Susanna Reid: So, it’s absolutely lovely to have you in the studio this morning, and lots of really interesting issues to talk to you about. Firstly I want to talk to you about the migrant crisis. Greece has its own migrant crisis. This morning, I’m not sure if you’ve been able to see, but our reporter Jonathan Swain has been out in the channel this morning and spotted these three men on a kayak, trying to make the journey from France over to Britain. And frankly, we watched them this morning, because of the strength of the tides, they’re going round in circles and Jonathan Swayne’s crew has had to call emergency services in. What is Greece doing about the many migrants who make the dangerous journey towards your islands?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We see similar images almost daily as desperate people try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands. We’ve been rather vigilant in terms of protecting our borders, while at the same time respecting fundamental rights. We are, on a daily basis, saving tens if not hundreds of people at sea, while at the same time trying to break the smugglers’ networks.
What people need to understand is that this is a very, very dangerous trip. And unless you manage to send a clear signal that you protect your borders, more people will try to enter into Greece -or into the UK eventually- illegally.
And for us this is a very, very important topic. We cannot have a Schengen zone, which is a zone of free movement of people, unless we protect the Union’s external borders. And this is what we’re trying to do. Rather effectively, I would argue, because migrant and refugee flows are down significantly over the past two years.
Susanna Reid: Do you turn the boats back? That’s one of the controversial issues. What is your obligation to these people?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We intercept the boats. We always try -and very effectively I would argue- to save people whose life is in danger. But we will call on the Turkish Coastguard to do its job, in accordance with the agreement that the EU has signed with Turkey. I mean, we see Turkey as a partner in this and they can clearly do more to break the smugglers’ networks and intercept the boats before they actually reach Greek territorial waters.
Ed Balls: The UK thought that being not just outside of Shenghen, but outside the European Union would make it easier for us to police our borders. That was certainly the promise in the referendum campaign. And it’s proving quite difficult outside the EU as well. What’s your reflection of the UK position now? What would you tell Boris Johnson?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Policing a sea border is always a very, very complicated exercise. I can only draw on the Greek experience. We have a land border with Turkey, we have a sea border with Turkey. We’re always very concerned when we see countries using migration for geopolitical purposes. Look what’s happening now, for example, between Belarus, Poland and the Baltic states. We saw a similar incident happening in Greece in March 2020, when Turkey tried to put more pressure on the European Union, threatening us with essentially encouraging tens of thousands of people to cross into Greece. We said “No”. We protected our border. This incident was never repeated.
So, one needs to obviously work with neighboring countries and I’m sure that the UK needs to work with France to address this problem. And we try to work with Turkey as productively as we can. And we call on Turkey to honor its end of the bargain, because it has signed a deal with the European Union and it can do much more to contain illegal smuggling.
At the same time, one needs legal entries into Europe. For example, Greece, we’re a relatively medium-sized country, but we have welcomed more than 700 Afghani women and their families in what I considered to be an important humanitarian act. We have granted more than 50,000 rights to asylum over the past two years, so it’s very difficult to accuse Greece of not being humanitarian in addressing this problem. At the same time, I have an obligation to protect my borders. So I think we have a tough but fair migration policy.
Ed Balls: And how about protecting Greece from the threat of climate change? Because obviously the geography of Greece means that you are very affected by what’s happening to sea levels. But also you’ve had the impact of drastic climate change through the fires which have been ravaging Greece. How did you feel at the end of the COP talks, when India and China could have changed the rules of the game? Is it frustrating?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think it’s a bittersweet feeling. I would have to congratulate Boris Johnson for putting together, as you know it’s a very complicated project to have so many countries trying to negotiate an agreement. Obviously we would have liked for some countries to be more ambitious.
I can tell you what Greece is doing. First of all, the Eastern Mediterranean is a hotspot for climate change. We saw it with dramatic wildfires this summer. What we’re trying to do is first of all move away from coal as quickly as possible. We will shut down all our coal-fired electricity plants by 2023 bar one. And we will be completely off coal at the latest by 2028.
We’re trying to protect our more sensitive ecosystems, our islands. We are trying to move our smaller islands towards carbon neutrality at a much faster pace. We have set up a separate Ministry for Climate crisis and Civil Protection. So, we need to do more in terms of prevention, making sure that we contain wildfires before they become too large and too devastating. And we want to be at the forefront of the climate change discussion and play a leading role within the European debate.
Susanna Reid: What’s the situation currently with how you’re tackling Covid? We’ve seen a really worrying rise in countries in Western Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, then Austria has just introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated. How are you getting on with vaccinations? And you rely a lot on UK tourism, don’t you? What would you say to British tourists who want to come back to Greece?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, we were very happy to welcome the British tourists during the summer, we had a relatively successful summer season. I think it was around two and a half million British tourists who came to Greece. Greece is a lovely country, I would encourage you to book your holidays for next year as quickly as possible. I think it’s going to be a Covid-free summer.
But right now you’re right to point out that we are facing a spike in cases. I think it’s a European phenomenon. If you look at Greek vaccination rates, they’re hovering around the EU average. We’re trying to encourage -obviously- unvaccinated people to get vaccinated. How do we do that? We’ve made it more difficult for unvaccinated people to access restaurants. So, you cannot have an indoor dinner in Greece now, if you are unvaccinated.
Susanna Reid: So there are vaccine passports. Would that apply to UK travelers?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: In case they came to Greece, it would apply to anyone coming to Greece at present. You don’t actually need a strict vaccine passport to get into the country, but of course the rules apply to anyone. We rely heavily on testing. So, if you want to eat outdoors and if you are unvaccinated we need a negative test. And what we’ve seen over the past two weeks is a significant uptake in vaccination rates. So we believe that this strategy is an effective strategy.
Obviously our national health system is under a lot of pressure, and we are trying to help doctors and nurses address this spike. But we need to make it very clear: when I look at my intensive care beds now, almost nine out of 10 people who are in intensive care beds are unvaccinated. And it’s a pity, it’s a real pity that people lose their lives because they don’t make the simple choice of getting vaccinated.
So we have a strict policy, but we will not go as far as Austria, to impose a full lockdown on unvaccinated people.
Ed Balls: Our Prime Minister likes his holidays. So I’m sure when you meet him he’ll be thinking of potentially a Greek trip next year. But he also likes Greek history. I’m sure you ‘ll be discussing the Parthenon Sculptures, the Elgin Marbles. Is there a chance of persuading this classicist Prime Minister here in Britain to start thinking in a different way about the Elgin Marbles?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, he should. I mean, he’s a lover of classical Greece…
Ed Balls: Why are they here? Personally I don’t understand this…
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: They are here because they were stolen by Lord Elgin.
Ed Balls: That’s debated: stolen or legal. But in the end…
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: But at the end of the day, this is not a legal argument. And I don’t like to talk about the return of the marbles. I like to talk about the reunification of the marbles. I would encourage you to have one of your shows in the Parthenon Museum, where you will see half of the Parthenon frieze -which is what you are showing- in a lovely modern museum right under the Acropolis.
So we are advocating for the reunification of the marbles, I will be making my case to the British Prime Minister. And I think that the general approach that these marbles belong to the British Museum because they’ve always been there is slightly anachronistic.
Ed Balls: Are there things that you could loan back or give back to the UK?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, we want the sculptures back for good. So we will not settle for a loan. But what we can offer is certainly an arrangement where we could offer to the British Museum artifacts and treasures that have never left the country, as part of a rotating collection. So, if there’s a will, I’m sure we can find a solution.
And what better demonstration of “Global Britain”, on the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the war of independence, than Great Britain to make such a generous gesture towards the Greek people.
Ed Balls: I reckon this Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is your best chance, so good luck. If you can’t persuade him, I’m not sure you’ll persuade anybody. Thank you Prime Minister for coming and talking to us today.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.