Keynote address by Kyriakos Mitsotakis at KEFiM’s Agenda presentation

Keynote address by Kyriakos Mitsotakis at KEFiM’s Agenda presentation

Keynote address by the President of the New Democracy Party and current Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at KEFiM’s presentation “Greece 2021 – Agenda for Freedom and Prosperity”.

The speech was delivered on April 12th 2019, the second day of the two day event, that took place on 11 & 12 April and was hosted at the Old Parliament Hall in Athens.

English subtitles available now.

Dear Alexander, ladies and gentlemen,

I really appreciate you inviting me to be with you here today, and also giving me the opportunity to study in more detail the very substantive concerns that have been analyzed over the last two days. I would like to congratulate you once again on the quality of your work and your courage when expressing your views, always doing so in a moderated, documented manner. Your work at KEFiM is a breath of fresh air, introducing sound political speech into a general environment of confusion and mistrust. So I don’t think that my presence here today should surprise you. Besides, we are almost on the same wavelength and, in any case, an open party like New Democracy is always open to think tanks that produce quality, substantive speech on applied politics. I think that this is widely considered a necessity dictated by our time.

However, today I would like not to focus so much on the individual conclusions of the speeches heard during this two-day conference. Those will be useful as material to be processed by the New Democracy Program Committee. I see George Stergiou here with us, and I’m sure that he and his team will study your suggestions.  

Certainly, we agree on many points of the suggestions you have made. Let me mention Education, for instance. The proposal to rid public Education of the suffocating control, the yoke, of the State is very close to our own philosophy. As regards labor issues, we are absolutely determined to avoid any backsliding that would hinder reducing unemployment and increasing employment.

Admittedly, we do not agree with some of your other suggestions, such as those on minimum wage, certain suggestions regarding taxes, and your bold views on abolishing the age for retirement, but in any case, any proposals put forward in the context of public dialogue must be considered without suspicion and prejudice. In that regard, your contribution has been and still is extremely useful. I will also make reference to the other part of your work, that is the liberal nature of the Greek Revolution of 1821.

Today, I would like to take this opportunity to speak in a slightly more ideological context, by focusing on the core of progressive liberal thinking, namely the concepts of freedom and individual and social responsibility. This is a dipole which, in my opinion, has currently emerged as a field of conflict and contrast between positive, I dare say shining, reformist powers on the one hand, and the dark front of populism on the other. It is finally time to let the truth shine and cast out the lies, especially in this regard.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Three years ago, in April 2016, at the first regular New Democracy conference in which I had the honor to participate as President of our party, I said that we should “bring back to the fore politics with a capital ‘P’” by serving two fundamental values: “Freedom and Solidarity”. I also noted that “the concepts of individual freedom and responsibility are intrinsically linked”. The greater the former, the greater the latter. I insisted that both presuppose a society with rules, where the right of any citizen to pursue an activity cannot conflict with another citizen’s freedom, let alone turn out to be at the expense of public interest.

I believe that our experience from the events that followed fully do justice to such views. Today, everyone is looking for a way for Greece to become a normal country again, “normal” in the sense of “having regularity”, regularity itself being associated with the concept of “rule”, namely law, regulation, authority. Such concepts tend to disappear from public life. Today, more and more people are longing for an asset, a good that we take for granted but, as it turns out, is not that self-evident after all. That is Freedom; Freedom in Economy, Education, Justice, in the way that the Institutions operate. These are crucial areas which suffocate today because of the existence of a controlling State, political partisanship and often severe governmental authoritarianism. In addition, everyone is now talking about responsibility and solidarity in every area: from addressing issues of national interest to everyday safety, Health, Welfare and Education. SYRIZA’s inadequacy and irresponsibility have deeply, indelibly scarred these areas.

One of them is Safety. Considering that no society can be really free unless its citizens feel safe, allow me a brief comment about everything that is still happening in the center of Athens, especially in the area of Exarcheia. I believe that all Greek citizens, regardless of which political party they identify with, demand that this reign of lawlessness come to an end. This situation affects us all, but mostly the people who live in Exarcheia, and is out of control. We have now come to the point where criminal gangs are not only armed (we already knew this was the case), but also disarm men of the police forces. The Exarcheia ghetto is a living hell for the citizens who live in the area. Yesterday they even broke up a peaceful gathering of local residents and screamed out vulgar slogans offending the memory of dead people. I believe that the time has come for the entire Greek society to say that enough is enough.

I repeat here today my non-negotiable commitments. The safety of the citizens is an absolute priority. The New Democracy government – provided that we have the trust of the Greek people in the forthcoming elections – will put an end to such ghettos. The same goes for the university asylum, which creates a haven for crime. The asylum will not be subject to change; it will be abolished as soon as we form a government. Universities will be treated like all other public spaces. Besides, no one has questioned the right to freedom of expression in Greek universities or Greece in general. We will also abolish the Paraskevopoulos law, under which thousands of criminals have been released from prisons. A distinction will be made immediately between common criminals and terrorists, and the latter will have to be kept in maximum security prisons, as is the case in every country in the world governed in a serious, lawful manner. We will re-launch the DELTA Rapid Response Force, which used to do substantial work in the center of Athens, and we will reinforce the DIAS Force, for targeted action in high-delinquency areas. I’m saying all this because it is not enough to simply condemn a phenomenon that, in my opinion, offends the democratic conscience of all citizens. We have concrete proposals and I believe that security will be the first area in which the next New Democracy government will be tested.

Let me now return to the main topic of my intervention. It is obvious that life itself has made Freedom and Social Responsibility basic requirements in our time, but also important priorities for our country. Greece is currently a country experiencing the consequences of political dishonesty. And that is because the stench of government scandals cannot be concealed, no matter how hard the real culprits try to do so. You managed to point this out very vividly throughout this event. Today, we have an ineffective but costly State as regards the services it offers. This State eventually caused our economy to sink and leads citizens to poverty, forcing them to pledge themselves to a political party for the sake of an allowance. Liberal thinking, progressive liberal thinking, has come to be – for lack of a better expression -a red line separating the actually progressive from the conservative ones, or, better, those with outdated ideas, the reactionary ones, from the actually progressive ones.

And that is because the self-proclaimed “progressives” most of the time prove to be mere supporters of stagnation. They simply hit the brakes to stop any move forward. They are sad scavengers of the most obscure past. Returning to the essence of our topic, I would like to repeat: Freedom and Solidarity are the values that currently set us so far apart from SYRIZA. These principles, these values, must imbue all of our policies in a horizontal manner. What does this mean in practice? It means that there can be no effective Public Education without Freedom. Freedom of choice for learners when it comes to learning, freedom of teachers to choose how they are going to teach. Also, there can be no real Public Education unless all Greek children everywhere have equal opportunities to a common starting point. There can be no growth without entrepreneurship and there can be no entrepreneurship without fair taxation. However, development without rules and healthy competition means that, in the end, the few will prevail at the expense of the many. Unless the share of development is fairly distributed between owners and workers, social inequalities, the great problem of modern societies, will eventually be exacerbated. Without incentives and reward of effort, there can be no individual prosperity. A society with no protagonists is trapped in mediocrity and sees its standards drop. No society moves forward when its citizens are on the sidelines. So here is why New Democracy abides by the principles of freedom and solidarity. Because free initiatives and a free economy ultimately lead to free creation, and because a society with solidarity is a safe, and thus more united, -society. Because it gives to those less privileged opportunities for prosperity, thus making social mobility a reality. To sum up, true to its name, a progressive liberal society breathes the oxygen of true freedom, the freedom of responsibility.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We must never forget that progressive liberal thinking was an essential component for the founding of the modern Greek state. The 1821 War of Independence was both a revolution for the liberation of the nation and a liberal revolution. Already in 1823, Dionysios Solomos introduces in the 6th stanza of his “Hymn to Liberty” the liberal ideal as a fundamental demand of the revolution. As Dionysios Solomos wrote: “Long you have awaited for a freedom-loving call”. That was in 1823, when the Greek Revolution was already influenced by the liberal ideas in Europe and by the American Revolution, which places life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, personal happiness, in the very core of the constitution, making these the primary values that every modern society must serve. Also, according to the Greek Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence was a struggle “the object of which is to reconquer our rights to individual liberty, property and honor”.  

I am making this specific, and I think useful, historical reference, because this progressive liberal aspect of the Greek Revolution is in danger of being crushed under the weight of the Balkan tradition and the incomplete, unfortunately, plan for the actual modernization of our country. Strangely enough, progressive and liberal Greeks, regardless of affiliation, have had to deal with the same problem for nearly 200 years. Whenever they succeeded, albeit for a short time, like Eleftherios Venizelos a century ago, Greece would change and make progress at a very fast pace. Whenever such forces fell silent, tribulations and bankruptcies would follow.

Today, New Democracy, the main center-right political player of Greece, its DNA carrying the progressive liberal tradition, is asked to overcome the same problem and, of course, its own weaknesses along the way. It is also asked to face the new challenges arising from globalization and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

To tackle such questions, we will have to begin with the fundamentals. According to progressive liberal thinking, as shaped by the texts on political liberalism in the 19th century, individual freedom and uniqueness are the ultimate political asset. At the same time, it adopts a rational attitude as regards the evolution of societies, which, obviously, can only follow a common path. It is no coincidence that we, liberals, choose the term “citizen” over the vague concept “people”. We focus on the prosperity of each and every individual instead of that of a faceless mass. We never identify the “State” with the “Public” interest. It goes without saying that, in this age of great social mobility, where everything is completely redefined, we deny the simplistic “class” interpretation. After all, history itself has shown that those who invoked the “class struggle” eventually abolished freedom and established totalitarian regimes. The fundamental human motives may remain the same, but the failures of the State and the economy do not reveal themselves everywhere in a uniform manner.

For example, in Greece there is no place for market fundamentalism, which our government, in their historical ignorance, is supposedly fighting. On the contrary, we need smart solutions that combine entrepreneurial creativity with the institutional power of the State. For instance, what is the progressive liberal answer to a thorny issue like waste management? The provision of services by the private sector, but keeping the State in charge of monitoring compliance with the rules and carrying out controls. The same applies to infrastructure: When we presented our program on Infrastructure, we talked about innovative proposals, the unsolicited proposals, by the private sector, which can examine new projects and help them mature. We do not give the private sector the power to design national infrastructure, but we do give it the opportunity to do what it can do much better than the State: innovate and seek opportunities, while at the same time the State evaluates and integrates its proposals into a global plan that will have popular approval, popular legitimacy.

Attention, though: As you already demonstrated yourselves in various ways, a progressive liberal politician seeks a non-bureaucratic, flexible State that collaborates with creative entrepreneurs. Similarly, he must also demand a flexible, non-bureaucratic private sector able to cooperate with an efficient State. This gives rise to a dual requirement: no to the old monster State that functions as a businessman, and no to the vampire-like entrepreneur who wants to be supported exclusively by the State. This is modern progressive liberalism. It evolves without being trapped in doctrines. It makes use of tools like the very functioning of the markets, without being enslaved by them.

However, it is still a non-negotiable principle that there can be no truly progressive liberal society if that does not harbor political and economic liberalism. Going after personal property by imposing taxes that crush production, as is the case today, causes political freedom to gradually wither. The State is imposing measures from which the citizen is trying to escape, which ultimately leads to an intensification of the restriction of the citizens’ individual rights. Now in the shoes of persecuted ones, citizens come up with new ways of violating the law, in turn giving rise to new measures. Beware… this endless chain ultimately leads to social dissolution. The State completely forgets that it exists and functions to benefit the citizens, and those no longer feel part of a cohesive society. The social contract, which is based not only on statutory laws but, above all, on unwritten rules of trust, ultimately collapses. But the opposite is also true: without political freedom, economic freedom is incomplete, deprived of spiritual content. That is because, without equal opportunities for progress, success ceases to function as a social elevator,and if wealth is not diffused among more and more people, it becomes a matter of the few and is, thus, incriminated. It stops functioning as a model of success and starts being attacked.

This is how the way opens for citizens to ask for “protection” from the mighty party or to seek refuge in extreme solutions basically devoid of political substance. In our progressive and liberal political plan, equal opportunities allowing everyone, proportionately to their own strength and with hard work, should they choose to follow this path, to succeed in life, are a central political goal. We must admit that the great majority of people are not born to privilege. Upward social mobility is not easily accessible to them. Therefore, the modern State has an obligation to give them opportunities, even with positive discrimination, if necessary.

Here’s an example in practice: We have already talked about our desire to establish new model schools in every regional unit of Greece. The first new model school that our government will found will be located in Peristeri, West Athens. Because we need to offer opportunities to those who need them the most. But giving opportunities is not enough. There must be a plan to support those who try and fail, as well as the excluded ones. That is why we insist so much on a Minimum Guaranteed Income policy for 800,000 fellow citizens. That is why we keep talking about active training programs that will equip mostly the long-term unemployed with new skills. Those are the people who mostly suffer from extreme poverty in our country today, and they need a second chance to take control of their lives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to finish as I started. Dear Alexander, think tanks must, by nature, boldly show the way forward, sometimes even with provocative, but necessary, ideological disagreements. This is what you have accomplished here at KEFiM, providing us with 7 helpful suggestions for perhaps the most critical areas of government policy. I would like to thank you personally, both as President of the New Democracy party and as a simple friend of your Center. In this closing speech, I wished to share with you some thoughts on how I personally perceive progressive liberalism today. To highlight its fundamental principles but also to describe how those must imbue the policies that we implement to face current government deadlocks.  I believe that this proposal is not just a proposal for freedom but a proposal for optimism and a better Greece.

The next elections with take place on 26 May. That Sunday, the truth will confront the lie, and real progress will battle against stagnation, as will modernization against regression. I dare say that progressive liberalism as I have described it, will confront something more akin to an ideological mishmash. As it turns out, the coming elections will be a great challenge for modern, progressive liberal thinking. It is up to us all to adopt a positive attitude towards this challenge. The country needs a fresh start. And since our topic is an agenda for freedom, let me tell you this: all of us together can free our future. Surely we deserve better; every Greek citizen understands this. But I firmly believe that we can do better together. Thank you very much.