With Greece in the middle of a six-month Presidency of the European Union, the country’s Ambassador to Hungary, His Excellency Dimitris Giannakakis, reflects on how matters stand between the two nations, and says there is no alternative to the EU.
How are Greek-Hungarian relations politically?
Greek-Hungarian relations are developing on the solid basis of mutual respect and of strong friendship between the two peoples. Greece and Hungary are partners in the European Union and allies in NATO. The fact that Greece holds the Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2014 is a good opportunity to increase mutual awareness. The recent visit of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr. Evangelos Venizelos and his participation in a meeting of the Visegrád Four with Bulgaria, Romania and Greece has contributed to enhancing this relationship.
What are the political, trade and cultural links between Hungary and Greece, and how are you promoting Greece in these three areas?
Promoting the image of Greece to the Hungarian public is one of my top priorities. I would certainly like to see a further impetus in economic cooperation and tourism, which in the recent past were adversely affected by the economic crisis. Cultural ties are certainly another area of interest, with a long history that goes back to Byzantine times and the creation of the Hungarian state and, later, of the flourishing Greek communities in Hungary during the 18th and 19th centuries. Another important priority is to meet the needs and to support the initiatives of the current Greek community, which consists of about 5,000 people and is one of the recognised ethnic minorities of Hungary, serving as a bridge of friendship between the two countries.
What sort of a Europe is Greece presiding over? There’s been the financial crisis with EU-imposed austerity measures in return for bail-out funds, fears in some countries about immigration from poorer parts, Euroscepticism, interference by Brussels, etcetera.
On 1 January 2014, Greece assumed the Presidency of the Council of the EU for the fifth time since its accession in 1981. This Presidency comes at an important point for Europe, just months before the European elections, and with a debate already effectively under way on the course of the European endeavour.
It is clear that the adoption of restrictive fiscal policies in order to achieve financial stability and the consolidation of public finances has had an important impact on the social cohesion of a number of EU countries, with Greece being strongly affected. We have seen, as a result, that the trust of many Europeans in the EU’s ability to promote economic growth and high employment has been undermined. The EU clearly must strive to be seen by European citizens as promoting prosperity and stability.
The current crisis is testing Europe’s unity, the ties and solidarity among the member states. However, there is no alternative to the EU, which has played a vital role in defusing tensions in Europe over the past 60 years, and leading its countries and peoples to decades of ever-closer ties and unprecedented prosperity. I am convinced that Europe is the best and only solution, and that the EU will come out of this crisis stronger and more unified. The sooner this happens, the better for all.
Moreover, Europe will be holding elections next month. The Hellenic Presidency coincides with the great debate on the future of Europe: the debate about the need to safeguard our common values, the European social model and institutional equality among member states. We are confident that this is going to be a particularly busy and constructive semester for the European institutions, European citizens and our united Europe. And as our motto says, united we sail further!
Greece’s chronic economic problems have been well-documented, and the EU market is very important. What about trade with Hungary?
The last few years have been difficult for the European Union in general and for the eurozone in particular. This is not just a Greek crisis, although we have been hit harder than others. Other countries are having their own difficulties and the problem is European.
After five years of negative growth – which brought about a reduction of about 25% of GDP, the closure of many shops and companies and 27% unemployment (which is 64% for the young) – the situation remains very difficult for a lot of people. There are, however, signs that we are turning the corner. We expect a very good year in tourism, exports are rising and inflation last year fell to 1%. Our total competitiveness gains, since the beginning of the programme, now stand at 70%. Our privatisation strategy, coupled with robust efforts to tackle red tape, opens a great window of opportunity for growth and job-generating foreign investments. We achieved a primary surplus of the budget (i.e. a surplus before the payment of interest) for 2013, as well as a current accounts surplus. The stock market is up and the business climate – as measured in surveys – is the best in the last five years. We expect return to growth this year, and to start returning to the markets within the next few months. Nobody would have believed this possible a year ago.
The institutional framework of our economic relations with Hungary is well developed. Greek businessmen were among the first who entered the Hungarian market after 1989. Greek investments amount to more than USD 420 million and have contributed to the economic development of Hungary.
However, there is still unutilised potential in certain areas. Economic relations are not as developed as they should be and trade is relatively low. There is potential for growth as Hungary comes out of its recession and the situation in Greece is also improving. Greece has launched a massive privatisation programme that could be of interest to Hungarian firms. Tourism is another area in which a lot can be achieved. We would like to increase the number of visitors from Hungary and help them discover new destinations in Greece. In this direction, the meeting of the Joint Intergovernmental Committee in the second semester of 2014 will upgrade the economic interaction between the two countries.
Is Greece a popular tourist destination for Hungarians?
Tourism constitutes one of the most vital chapters of our relations with Hungary. Greece is one of the top destinations for Hungarians. We estimate that there was a 12% increase in the number of Hungarians who visited Greece in 2013. We expect an even bigger number to come this year. Prices in Greece have come down and we are much more competitive. We have almost continuous sunshine though the summer, as well as beaches of every variety to suit all tastes. I believe that the improvement of the economic climate in Hungary creates an excellent potential for increasing the number of Hungarian tourists to Greece.
I would like to note that tourism is not only one-way, since there is a substantial number of Greeks who visit Hungary every year, particularly Budapest.
How does Hungary rate on the scale of difficulty (or as an enjoyable position) for Greece’s ambassadors?
Well, this is easy to answer – it is a very popular posting, while at the same time being very interesting. People are warm, Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and even the winter this year was very pleasant.