Breaking with tradition, the press conference given by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the 87th Thessaloniki International Fair began with a question from the Larisa-based newspaper “Eleftheria” instead of one based in Thessaloniki, with questions focusing on the handling of the recent devastating floods.
Presenting a graph prepared by the weather service meteo, Mitsotakis noted that the storm that the state was called to handle in Thessaly was unprecedented and had not been predicted by models based on previous weather events, such as Storm Ianos, having much greater quantities of rainfall.
“No one, I believe, was in a position to predict exactly what happened, precisely because it had never been seen before,” the prime minister said. He denied that the 112 emergency number had not been used to warn residents or that there was a delay in securing the assistance of the armed forces. Among others, he clarified that the protocol in case of flooding was different to that of fires, as being overtaken by a flood in transit was more dangerous than staying put. “The recommendation was for people to go to a higher floor and this is why we did not have a greater number of dead,” he added.
Regarding the help of the armed forces, he said helicopter crews had taken to the air as soon as it was safe to do so.
On the speed of reconstruction in Thessaly, Mitsotakis responded that this was linked to the proper management of its waters. He noted that the problems go deep into the past and concern both the shortage of water and the flooding. For this reason, he said, a Water Management Centre for Thessaly is being set up, which will have central supervision in collaboration with the regional authority and with help from abroad. He noted that assistance has already been requested from the Netherlands, which has extensive experience with flood-protection works and the protection of homes and farmland.
Mitsotakis announced that, in light of the phenomena, some settlements are viewed as vulnerable and alternative options will be examined for these, in consultation with local communities. He said this needed to be addressed on a national level and that he will therefore seek cross-party consensus on this front.
‘I have no plans for a government reshuffle’
All countries in the Mediterranean are up against similar extreme weather phenomena and the problem is here to stay, Mitsotakis said, responding to a question on whether Greece was doomed to “burn in the summer and then drown?”
He also made it clear that he has absolutely no intention of carrying out a government reshuffle at this time.
Asked whether Greece should allocate more funds to building major infrastructure, he said that anti-flooding works in Thessaly had been carried out but the experts would now have to determine how effective they had been. The prime minister noted that there must be a different approach to flood-protection that looked at water management in Thessaly as a whole.
He also underlined the importance of civil defence and spoke in detail about the actions taken by AIGIS, noting that Greece will be better prepared in the future than in 2023.
Mitsotakis stressed that he had never claimed that no mistakes were made but would now focus on how “we can improve and become more effective”, while announcing that the national meteorological service (EMY) and the National Observatory of Athens will be transferred to Civil Protection so that there is better coordination and use of meteorological models.
He also mentioned a need for more automatic protocols concerning the action of the armed forces and better training for local authority personnel.
Among others, he referred to parameters that might be improved in the handling of wildfires, while repeating that his visit to Evros had revealed that the damage from the fire was not as absolute as originally feared.
Referring to his efforts to secure aid from the European Union, Mitsotakis said: “I truly negotiated for the Recovery Fund and brought 31 billion euros to the country and it is a good opportunity to use the possibilities it opens for us with flexibility, as with the unspent funds from the NSRF.”
Mitsotakis announced that he will not rest until he convinces his colleages in the EU to increase the funding of the EU Solidarity Fund. He said that Thessaly’s recovery will be costly and the money will come from both European and national funds.
‘Other countries would not have handled this storm better’
There needs to be much better, top-down coordination of officials reporting to civil protection and preparation involving action plans, as well as a greater number of civil protection exercises, the prime minister said, responding to questions.
Concerning criticism of the functioning of the so-called “executive state” during the disaster, he said that anyone who considered that another country could have handled the storm and the quantities of water that fell any better was “sorely mistaken”.
“All the experts have admitted this and I do not understand how the executive state is to blame. I don’t understand what the alternative scenario is…to not have coordination?” he added.
“We must work and prepare in the field, on all operational levels. The forces of the army that are called in to support the efforts will be under the orders of civil protection. In order for the army to mobilise it must have clear orders from civil protection,” he said.
Mitsotakis also answered questions on relations with Turkiye and his meeting with the Turkish president, noting that recourse to The Hague was “still a long way off” while welcoming the reopening of channels of communication with Greece’s neighbour and the promotion of a positive agenda.
“Greece has not changed its strategy towards Turkiye but my desire was to be able to talk with Turkiye and for our issues to resolved on the basis of international law, and for things to not be taken to extremes when we disagree,” he added.
He emphasised that issues of sovereignty will not be topics of negotiation, nor issues concerning the islands of the eastern Aegean, which he was not prepared to discuss with Turkiye.
“Rapprochement with the West is in Turkiye’s interests and it knows that rapprochement with Europe comes via good relations with Greece. This is a weapon we have at our disposal for the improvement of Greek-Turkish relations. We should not expect issues that come from the past to be resolved overnight but agree that when we disagree things should not be taken to extremes,” Mitsotakis said.
‘High prices the biggest problem facing Greek households’
High prices are the biggest problem that Greek households face, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Sunday, responding to questions during his press conference at the 87th Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF):
“It is true that going to the supermarket is very expensive. High prices are a global phenomenon but this is no excuse. It is tackled in three ways. The first is superficial and concerns various benefits. The structural response to the problem of high prices is a stable and permanent increase in incomes. This is happening now with the increase of salaries, of pensions. The unfreezing of three-year raises that begins on January 1, 2024. All these are important interventions. At some point, prices will fall but the higher wages will remain.
“The second important intervention concerns the operation of the market. More systematic inspections are taking place. We will fight profiteering with the greatest possible severity. We are able to investigate whether price increases are justified. We will ask firms to explain why the prices of their products are increasing,” Mitsotakis said, noting that some fines had already been imposed.
Replying to a question about the “rotation” of government ministers, the prime minister defended his decisions and noted his opposition to frequent government reshuffles, while stressing that he would not hesitate to remove ministers whose behaviour called for their removal.
To those criticising the government’s performance, he noted that it had had to contend with two disasters but had also managed to regain investment grade in the last three months, ending a very traumatic cycle, while the government had already implemented half of the government programme.
On fighting tax evasion, he said the results were already starting to be apparent: “The previous four years we took steps [forward], now we are making leaps. The measures were very specific and they will bring results,” he said.
Mitsotakis pointed out that several tax payers declared implausibly low incomes, while technology greatly assisted in cross-checking information. He stressed the need to rebuild relations of trust and said the results will be measurable and help meeting primary surplus targets.
Determination to crack down on tax evasion
The last question taken by the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Sunday, during a press conference at the 87th Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), concerned tax evasion, where he again emphasised the use of technology and an intention to “tighten the reins” where there was known that tax was being evaded.
“I know that my predecessors said the same things and there is mistrust. I am determined. We are well aware of what we must do and we will do it, not only for financial reasons but also for reasons of fairness,” he said.
In other replies, meanwhile, he noted that the time was ripe for a discussion on making private insurance against natural disasters mandatory, as it was very hard for the state budget to cover all damage that may arise in a country that regularly faces fires, floods and earthquakes.
On salaries, Mitsotakis said that these had risen due to lower unemployment and that his goal was an average salary of 1500 a month and a minimum salary of 980 a month, while he expressed confidence about the resilience and prospects of the Greek economy.
Regarding the negotiations with Turkiye, he rejected the term “concessions” and stressed that the issues to be negotiated with Turkiye exclusively concerned the delineation of the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf.
“On no account will we discuss matters of national sovereignty, or the status of the islands of the Eastern Aegean and the rights arising from the exercise of sovereignty on the islands,” he said.
On the organisation of civil protection, he defended the emphasis on evacuations and contrasted the handling of forest fires in Greece with the loss of life during the recent fires in Hawaii, pointing out that neither Germany nor the UK had a 112 system.
Mitsotakis denied any intention of taking up a post as a European official, responding to a relevant question, and also commented on reactions to the new ID cards, saying these were hard to understand and that replacing the old IDs was a necessity.
Asked about the case of Fredi Beleri, who remains jailed on remand in neighbouring Albania, Mitsotakis said he would not stop raising the issue and especially the fact that Albanian authorities were not allowing Beleri to exercise his right to be sworn in as Himare’s elected mayor, which he said was a violation of the rule of law.
Commenting on the importance of an investment-grade rating, he pointed out that Greece was now borrowing at a lower rate than even France and that the more the cost of borrowing dropped, the greater the benefits would be for households and businesses. “We are not hiding behind investment grade. Our main concern in the coming months is to mitigate the impact of the global explosion of prices,” he added.
The prime minister also spoke about the support of farmers, saying that the government has ambitious plans for the primary sector, and that “farmers know that whenever there is a need, the support of the state is certain….”