Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras talks economics and geopolitics at Brookings

Greek PM Tsipras speaks during a news conference at the annual International Trade Fair of the city of Thessaloniki

Greece weathered a severe economic crisis in recent years, and currently sits at the center of the European response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. On October 18, the Brookings Foreign Policy program and the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy hosted Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for an Alan and Jane Batkin International Leaders Forum. David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center, and Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe, sat down with the prime minister to discuss the future of Greece’s economy and its important geopolitical role in the region.

Who is Alexis Tsipras?

Wessel opened the discussion by recalling the prime minister’s visit to Brookings as opposition leader in 2013. Noting the considerable shifts in global politics since then and the prime minister’s past reputation as a radical leftist, Wessel began with an existential question: “Who is Alexis Tsipras?”

Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, a coalition party consisting of leftist and radical left factions, responded that both in 2013 and today his goal remains to keep Greece in Europe and the eurozone. While he had specific policy differences with other EU leaders over austerity, Tsipras explained that Europeans and Americans are now “wiser” and appreciate that the major threats to European unity are no longer the forces that criticize “the current model of Europe, the current policy in Europe,” but those that reject Europe as a whole.

These forces are driven by the rise of the extreme right in Europe—factions that repudiate the “foundational values and principles of [the] European Union, like solidarity, like democracy.” For Tsipras, European leaders must re-examine their policies, recognizing that a Europe of only “penalties, austerity, and discipline” is not “attractive for its citizens.”

In dealing with the challenges confronting Europe, Tsipras sees himself as a “leftist progressive,” but one tempered by realism in safeguarding the democratic values of the European Union.

Confronting right wing populism in Europe

Delving into the growth of right wing extremism in Europe, Wessel inquired as to the cause of the populist surge. For Tsipras, recent European election results—most importantly Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France—demonstrate that Europe has “overcome the big threat,” though the underlying problem persists. Worried by the potential consequences of cooperation between the right and far right, Tsipras called for “left-wing, center-left forces,” as well as “center-right forces” to “take brave decisions” to set and defend shared rules of the road in Europe, lest the extreme right tear the system apart.

Relationship status with Turkey: It’s complicated

Turning to Greece’s foreign policy, Sloat raised the complex relationship between the EU and neighboring Turkey. Building on the discussion of challenges facing European democracies, Sloat noted the EU’s need for Turkey as a strategic partner in responding to the refugee crisis, countering ISIS, and a host of other regional issues, coupled with concerns of growing authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. Noting that Greece has been one of the few supporters for staying the course on Turkey’s accession to the EU, Sloat asked how one should view Turkey and what tools the trans-Atlantic partners possess to reinforce democracy there.

For Tsipras, the strategy of keeping “Turkey in the European path, in close cooperation with the Western world” is the best approach to “mobilize the necessary reforms to democratize” the country and spur “reforms that will support human rights and democratic values.” Such an approach is not always easy, and regional tensions threaten to derail progress.

Nonetheless, Tsipras’s message for Turkey is simple: “We want you in the European path, we want you as partners in NATO,” but “Turkey must respect international law and order.”

Greece’s regional role—stability and the refugee crisis

Acknowledging the delicate stability in Greece’s neighborhood, Wessel inquired into the prime minister’s balancing of priorities. While the country continues to manage debt, austerity, and cuts to social services, new defense expenditures include plans announced during his press conference with President Trump to purchase $2.4 billion worth of F-16 aircraft from the United States. In response, Tsipras said the expenditure was a worthwhile investment to help Greece maintain regional stability, as well as encourage the Trump administration to remain actively involved in the eastern Mediterranean.

Of the regional challenges confronting Greece, Sloat highlighted Greece’s geographic centrality as the point of entry for some 1.3 million refugees into the EU over the past few years, with a current estimate of 62,000 currently in Greece. With no clear end to the refugee crisis in sight, Sloat queried as to a long-term solution for EU leaders to address the issues faced by both migrants and native-born Europeans.

Tsipras presented a strategy focused on responding to the factors in the countries producing the greatest number of refugees. However, stabilizing states like Syria will not end these crises without providing local incentives for people to stay. Addressing EU and U.S. leaders, Tsipras lamented: “if the European Union and the U.S. together will not take a brave decision financing these areas with a new Marshall Plan for the Northern African countries … [then] … we will not overcome the problem.”

Investing in Greece

In concluding, Wessel turned to the issue of foreign investment in Greece, alluding to the Eldorado Gold Corporation, a Canadian mining firm that recently invested $2 billion in a Greek gold mine. While the project created 2,400 new Greek jobs, permit delays have hampered operations. Tsipras acknowledged the bureaucratic challenges, but defended Greece as open to investors so long as they respect Greek laws. Citing new investor-friendly laws and incentives, Tsipras described efforts to create a more stable tax rate and fast track strategic investments.

The way forward for Greece and Europe

With a volatile political climate and a migration crisis across the continent, Europe faces an uncertain economic, social, and geopolitical future. For the prime minister, as his remarks indicated, the future success or failure of the European Union will depend on a commitment to cooperation, liberalism, and shared democratic values. Only time will tell if that proves sufficient to restore the European project.