in the previous months there was a lot of turbulence, often successive and connected. What happened in Moria, for example, showed what an explosive mixture the coexistence of coronavirus and the migration issue is. How the latter relates to our national security and how it can trigger blind reactions. But this is why I’m here, to deal with the difficult challenges. And this is why we are here today; to send a message that we can make it together.
So, dear friends, today everything is different in the world, in Europe, in our country. Much more so as the pandemic continues. Already more than 900,000 people have died. Nearly 7 million people are ill, and the number of cases exceeds 28 million. The cost of the world’s biggest crisis since 1929 is estimated at tens of trillions of euros and translates to successive shocks in every production activity. Undoubtedly, these consequences have been felt in our country as well.
The government’s plan, the experts’ instructions, the responsibility of our citizens, were factors that gave us a leading edge in the fight against the virus. Intensive Care Units doubled in a short period of time. Thousands were hired in the front lines. Pioneering tracing systems were put in place, but when the economy was re-started, the second wave was managed properly. In the most accurate indicator, that of deaths per one million population, Greece now ranks 111th from 63rd during the first phase. However, as the dual health and economic crisis looms over the planet, our country is also managing a national front, which is becoming increasingly critical. Because, adding to the challenges in the Aegean, Ankara now threatens peace throughout the Mediterranean. It threatens Europe’s eastern borders and undermines security at a sensitive crossroads of three continents. This was condemned just the other day in Corsica by all southern European countries.
Greece counters threats and slogans with logic and arguments because effective diplomacy is the other face of our power. We have demonstrated that we have many and powerful allies. We are a peaceful country, ready to work together with all its neighbours including Turkey. If Turkey does not agree on the one issue that constitutes our major dispute, the delimitation of Marine Zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, then the International Court of Justice can provide a solution. This is why I insist that only the end of provocations can signal the start of talks.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is therefore clear that until a vaccine is found, hopefully by the end of the year, until the international economy recovers and stability returns, the circumstances will remain uncertain. All long-term planning risks being left in limbo, and every announcement mere lip service, so my speech tonight will be different, as the circumstances are different. It will focus on the economy and defence, as the pandemic and national needs dictate. Albeit tradition wants the Prime Minister to speak on this occasion about every aspect of government work, this year I choose to be brief and more specific. After all, tomorrow at the press conference, I will also answer questions on what the government has achieved and on its plans in general.
In an environment shaken by coronavirus and its consequences, any other option would be untimely. Because, as I said, autumn and winter are rife with pitfalls, but also opportunities. Therefore, they require not only a medium-term plan, but above all immediate short-term measures. Besides, just like my words describe my thoughts, my actions describe my vision. And there can be no vision for tomorrow unless we consistently cater for today; nor economic reset without social reset. So, this is what I am going to talk about today. I will explain how we will cross the choppy waves to reach the opposite shore, that of security and prosperity, and build our common future, on our own solid ground.
Ladies and gentlemen, our action plan has a common motto: confidence in both challenges that lay ahead, confidence in defence, confidence in health and the economy.
Let me start with the first one. In recent years, Defence has gone through divestment, after a period of costly and not always successful armaments purchases. Well, it is time to strike a balance between needs and capabilities. The time has come to strengthen the Armed Forces as a legacy for the security of the country, but also as a supreme obligation to the Greeks who will bear the cost. It is the price for our position on the map. So today I announce six flagship decisions that have a multiplying effect on the power, operability, and effectiveness of Greek weapons.
First. Our Air Force will immediately acquire a squadron of 18 Rafale fighters to replace the ageing Mirage aircraft. These are fourth-generation air supremacy aircraft. A move that strengthens our deterrence capability and which, in combination with the updated F-16s and all other Greek aircraft, cannot be ignored by anyone.
Second. The Navy is launching the process of adding four new multirole frigates to its fleet. It will also update and upgrade the existing four MEKO frigates. The new ships will also feature four Romeo naval helicopters, the most capable helicopters in the world. So, our seas are shielded more effectively than ever before.
Third. Overall, the arsenal of all three branches is enhanced. New anti-tank weapons for the Army, new heavy torpedoes for the Navy, new guided missiles for the Air Force. The doctrine in this area is, every weapon system is operational for the entire life cycle, as designed and where needed.
Fourth. The military personnel of our Armed Forces will be enhanced with the recruitment of 15,000 men and women over five years. At the same time, the whole framework of military service and training will be reassessed so that our young men and women can obtain certified skills free of charge. In other words, while serving in the military, they will obtain qualifications useful to them in their civilian life.
Fifth. We are activating our defence industry. Already, US funds are being invested in the modernisation of Elefsis shipyards. Skaramangas shipyards will soon have a strategic investor, and jobs there will be preserved. The ELVO tender process has been completed and privatisation will be finalised soon, while EAV will be restructured to become an aircraft maintenance centre for the greater region.
And sixth. The Armed Forces are enhancing their digital operation and shielding themselves against hybrid cyber-attacks. Modern systems are installed at every operational level to ensure a secure flow of information and timely mobilisation.
These are six bold choices. Six bold responses not only to the needs caused by the current circumstances, but also to the challenges of history. It is evident that these responses act on multiple levels. They are not only focused on strengthening weapons systems, but also on increasing personnel, modernising Armed Forces structures as well the legal framework for defence procurement. In other words, these initiatives make up a robust programme that will become a national shield. At the same time, however, they are also growth-oriented as they mobilise our national industry, and society-driven securing thousands of jobs.
National Defence, after all, does not only have a financial dimension, but also a qualitative one that unites all social strata offering security to every citizen. To put it another way, it is the core of responsible patriotism which I profess, and the driving force that moves the nation forward. Therefore, by investing in it, we are investing in the future of Greece.
Dear friends, along with the National Defence, the Government has been organizing the public health defence for months. A front that remains open. I spoke at length about this in the Parliament a few days ago. I will therefore refrain from repeating the numerous things that have been under way. The ICU beds that have been doubled from 557 since we assumed office, to 1,000 in the first phase of the pandemic. They will be 1,200 by the end of the year. The 6,818 emergency recruitments of doctors and nurses. The millions of tests that have been secured. Today, in Mytilene, we are among the first European countries to use rapid antigen tests for the first time, to test the entire population. As well as the re-establishment of the Civil Protection that detects and traces cases, but also the institution of the COVID Observatory. We have been monitoring, every single week, over 20 health, economic and social indicators, providing accurate and rapid information before, always before any critical decisions are made.
I would like to pay respect to the National Health System and its staff, not only for their self-denial, because it was their self-denial that has inspired responsibility to citizens and vindicated the plans of the state, but also because our civil servants, our nurses, police officers, coast guard officers, civil protection officers, have made our country proud. They have vindicated the undeniable role of the State in challenges such as those we have been going through. And they highlighted our national pride, which I always believe in. I thank them. Thank you, thank you again.
But the pandemic – as you well know – does not only affect public health but also the national economy. On this front, too, the Government responded with a package of measures that has been in force since last spring and has been constantly enriched on an as-needed basis.
Today, from Thessaloniki, I am announcing twelve more initiatives along the same lines, to protect employment and production activity during the crisis, and support the income of the most weak in the difficult period ahead. These are twelve confident steps that shape a roadmap for the coming months, as well as for 2021, so that the economy can stay upright as a prerequisite for reset and growth. Four of these measures support employment, three business liquidity and investments, and another five the income of the most weak, as well as the income of the middle class that has been tried for many years. After all, this is, let me repeat, the backbone of Greek society.
In other words, it is a tax policy, a policy which combines the tax relief of salaried labour with the protection of production activity. However, it does not address the former as a one-off allowance, nor the latter as a temporary aid. But both as “springboards” of growth for the generation of new national wealth from investments and, above all, for new jobs. They are antidotes to pathogens that I have often spoken of in this forum. As the Leader of the Opposition earlier, and in my first address as Prime Minister last year. Heavy taxes, investment blight due to the ten-year crisis, and the brain drain generation -who rightly believe that public policies have not given them enough incentives to stay in the country-
are all changing, shifting along the country’s production model. So let us embark on a new journey.
Step one. The insurance contributions of private sector employers and employees are reduced by 3 percentage points, from 39.7% to 36.7%, in 2021; So, an employee with a net salary of €1,016 will have an annual benefit of €158. However, the cost for the business will also be reduced by €301. This increases household income and, at the same time, paves the way for new recruitments by businesses whose liquidity will be enhanced.
Step two. The solidarity contribution for private sector employees, self-employed and farmers is abolished. The measure will be initially applied for one year in 2021. This will relieve, based on the source of income, the self-employed and workers in the private sector. A well-paid employee, with a monthly salary of €2,000, will enjoy an annual tax relief of €361.
Step three – to which I personally attach great importance. An innovative programme to subsidise 100,000 new jobs is immediately enacted. The State will cover – and I am addressing employers in particular – the employee and employer contributions for every new employee for six months, regardless of their salary and job, on the sole condition that the number of jobs in the company is not reduced. In fact, if a long-term unemployed person is recruited, there will be an additional subsidy of €200 per month. To give you an illustrative example, a new recruitment at a salary of €700 will translate into a gain of €2,821 for both sides over a period of six months. Similarly, the gain is almost €4,000 for a salary of €1,200. It is a great opportunity for the unemployed, but also a boost to businesses. The time has finally come, to move on from subsidising unemployment to strengthening employment.
Step four. The “Synergasia” programme will be enhanced and extended until the end of 2020. The pays of those who are forced to work part-time in the sectors affected by the pandemic will continue to be compensated. Without losing the insurance rights on their nominal salary. The possibility to temporarily suspend employment contracts in the food, tourism, transport, sport, culture sectors is also extended, which is of interest to many of you. Moreover, a pending issue is now resolved by also adding tour guides and artists to the above.
Step five. The third cycle of favourable financing for businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, is starting immediately through the highly successful repayable advance scheme. The amount of this third cycle will rise to €1,500 million. It will now also include sole proprietors without cash registers from the catering, tourism, transport, culture and sports sectors, as well as non-profit enterprises that are subject to VAT. We are also launching the fourth repayable advance cycle for November with an initial amount of €600 million.
Step six. Following our intervention in research and innovation expenditure, the measure of 200% over-depreciation is also introduced for digital and green fixed capital investments for three years, from 2021 to 2023. It is a very significant indirect injection of liquidity that reduces corporate tax and incentivises investment in equipment that improves overall productivity. It digitises processes and, principally, reduces the environmental footprint of businesses.
Step seven. The amount of €1,400,000,000 in main pensions will be paid retroactively to approximately 1,000,000 pensioners for the 11-month period 2015-2016 in October. By December, a further 460 million will be credited to hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries because of the new method of calculating pensions.
Yes, it is a matter of the State complying with court decisions. But it is also a social policy, because we very well know that our pensioners, the retirees, have been helping the entire family at this critical juncture.
Step eight. The Unified Property Tax is abolished immediately on our 26 smaller islands that have been particularly affected in recent months. Thousands of inhabitants from Kastelorizo to Ai Stratis, from Othonoi to Gavdos are permanently exempt from this tax obligation as of 2020, not 2021.
Step nine. For those employed in sectors severely affected by the coronavirus, the payment of any tax and insurance debt that had been suspended in the first phase of the pandemic, is postponed until April 2021. And, of course, all previous facilities, such as rents, will continue to apply.
Step ten. The reduced VAT rate on transports, coffee, non-alcoholic beverages, cinemas and tourist services is extended by six months. These are sectors that continue to be affected by the pandemic today, but they also continue to be supported by the State.
Step eleven. As a result of actions taken by the Government, and in cooperation with the banking system, the first home of vulnerable households is not at risk of being auctioned-off by the end of 2020. In January 2021, our weakest citizens will have the opportunity to join the new Code of Debt Settlement and Second Chance that will have been adopted by then.
And step 12. All unemployment benefits which have just expired are extended for two more months and the number of worked days required to receive this benefit is reduced to 50 instead of 100. This includes seasonal workers, who have raised this issue with me on several occasions, and who have seen their wages cut since the pandemic. The total aid to the Greek economy from the package of measures I have just presented to you is almost €7 billion; €6.8 billion to be exact.
Ladies and gentlemen, the action plan I outlined responds to the complex problems caused by the coronavirus both to the economy and to society. This is why it combines the extension of previous effective measures and the introduction of new ones that answer to the current circumstances.
However, we also keep reserves for a future that remains fluid. We have funds. Let us not forget that this Government has already borrowed a total of €14 billion at historically low interest rates. At the same time, though – and I want to insist on this – these breakthrough measures do not deviate from the core choices of the Government. They pursue the policy of alleviating the tax burden on citizens and companies. They also cater for workers and pensioners, young and old, households and businesses. And while evidently strengthening public structures, they principally keep private initiative and prosperity dynamics alive. Above all, this national confidence scheme protects and stimulates employment. Because this is where the effects of the pandemic are most pronounced.
As I have said before, the virus knows no classes. It can affect all of us. It hits powerful and weaker countries equally, it does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. However, its social effects will obviously be more adverse on the most weak.
Therefore, our priority can be no other but to protect employment. With the assistance of the State and the preservation of the productive fabric that generates employment.
Obviously, what we are discussing here today are extraordinary actions imposed by emergency national, health and economic conditions. They do, however, have internal cohesion, serving complementary objectives, and above all they have a great firepower, as they are allocating significant funds to the mitigation of the unprecedented recession currently faced by the entire planet.
However, this could not have happened had it not been for a wave of major reform interventions that have allowed it. Indeed, the number of changes that the country has experienced over last 14 months is so high, it would be hard to capture them even in a time-lapse film. I would simply want you to consider that in 14 months the Parliament has passed 105 bills, elected a new President of the Republic, and we have a new Constitution, a new electoral law and the right to vote for Greeks living abroad from their permanent place of residence. We will also talk about all this at length tomorrow.
Dear friends, healthcare needs and national issues are rearranging our priorities. But they do not disrupt targets. They change the speed things are done, not directions. Thus, alongside the short-term confidence plan, a 12-month programme of 12 major reforms will be under way.
The crisis cannot become an excuse to lower the flag of major changes. We respond to uncertainty not only with resilience and strength, but also with radical interventions that create prospects. After all, this is what the Pissarides’ Committee proposes. One must read the future before the future becomes the present. I am going to briefly outline these changes.
The labour market is being modernised, based on recommendations of the International Labour Office. Obsolete regulations from the last century are being abolished, new rights are being introduced to safeguard the future of employment and the new framework will encourage new jobs.
Auxiliary insurance is reformed with the introduction of the fully funded scheme. An individual piggy bank for every new employee, that will restore everyone’s trust, especially young people’s trust in the insurance system.
New rules are being introduced for the settlement of debts owed to the State and to banks. Businessmen, professionals, home loan debtors are now getting a real second chance. A chance which is fairer and growth oriented.
Delivery of justice is being stepped up. Procedures are being digitized. The institution of a pilot trial and assistant judges is being introduced. And the National School of Judges will obtain a new operating framework.
Greece is going to have a new vocational training system. Evaluation of school units and their work immediately. Evaluation of teaching staff will start in 2021. Moreover, a new framework law will further strengthen academic self-governance.
A very important new spatial planning bill will organize public spaces with full respect of the environment. Land use is identified; out-of-plan and unregulated building activity is restricted; investment licensing is simplified, especially for Renewable Energy Sources.
Please allow me to open a parenthesis at this point. Mr Tzikas, you referred to the very important prospect of redeveloping the venue we are in today, the Thessaloniki International Fair. This redevelopment is feasible because we have used a new tool, a specific spatial plan that has been completed in record time and is allowing HELEXPO to launch a new architectural tender in order to implement such redevelopment, which, I firmly believe, will be iconic. Iconic for Thessaloniki.
Yet another major intervention, the importance of which will also be acknowledged by local Government officials, I assume, is a new framework for public contracts that will amend Law 4412. It will strip out bureaucracy and add transparency and will thus boost both major infrastructure and smaller projects at the level of Regions and Municipalities, so that they can be launched and completed with speed, quality and safety.
The National Health System is being strengthened. We will make a major breakthrough in Primary Care with Chronic Diseases and Daily Care Units for minor surgeries and treatments. Health staff will also be reinforced with 4,000 permanent hires of nurses mostly, primarily among those who have served as auxiliary staff in the pandemic.
Finally, the public sector is changing dramatically. The draft law on the restructuring of the Supreme Council for Civil Personnel Selection, in order to speed up new appointments, has already been introduced to the Cabinet. It is currently unacceptable to often have to wait two years from the identification of a recruitment need in the broader public sector until completion of the relevant procedure.
We are significantly reinforcing the digital footprint of the State, a fact which is being recognised and appreciated by the citizens. 400 digital services will very soon be added to gov.gr, the Greek State portal, thus the total number of available services will soon reach 1,000. These will all be accessible through our mobile phone.
And of course, as far as Local Government is concerned, the bill on multi-level governance will be submitted for adoption by the end of the year. Our aim is to finally clarify the competences of the central state, decentralised administrations, regions and municipalities, once and for all.
Ladies and gentlemen, I gave you an outline of our strategic approach for the overall resetting of this country. Today, however, it is the confidence of the Greek people that has the leading role. The programmes for our defence and the economy. Two bridges that will secure our country’s and our people’s transition from uncertainty to certainty. That will ensure that we will move from blurry and often reasonable questions, to positive and convincing answers, form health and economic turmoil, to the calm waters of progress and hope.
It is from this forum that I presented the pact of truth with my fellow citizens for the first time. Last year, I asked you to join me in turning this pact into a contract of action and result. I mean every word I said. I am describing reality as it stands.
This is why I have presented you with clear options today. Options focused on the needs of our times. And I have defined my goals precisely because myself and our Government always pursue, and are judged by, this tangible result.
The National Confidence Programme is ambitious, but it is also optimistic. Because I am well aware of the strengths of our country, and of the credibility it has already acquired internationally. And I know very well that, with our proper interventions, after the end of the health turmoil and of our frictions with Turkey, spring can return to our economy and society sooner than we expect. All we have to do is make sure yesterday’s successes fuel up a dynamic course today.
A brighter tomorrow is not only guaranteed by this Government’s plan and determination. It is also guaranteed by the new relationship of trust between the State and citizens that was forged and strengthened for months on the fronts of Evros and the pandemic. A relationship that is being strengthened in our everyday lives.
I would like to remind you, Mr President, that when the first Thessaloniki International Fair opened its doors in 1926, our country had to deal with open national wounds.
Political life was floundering. Society sought direction and orientation in the uncertain scene of the inter-war period. Three years later, Greece was shaken by another global economic crisis. The country, however, managed to hang on and get back on its feet.
Almost a year later, everything is different. The country went through wars and trials, experienced proud victories but also bitter disappointments. However, it did manage to pursue a constant path to democracy and prosperity. And that very International Fair back in 1926 was transformed into a barometer of our national prosperity. We Greeks – and I will conclude with this – are now experiencing consequences which are even greater than those of the 1929 Depression. But we have more weapons than ever before.
Being leading players in Europe, Europe is our ally in our national rights, the rights we have proven we are able to defend. As a State, we operate in an exemplary manner as regards the fight against the pandemic and the resulting economic freezing and we are ready to manage funds of up to 72 billion Euros from the European Recovery Fund and the new NSRF.
These are the funds that, starting in 2021, will initiate a transformation of our national economy as a whole. This is why they should be used wisely and productively. Well respected scientists and the entire Government are already working in this direction. The National Recovery Plan will soon be ready, it will be discussed with society, production agencies and political parties prior to its implementation.
This is exactly Greece’s plan for the next decade, a plan for the country of our common future, a plan that will guide us in 2021. A year in which we Greeks will march with optimism into the third century of our free life, carrying our heavy and precious national heritage, but also safeguarding the experiences and lessons of our own generation, a generation that is called upon to write its own history today.
I am certain we will achieve this, as confidently as always.