Former Greek Minister of Finance, Defense, Foreign Affairs, President of PASOK and Deputy Prime Minister invited to offer lecture at Institute of European Studies
By Ted Laliotis, President , Hellenic Federation of Northern California
Mr. Evangelos Venizelos was in the Bay Area invited by the UC Berkeley Institute of European Studies to give a lecture on: “Statehood and Sovereignty: The Difficult Equilibrium between the European Union and Member States. The Refugee Crisis” on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.
Mr. Venizelos is a veteran politician in the Greek political scene, however, by profession, he is a Professor of Constitutional Law at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, and his visit to the Bay Area was of academic nature.
The Evangelos Venizelos interview with Ted Laliotis can be seen in it’s entirety at www.petrakosfilms.com/blog/
TL: Professor Venizelos, those of us looking at the Greek economic crisis for the last six years from a distance, believe that the Greek economy has already tanked and it may be almost impossible to recover. The various governments and/or governmental collaborative schemes have not only failed to achieve a recovery but keep sinking the economy deeper and deeper in recession. Part of the problem is the inability to find common ground with Greece’s lenders in order to achieve stability and make progress towards a recovery. Do you, Professor Venizelos, see a way out of this crisis without Greece going into total bankruptcy? Wouldn’t it be better for Greece to default on its loans and try to stand on its own two feet without the impositions by the lenders?
EV: The Greek people, since becoming part of the EU and the Eurozone have experienced great improvement in their standard of living and have been very happy. The economic crisis was something that was slowly creeping up without being detected or realized by the people or the governments. When it showed its ugly head, it was a complete surprise to all. We had to take immediate steps to deal with the crisis. Many people feel that the measures we took in order to deal with the crisis (borrowing agreements) brought the crisis. The truth is the opposite. The crisis was already there since 2007. Spending had been out of control and the deficit was deep. We just did not realize it.
My view is that if we had exited the Euro and declared bankruptcy then, instead of electing to borrow through loan agreements, it would have been total catastrophe for Greece. We chose to go into a structured borrowing program with our lenders, which actually worked, and brought us very close to successfully exiting the crisis by the end of 2014. However, the inability to elect a new President by the Parliament, and the people’s choice to put the opposition party in power, and the subsequent choices made by the new government starting the spring of 2015, reversed the progress that had been made through 2014 and lead the country into new and deeper crisis than ever experienced before.
You asked if I see a way out of the current situation. I do see a possible way out if we can surpass the political obstacles. If all political parties would set aside their selfish intentions and came together to form a national consensual government, take the necessary reform steps, and deal with our lenders as a united front, we could put the country back on a recovery path.
TL: The refugee/immigrant problem seems to be out of control. Since passage to the European countries has stopped because the European countries have closed their borders, many thousands, perhaps up to 100,000, of refugees/immigrants have been trapped in Greece. Can Greece absorb, or should Greece absorb these people, particularly given the current financial crisis? Also, why is the Greek Government allowing the refugees/immigrants to occupy and close off the main railroad passage at the Greek/FYROM border? This disables one of Greece’s most important commercial trade facilities, its ability to export merchandise, fruits, vegetables, etc.
EV: During 2014, only 74,000 refugees passed through Greece to Europe. During 2015, well over one million refugees passed through Greece to Europe, particularly to Germany who welcomed the refugees and could absorb them. Since then, Germany changed policy due to social reaction. That change has had a domino effect. There are over four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. So, Greece has been caught in the middle of a much more complicated game where Turkey is the central player and holds the key to solving or compounding Greece’s refugee problem. Turkey is negotiating with the EU to get concessions regarding Turkish citizens’ visa issues and is using Greece (sending refugees to Greece) as a means to pressure EU for concessions. Greece is caught in the middle. Unless the EU-Turkey agreement can take hold Greece will continue to have problems. The railroad closing at the Greek/FYROM border is a matter of the current Greek Government policy which is not up to me to solve.
TL: Many Greek Americans have financial interests in Greece and also many are registered voters in Greece. Greece and the United States have a mutual agreement on allowing people of dual citizenship to exercise their voting rights in either or both countries. The Greek Constitution allows Greeks Abroad who are registered in the Greek Voting records to vote but they have to go to Greece to vote on the day of the election. That is obviously impractical. Over the years we have asked repeatedly the Greek Governments to set up the ability for us to vote by mail or electronic ballot. It has not happened yet. Is there any chance of it happening any time soon?
EV: It takes a 2/3 majority of the Greek Parliament, and we have not been able to achieve that since recent year governments have had very slim majority in Parliament. Maybe someday it will happen, but it does not seem imminent. Part of the problem though is the fact that the Greeks Abroad are not organized well enough to tell us exactly what they want and to exercise a strong lobby to the Greek Government. Greeks Abroad do not have a strong unified voice. So, Greece is not doing anything about it.
TL: Greece cannot achieve financial growth and overcome the current financial crisis without foreign investments coming into the country. Yet the investment climate is so unstable and unfriendly in Greece that many investors who have tried it, have been disappointed and given up after extensive efforts. Is there any chance this mentality may change?
EV: You are absolutely correct and it is a major obstacle. I am personally committed to do everything I can to encourage investors to come to Greece. Some types of investments such as those of financial nature are much easier than those that involve environmental and/or natural resources. For example, we have very strong Canadian investments in the Athens Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos) at Spata as well as in Greek Banks. On the other hand investments in oil, gas, and mining are very difficult.
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