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Overexposing the demands for Greek debt forgiveness is damaging

30 September 2015 / 16:09:12  GRReporter
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Anastasia Balezdrova

The Greek media have been recently filled with news about the visit of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to New York, where he delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly, had the opportunity to meet with international creditors and hold a few-minute conversation with US President Barack Obama.
GRReporter has already presented the responses to the performance of Greece's Prime Minister before investors. According to the Greek media, in the conversation with Mr. Obama that lasted only a few minutes he was able to discuss some important issues with him. Later, during his meeting with representatives of the Greek Diaspora, Mr. Tsipras said that his government had recently close cooperation with Washington, where it found "more attentive listeners regarding the fair resolution to the crisis." Immediately afterwards, he added that this should be achieved "through the necessary forgiveness of the intolerable and unsustainable public debt that has been accumulated during all these years."

At the same time, the tax offices in Greece are preparing to send taxpayers notifications for several tax obligations in October alone. The government has not yet found a solution to the problem with migrants and refugees, many of whom continue to be in Victoria Square in the centre of Athens whereas the reforms envisaged in the agreement with creditors continue to be only the subject of talks and not of actions.

GRReporter asked for comment Greece’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dimitris Kourkoulas. He is a long-time employee of the European administration, where he has held various posts. His appointment as European Commission Ambassador in Sofia from 2001 to 2006 made Dimitris Kourkoulas a good friend of Bulgaria and his feeling continues to this day.

Mr. Kourkoulas, one of Alexis Tsipras’ first actions after his re-election as Prime Minister of Greece was to ask again for public debt restructuring. Do you think that creditors are willing to negotiate on this issue?

I consider unproductive the constant public repetition of the arguments for public debt. The decisions on debt relief were already taken in November 2012. Creditors said then that this process would start at the end of the monitoring and at the point when Greece achieved a sustainable primary surplus. This is explicitly stated in the third memorandum of financial support that Mr. Tsipras has signed.

I think that the continuous statements for debt relief by the Prime Minister and the representatives of Greece are damaging. They are not helping the negotiations and above all, they are damaging to the establishment of the sense of stability that is necessary to attract investment in the country. Claiming that the debt issue must be solved at the time when you are going to the US, saying you want investments, is an oxymoron. The excessive "advertising" of the debt is damaging.

A few days ago, Mr Tsipras said in New York that now Greece is politically stabile and the government is ready to start implementing the reforms agreed. Do you think that this office has the will to make the changes needed by the Greek economy?

The need for reforms is now apparent even to the most dogmatic people in Greece. Moreover, the government has the strong support of the Greek people. Therefore, it will have no excuse not to trigger the reforms in my opinion, and the faster, the better.

If you ask me whether it is able to implement them, the answer is, it can, if it wants to and if it believes in them. But it is a question of its ability to reject some of its obsessions, which have led to negative results in recent years and especially over the past seven months.

Many of the reforms that Greece must implement now Bulgaria has implemented to be able to join the European Union. However, although it has better macroeconomic indicators today, Bulgarians still lead a harder life than Greeks do. Do you agree with this statement and how would you explain it?

I think it is wrong to compare the level of living in Bulgaria with that in Greece or the level of living in Greece with that in Germany. We are talking about processes that have led to economic growth over the course of hundreds of years.

What we have to compare is the situation in Bulgaria today with the situation there before implementing the reforms. I think we all agree with the view that Bulgaria has achieved much progress. Reforms alone are not enough. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic development. Other factors contribute to achieving it as well. But the fact that today Bulgaria has significant macroeconomic stability, a small debt and small deficit is very positive. These things, however, would not have been achieved without the implementation of reforms.

Or to say the same thing in another way: if the European Union had obliged Greece to implement reforms when Bulgaria was obliged to implement them to join it, it would have been in a much better situation today.

The European Union promises no alignment in the level of living and wages. No agreement envisages this. We live in conditions of a single market and competition where there are winners and losers. But I think that with reforms alone, Bulgaria and Greece, and all the countries of our region can become more competitive and therefore struggle for wealth distribution under better conditions.

The SYRIZA government imposed radical changes in the refugee and migrant policy immediately after the elections in January. Do you think that these steps were in the right direction for Greece?

I think the Greek government had no migration policy or strategy for a very long period of time. As a result, in the summer we witnessed this unacceptable situation on the islands where thousands of refugees gathered, without the presence of even a minimum infrastructure for their reception. My opinion is that there was no effective coordination of policies.

The previous government was able to deal with migrant and refugee influx in a more effective manner. Do not forget that even today many of the people who are arriving in Greece are not refugees but migrants. I think that mistakes were made. Statements were also made that helped smugglers choose Greece and its islands that are close to Turkey. All these things have not created the problem but exacerbated its severity.

Therefore, I do not agree with the claims that today's government has been able to tackle the problem in a more efficient manner. We cannot ignore the fact that there has been a spectacular increase in the number of refugees arriving in Greece in recent months and this is not due to SYRIZA but to external factors. But the way in which SYRIZA tackled the problem was not right.

Every self-respecting country should not leave its borders unguarded and should provide humanitarian aid, which it is obliged to provide to all people fleeing to escape the war. Unfortunately, at some point, the events went beyond the abilities of the Greek government, which could not cope with them. As a result, we saw those unacceptable pictures on the islands and on the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which are unworthy of Greece.

We see that the refugee and migrant wave to the Greek islands is not decreasing. Why months after the emergence of such an intense problem does Europe not have an adequate policy to solve it?

This is a problem with huge historical dimensions. The refugee and migrant wave has been the largest since World War II. Therefore, it is not something that Europe can easily handle with united efforts or the member states individually.

I think the problem is complex. It is rooted in the instability in many neighbouring countries to Greece and in the wars. Therefore, its final settlement could come only after peacemaking, for example in Syria. Another key country is Turkey, which is the first country that receives refugees from Syria and the rest of the countries in the region.

I would like to say that the problem would exist even if there were no European Union. I do not consider fair those who rush to accuse the European Union, though it certainly could, and should, do more things. The problem would have existed again, it is in existence now and it will persist. And I think that all recognize that the existence of the European Union is a positive thing and it is helping to tackle it, of course on condition that all member states will contribute towards the overall management of this crisis.

It is noteworthy that Eastern European countries are more negative towards the reception of refugees than Western countries. How would you explain this?

I admit that the position of some of our partners was a surprise to me, especially of Eastern European countries that had received assistance from the European Union in past, but not so distant, times.

Do not forget that after the invasion of the Soviet army in Hungary in 1968 Western countries received 200,000 Hungarian political refugees within 5-6 weeks. We would expect the presence of a historical memory that would have driven these countries to have a more generous and long-term attitude towards the problem, despite the difficulties.

I believe, however, that the solution cannot only come from the countries that are receiving refugees. It should be combined, with an increase in the number of documents issued for people to acquire refugee status, but mostly with operations in the major countries that are receiving refugees, such as Turkey and Lebanon. Thus, when peace is made in Syria, these sufferers can return to their homes faster. A prerequisite for all this is to try harder to pacify Syria and avoid past mistakes in terms of the diplomatic attempts to solve the problem in the country.

Could the refugee and migrant problem lead to another division of Europe?

Our friends from Eastern Europe may believe that Syria and the countries of North Africa and the Middle East lie remote from them and the situation there does not concern them, but I think that eventually they will realize that this is a global issue and it affects us all. I hope they will show more understanding.

Tags: PoliticsDimitris KourkoulasSYRIZA governmentPublic debtReformRefugees and migrantsEuropean Union
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