Press Roundtable in Athens, Greece

Press Availability
Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Athens, Greece
July 27, 2012

Date: 07/27/2012 Description: Assistant Secretary Gordon at the Press Roundtable in Athens, Greece. - State Dept Image

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thank you. It’s very nice to be back in Athens. It’s nice to see some of you again. I think I’ve seen you on a number of occasions including in this very room.

I am here to express our support and solidarity of the Greek people, and the Greek government as it undertakes some very difficult but we think really important economic reforms. We’re following these developments very closely and have a great stake in the outcome, not just for the sake of our friends and partners in Greece, but for the sake of the entire European area and the U.S. economy and the world economy. So we have great interest and we admire what the government is doing in undertaking, again, what we consider to be essential reforms, not just to convince world markets and European lenders of the soundness of the Greek economy, but for the sake of the Greek economy itself. In other words, we think these reforms are worth undertaking because they will lead to a more prosperous and sound Greek economy, let alone stabilize the eurozone.

We also appreciate Greece’s continued partnership with the United States on a number of regional and global issues, notwithstanding the economic difficulties. I had a chance to meet with the Foreign Minister. I also met earlier today with some of the other party leaders in the coalition. The latter mostly to talk about the economic situation, but obviously with the Foreign Minister, not just the economic situation but regional and global affairs. And as we discussed, world events don’t -- you don’t get to hit the pause button while you deal with the economy. There are still a lot of issues between Greece and Turkey and the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, so we exchanged views on those and I expressed our appreciation for Greece’s partnership in dealing with those, even as it faces the economic difficulties.

So again, a big agenda. It’s very important to the United States, so I came here to try to get a better understanding of what’s going on in Greece and the region. I’ll be going on to Turkey from here. But as I began with, I also came to express support for what the government and the people of Greece are doing.

With that, I’ll be happy to take any questions.

QUESTION: One of the priorities of the new Greek government in foreign policy is to declare the exclusive economic zone. Do you believe it can go ahead with this or before that have an agreement or something like that with Turkey?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think it’s important to avoid unilateral steps. The United States recognizes countries’ rights to declare exclusive economic zones but these things aren’t done in a vacuum and you’d have to understand the full context. We don’t think it would be in Greece’s interest to do it without full cooperation with neighbors including Turkey.

Fortunately you have mechanisms in place, and over the past number of years have developed bilateral channels in which these things can be discussed and I know that they have already contributed to progress and we would strongly encourage Greece to use those channels to have these conversations so that any steps in this area are done cooperatively in the interests of all parties.

They’re complicated issues and it’s not as simple as being able to declare an EEZ or not being able to declare an EEZ, and that’s precisely why it should be done cooperatively.

QUESTION: In order to get the economy started, which is the big issue for Greece, it is crucial to attract more and more investment. What do you believe should be the main reforms that Greece has to make in order to attract investment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: That’s a good question, because attracting investment is clearly a critical aspect to turning the Greek economy around. You need foreign investment. I think frankly over the years there has been a perception in Greece that it wasn’t friendly enough to foreign investment, that there were too many rules, too much bureaucracy, too slow approval rates, and investors need certainty and transparency. They want to be sure what the rules are, the regulations -- that they’re not going to be changing. So I think creating a more investor-friendly climate is critical.

There are other less direct measures, but are still important measures, and those are the ones that I think the government is already working on in strengthening the overall economy so that you get growth and buying power, purchasing power, so that it’s worth making the investments. But I would start with the question of bureaucracy, rules and regulations. I think you can look at, there are rankings of countries in terms of, for example, how quickly an investment can be approved and I think Greece needs to advance on that list.

QUESTION: I will stick to the economy because that’s what’s troubling us. I don’t know if you could say a few words about the meetings that you had with the other two governmental partners. And we had the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury a few days ago and I was wondering, the idea is, especially ahead of the American elections, there is this notion and I think it’s understandable that the United States is beginning to lose patience not with Greece, but the way the European leaders are handling the crisis since Greece and Ireland are not a problem right now. Nothing compares to what will happen if Spain or Italy fail or these growing costs continue.

So it would be great if you would give us your insight on this, and what is worrying the United States, and apart from declarations of support, which are good, or that you have to do something. If you have any other idea of how you could convince the European leaders to move on the next step and do something decisive.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Sure. As I said right from the start, we are following it extremely closely because we have such a great stake in the outcome. We have a great stake because we care about the hundreds of millions of people who live in Europe and their prosperity, but we also even have a more direct national interest at stake, our economy is so dependent on growth and stability and that of our largest trading and investment partner in the world by far. I think it’s accurate to say that some of the drag on the U.S. economy right now are questions about the eurozone, and so that’s why we’re so committed.

We acknowledge also that we don’t have a direct say in some of the key decisions to be made in Europe. The question of how big is the firewall or whether there are bailout funds or whether the ECB should be buying bonds at a certain level are not issues on which we get a vote. But because we are so engaged and so committed and so intertwined with Europe, we have views and we share those views and I can tell you at the highest levels, including our President there are regular conversations with European leaders about the way forward.

You mentioned American impatience. I wouldn’t describe it as impatience. I would acknowledge that --

QUESTION: Losing patience. I think it’s right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: That’s different. Yes. We would like a comprehensive solution tomorrow or yesterday, but we also understand these are complicated decisions. They’re not easy. The reforms will take time. I think Angela Merkel but other leaders across Europe keep trying to explain that as well, that there is no magic bullet and there is no quick solution to this problem and we understand that. At the same time, we are urging leaders and I think have been for some time to be as decisive as possible as quickly as possible because the stakes are so great.

In terms of what -- you asked about my meetings with the party leaders and what needs to be done -- I would say I was encouraged from what I heard in the sense that the coalition members seemed determined to implement the agreements that have been reached. They seemed to have an appreciation that markets and governments need to see results and real efforts and structural reforms before they will respond positively. It goes back to the question that I was asked about investments.

Of course they took the opportunity to explain to me how difficult it was on the Greek people and the Greek economy, which we know and appreciate, but they also demonstrated a real understanding that only by taking these difficult measures will eurozone governments, the European Central Bank, and private investors be convinced that they can really put their money in Greece.

That’s what I encourage them to do as well, as quickly as possible and as decisively as possible, demonstrate in deed as well as in word, that there really is a new Greece, that Greece gets it, that it’s doing the things that are necessary to make clear that this is a place that you can really do business, and in this highly competitive globalized world there are a lot of places where you can send your money, as investors and hedge funds and others demonstrate every single day. And if they have the slightest doubts about a country’s ability to pay its debts or about what would be the fate of their investment, they’ll just go elsewhere.

That’s why it’s really incumbent on the country in question to take decisive, necessary measures. But as I say, from my meetings here I was convinced, I think it was in the first place encouraging to see the Greek people vote for parties that understood that, because the alternative would, in our humble estimation, really not serve Greece’s interests well. And it was encouraging to hear from those party leaders that they understand that and they’re determined to finish the job.

QUESTION: I would like to insist on the European economy matters. Are you worried about the possibility of a eurozone breakup and how possible do you find it? Because you see there were, even from German official, statements the past days about Greece leaving the eurozone, so --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I would say a couple of things. First, we’re confident that the eurozone will stay together, that the governments have the commitment and the means to keep it together, and we believe that’s in our common interest. So we don’t want to see a breakup of the eurozone.

I would add that we’re not alone in thinking that. I think it’s worth pointing out that notwithstanding all of the questions about the viability of the eurozone, all of the costs involved to certain countries in keeping it going, all of the real pressures on certain members including Greece to do difficult things to stay in, notwithstanding all of that, every single member of the eurozone and governments across the European Union remain committed to it. If you want to simplify, both the lender countries and the debtor countries, they still remain committed. Even in Greece where we know you’ve borne great costs to do the necessary things to stay in, the Greek government is committed to it, and the Greek people voted consciously for parties who are also committed to it, notwithstanding the costs. I think that shows a real recognition of the values of preserving the eurozone.

You point to German leaders speculating about a breakup. If you listen carefully -- first of all the main German leader, the Chancellor, has been absolutely clear that she wants to preserve the eurozone and I think you see that in her actions when Germany puts up money to keep everybody in the eurozone -- and so what you’ve had is a couple of leaders most recently say they’re no longer appalled by the notion of one country leaving the eurozone. That’s still a very long way from saying we should abandon the eurozone, it’s not in our interest. On the contrary, I think all evidence points to a real recognition that it’s in everybody’s interests.

Then take I think even just yesterday Mario Draghi, head of the ECB, saying we’ll do -- you can check the quote exactly -- but something along the lines of whatever it takes. So I think there’s a recognition among all key actors that as painful and difficult as it is, it is really worth preserving. That will in itself I think help support the eurozone.

QUESTION: I would like to ask two questions. One is [inaudible] be positive on an extension of the Greek adjustment program from two years to four years so that it’s easier for the people to accept it. The second is the situation in Syria seems to get out of control. The Obama administration has shown that any action that could possibly be taken should be in a collective manner. But do you believe that the only way to do this is through the UN Security Council? Or possibly if the situation gets even worse we should explore other possibilities like a coalition of the willing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thanks. Two separate things. First, on the question of an extension of the timetable for Greece’s program, that’s really between Greece and the Troika, which is the source of the original deal. It’s not for us to say what schedule it should be on.

That said, I would share my sense that the first thing Greece needs to do is demonstrate that it’s committed to the program and it is undertaking real reforms. I think, being perfectly frank, it’s too soon to start asking for an extension. Your election was what, less than two months ago. The government has started to undertake a number of important steps, but I think that receptivity in Europe to any talk of extensions now is premature. On what basis would they do that? So I don’t think it’s something that should be ruled out, but I think in terms of sequencing it should be first things first. Demonstrate over a period of time that you are genuinely committed to these difficult steps in implementing the program, and then on the basis of that effort I think the prospects for discussing timetables or flexibility would be much better than doing it in the other order.

As for Syria, we’re obviously very concerned about the situation in Syria. It has become clear to us for some time that there needs to be a political transition in Syria, that Syria will never be stable and peaceful under Assad who has used violence against his own people. And yes, we have gone to great efforts to work with the international community. This is not just a U.S. view. The international community, including most importantly all of Syria’s neighbors practically and the Arab League, are focused on a political transition as well.

Yes, our strong preference has been to work on it through the UN Security Council, that’s why we’ve been back to it three times for proposing different resolutions focused, as we say, on political transition. Unfortunately, every single time it didn’t pass in the Security Council because there was a veto by Russia and China, including most recently just two weeks ago, and, I might add, by nobody else. There were two abstentions and two vetoes. In the previous one it was 13 to 2. We regret that Russia and China have stood in the way of what clearly the rest of the international community believes to be the need for a resolution supporting political transition.

So yes, in that sense the Security Council route is blocked. We will continue to act with our international partners. There have been a number of meetings of the Friends of the Syrian People with participation of 40, 60, 80 countries and international entities, and we’ll continue to work through that channel and others to increase the pressure on the regime, change the balance on the ground, and support and coordinate the opposition so that when Assad does go, and he will, there is a better prospect for a more stable, inclusive government in Syria than otherwise. And we’re going to continue to work it. On that, we appreciate Greece’s support in those efforts.

QUESTION: Mr. Gordon, do you believe that the Greek-Turkish relations could be deteriorated, could be affected in some way because of the Syrian crisis and the complicated issues that emerge in the region with say the efforts of the Israeli and the [inaudible] to be more close to [inaudible], for example?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t see any reason why the developments in Syria should be harmful to Greek-Turkish relations. In fact I think Greek and Turkish interests in Syria, and even policy in Syria, is aligned, which is aligned with the United States as well, to increase pressure on Assad and foster a political transition and support the opposition. There’s no reason that Turkish policy in Syria should be a problem for Greece or vice versa.

I’m encouraged that even with other complicated things going on in the region and even with political change in Greece, the Greek-Turkish relationship seems to continue to improve. That’s an important factor of stability throughout this region, especially at a time when unfortunately the Turkey-Israel relationship is not improving, it remains frozen at best for the past couple of years. Obviously relations between Turkey and Cyprus are complicated and potential tensions over energy. So this is a region that needs more progress in bilateral and trilateral and quadrilateral relationships and it’s all the more important for Greece and Turkey to be preserving their relationship.

QUESTION: Are you now more optimistic about Greece’s future in the eurozone than you were before coming to Athens? And I’m wondering, if you had a vote, you said the U.S. is not a member of the eurozone. If you have a vote, what would you say to the Germans? We all see there is a strong conflict between the U.S. and Germany.

QUESTION: You have a vote in the IMF.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We do have a vote in the IMF, and that’s really the only sort of direct way that we have a role. But the IMF is only one-third of the troika and we’re only, I won’t say one vote because we are more than one vote in the IMF, but one voice within the IMF.

On the first part of your question about optimism, I would just repeat what I said. I was encouraged to hear from the party leaders I met with their commitment to the reforms that we think are necessary to stabilize the Greek economy and to persuade markets and governments to work with Greece moving forward. That’s most critical of all, because obviously the coalition was elected to do certain things and it needs to stick with its agreements, it needs to demonstrate that, and so to hear directly from those party leaders that they get it, that they’re committed to doing it, they know how difficult it is, but they are not wobbling under these pressures is critically important. In that sense I am optimistic.

I think it matters less what I think than what the markets think and I think markets are voting in favor as well. You’ve seen some money start to flow back to Greece, whereas there was great question, especially the run-up to the election, that you would see bank runs and see money start to flow out. I think since the election of the government some of the steps that they’ve taken, people are more confident that Greece really is on the right track. So that is reassuring.

As for the latter, I won’t speculate on -- you asked hypothetical membership in the European Union, but I think I’ve already said and the President and Secretary of Treasury and State have indicated the types of things that we think are necessary. We have urged more decisive action on the part of eurozone governments, I think we have stressed that while fiscal consolidation is critical, the entire weight of the reform effort can’t be borne by fiscal consolidation alone. You can’t just cut your way out of this crisis. I think that evidence over the past two years gives some credence to that notion, that there needs to be also an emphasis on growth, on liberalization and other structural reforms that will restore Europe to growth and competitiveness and jobs. I think that view is growing throughout the European Union, which we’re encouraged by.

We have urged that a substantial firewall be put in place not because we want it to be used, we don’t. The point of a firewall is precisely so that it will not have to be used and that you reassure markets that they can put their money somewhere and there’s less of a risk of default.

So I think in general while it’s not for us to give a precise prescription as to what Europeans should be doing, we’ve given general indications of what we think is the right direction. I think it’s fair to say that things have largely moved in that direction over time and they continue to do so, and if that balanced package continues to move forward, reforms and fiscal consolidation in the countries under pressure and solidarity and support from the countries in a position to do so, I think the future looks much more positive.

QUESTION: Are you worried about the moves of the Russian navy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the relation that [inaudible]has with Moscow ?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: On the first point, we’ve been very clear about the question of Russians arms deliveries to Cyprus -- Sorry, let me be clear, to Syria. I’m not breaking any news here. [Laughter].

QUESTION: [Inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Exactly. Russian arms deliveries to Syria which we think are only fueling a government that is using violence against its own people. And you heard Secretary Clinton talk about the attack helicopters that the Russians were planning to deliver. The Russians say they’re not signing new arms deals with Syria, just fulfilling old ones. Obviously we welcome that they’re not signing new ones but we regret that they’re fulfilling old ones because we think the last thing anyone needs is more arms in the hands of the Syrian government. So on that we’re clear.

Russia says it’s not taking sides, it wants to be balanced. But it’s hard for us to interpret arms deliveries to the Assad regime as anything else than supportive and lending legitimacy to a government that we think has clearly lost its legitimacy.

On Cyprus, I’m not sure if what you’re getting at is the loan question. We’re aware that Cyprus is considering a loan from Russia. It’s obviously up to the government of Cyprus where it gets its loans if it needs loans. We know they’re also obviously talking to the European Union and others. We would just hope that, there’s always a concern that financial dependency can lead to political dependency and that’s clearly something we wouldn’t want to see, but it’s really in the end a decision for the government of Cyprus if it wants to pursue a loan from some other sources.

QUESTION: Russians are concerned about the so-called Islamic bowl that emerged after Arab Spring in relations. How do you comment this [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: There are different aspects to it. You may be referring specifically to Egypt and the trend in Egypt, election of a Muslim Brotherhood government in the wake of the fall of the Mubarak regime.

I think the first thing to keep in mind on questions like this is a certain sense of humility about our own role in the future of this region. It’s not up to us. It wasn’t up to us whether Mubarak stayed in power or not. It wasn’t up to us who the Egyptians chose to represent them, and once Mubarak was gone we felt there should be free and fair elections and it’s up to the Egyptian people who to support and they supported a Muslim Brotherhood government, and we reached out to that government. Secretary Clinton was there within the past couple of weeks. And we’ll look forward to working with them.

So we stand by our principles in those terms. When it comes to what we want to see is rule of law, fair treatment of all citizens of the countries including women, minorities, transparent elections, peace with neighbors. And if a government is willing to abide by those principles, then it’s up to the people what government should be in place.

Russian concerns about extremism we share. That’s a difference that we have with them when it comes to Syria where they talk about the risks that if Assad goes you could have extremism and al-Qaeda. Obviously that’s something we’re concerned about as well, but in our view that’s all the more reason to accelerate the transition or put the opposition and strengthen those groups that support the principles that are dear to us, as opposed to either do nothing or support the Assad regime which we fear will just lead to ongoing violence, civil war, and precisely the extremism that they’re worried about.

Thanks everybody. It’s nice to talk to you.

QUESTION: You’re going to visit the Halki School?


QUESTION: It’s the first time American officers visit the Halki?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think our current Ambassador was there during his current tenure. President Clinton went to the Halki Seminary. So it’s not the first and it’s just a continued --

QUESTION: You’re going to press [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: That’s my point about it being consistent with our longstanding policy. We’re encouraged by what we’ve heard out of Turkey in terms of hopes to open it. It’s been our longstanding position that it should be open, so it’s just an opportunity to express our support for that.