Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has come to Washington to promote his crisis-plagued country as a source of stability in a troubled region.
Ahead of a meeting with President Obama on Thursday, Samaras was confident that Greece could play a geopolitical role “as a bastion of stability” in the eastern Mediterranean. Given new energy discoveries in Greece, Israel and Cyprus, and a deal for a new pipeline carrying Azerbaijani gas through Greece, Samaras also envisions his country as a provider of energy security to Europe.
“If I had come here a year ago, you would have seen Greece being unstable around an area of stability. Now we look good compared to the region,” Samaras joked Wednesday at a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board.
Samaras is seeking a vote of confidence from Obama and support for his effort to return growth to Greece. The country has entered the fourth year in a program of tough austerity and structural reforms in return for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, in an effort to avoid default and an exit from the euro zone. The IMF estimates that Greece will reach a primary surplus this year, which is a precondition for its lenders to consider further debt relief.
Samaras did not shy away from describing the tough economic reality on the ground, with Greece in its sixth straight year of recession, “a world record after the Great Depression,” he said. Unemployment has spiked to 27.5 percent, and the rate is more than 60 percent among young people.
Greece has lost more than 25 percent of its gross domestic product while real disposable income has fallen by more than 40 percent, according to government estimates. “We are walking on a thin line. We need to see tangible proof of light at the end of the tunnel,” Samaras said.
He also described a real political problem facing Greece: the rise of extremist parties in the left and the right as a result of high unemployment. “Can any modern European or NATO country accept such a high level of unemployment without turbulence?” he asked. Still, even though his coalition government recently lost its third partner, he said it is now stronger and more coherent, pointing to recent difficult votes by the parliament on public administration reforms.
Despite the devastating effects of the economic crisis, there is a changed atmosphere in Greece, Samaras said. This year the country is expecting a record-breaking 19 million tourists, “a rain of liquidity in a dehydrated soil,” he said. The deal for the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which will carry the Azerbaijani gas to the European markets through Greece and Albania, is a $40 billion investment in the region that Samaras is optimistic will create jobs. His government also is working closely with Cyprus and Israel to develop common energy policies.
Compared to the constant talk of a Greek euro-zone exit and the political instability before the last elections, these are significant improvements. Greece aims to attract investors and investment funds that will provide cheap financing for small and medium-sized enterprises in an economy struggling for liquidity.
Samaras is already welcoming American investors in his office, promising “the red carpet treatment rather than the usual Greek red-tape procedure,” he said. As if to demonstrate his point, after his visit to the Post, Samaras flew to New York to meet with investment fund managers, including hedge fund manager John Paulson.
Following his meeting with Obama on Thursday, Samaras is expected to head back to New York, where on Friday he is scheduled to meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) , United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Greek American entrepreneurs, including Andrew Liveris, the head of Dow Chemical.