April 15, 2020
(Transcript from Skype Call)
Ambassador Pyatt: Good afternoon everybody. Kalo Pascha. It’s great to see everyone healthy. I’m really glad that we’re able to do this, and I want to thank everybody for being so flexible as we work with these new tools. At the Embassy we have tried to be very, very respectful of the Prime Minister’s social distancing measures. My whole world is basically here at the residence and occasional trips over to the Embassy to check the classified systems. But I’m very grateful for the fact that we’re able to get everybody online like this.
I’ll offer a couple of ideas at the beginning and then turn it over to Bill to orchestrate some questions and answers.
The first thing I want to underline, which is I think critically important, is that this is a global challenge and that we are in this together. Today’s NATO Defense Ministerial is an illustration of that. I was grateful that I had the opportunity earlier this week with Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos to talk through some of the issues that we expect the Defense Ministers to deal with at the level of 30 allies in their meeting this afternoon.
We are all providing assistance to each other. NATO is using its strategic airlift capabilities to deliver critical commodities. And all of our militaries are playing a role in helping to manage the response to this crisis. So you’ve all seen the pictures of the National Guard helping to stand up hospitals in New York City or the U.S. Navy’s hospital ships that have been in both New York and Los Angeles. So this is very much a health and a security crisis.
I also want to emphasize the American commitment to leadership, global leadership, as we all work together to respond to this unprecedented challenge. This is the kind of challenge to humanity that we haven’t seen for a hundred years, and the United States has risen to the occasion. We have provided over $274 million in humanitarian assistance globally, specifically in response to the Coronavirus challenge and this is on top of our continuing role as the largest international donor to the key international organizations — UNICEF, the World Health Organization, all the rest. We’ve also paid special attention, and I know this is a concern here in Greece, to the work that UNHCR does including with refugee communities who are particularly vulnerable to this disease.
I’m also very proud here in Greece of what we have seen from our American companies. I talked a little bit about this in my message the other day to the AmCham, but I think if you look at what American companies have done in response to the crisis here in Greece, it really illustrates the very best of the American tradition of corporate philanthropy whether it’s what Google and Microsoft and Cisco have done to offer their technology products to the Ministry of Education, or the many, many discreet contributions that have been made by other American companies.
I also want to say a special note of appreciation to the extraordinarily generous contribution of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation – one hundred million dollars which will go partially to the United States, the work that is being done at Rockefeller University to attempt to find a cure to this disease, but also as part of their ongoing health sector programs here in Greece.
I was really heartened when I talked recently with somebody who was recovered from Coronavirus who had been at Evangelismos Hospital who described to me how the intensive care equipment that they had benefited from had been one of the contributions that Niarchos had provided.
I also want to say a quick word about how impressed we all have been by the way in which the Greek government has managed this crisis. I think Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his team deserve great credit for the courageous early actions that they took, for the way that they’ve allowed their policy to be driven by science, by data, by the way in which they’ve managed their public communication strategies.
I should say also we have been grateful for the outstanding communication that we’ve had with the Greek government as we all respond to this. I’m in constant communication with Minister Kikilias. We’ve been talking about the various lines of effort that are underway in the United States. I think it’s worth remembering the likelihood is that when a cure for this disease is found, when treatment protocols are developed, when vaccinations are identified, a lot of that work is going to be done at American universities, at American laboratories. We continue to lead the world in these areas of biotechnology, and I’ve tried to make sure that Greece is fully informed as we continue in that work. But here too, this is a global enterprise and it depends on cooperation among all of our different institutions.
Finally, just to wrap up my opening remarks, I want to underline our — [Break in recording] —
Ok. So my last point was our understanding that in Greece it’s not just a health crisis. This is also an economic crisis. The shutdown of the global economy as part of our strategy to combat this pandemic will have a particularly harsh impact on Greece which itself was just coming out of a severe decade-long economic crisis. So we place special emphasis on how we work with the Greek government to help build the strongest possible environment for the day after. I’ve been in steady contact with the Minister of Economy Georgiadis. I, in fact, have a video conference later this afternoon with a large group of American companies and one of the things that I will be talking about with them is the opportunities that we continue to see in Greece and also the success story of Greece’s response to the crisis.
You all will remember that one of the themes that I’ve been trying to emphasize in my engagement with investors is this idea of a new Greece. And I remember when I was in Washington, DC for the Delphi DC Conference in November, there were a lot of people who were still trying to understand how much had changed with Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ government. I found there was a little bit of a lag in terms of recognition of how fast the new government had laid out its reform agenda and how successful that had been in terms of change in market sentiments.
I think this idea of a new Greece is much clearer today, and you see it in the way in which international press — CNN, Economist — everybody is writing about and filing about the success story that has been the Greek state’s response to the coronavirus crisis. And I am hopeful that that brand equity will be of significant value as Greece begins the process of returning to markets, looking for new investment as we try to begin to look towards the day after.
From that standpoint, we remain strongly engaged on all the projects you’ve heard me talk about before. The Elefsina shipyards, the floating regassification unit in Alexandroupolis, continuing to build our energy ties, both LNG and also renewable energy where we see so much potential. In the startup sector where I spent an hour yesterday speaking with Greek startups in a similar video call talking to them about the experience in the U.S. startup sector and the impressions and tools that our government has been using to help reinforce this fantastically important sector of the U.S. economy as well.
So these are challenging times. We’re going to get through this together. I think all of us at the Embassy are very grateful to be in Greece right now and to be part of this extraordinary national response to the pandemic.
What I want to leave you with is a strong message of American commitment to continue the investment that we have made over the past several years in building up a really important strategic agenda which is critical to our strategy for stabilizing Southeastern Europe, our strategy for dealing with the challenge of great power rivalry and you all know who that refers to, and also how these things have built stability and economic opportunity across a strategically significant region.
So let me stop there and I’ll be happy to take any questions in whatever direction people would like to go. Thank you. Thanks, Bill.
Journalist: Thank you. Mr. Ambassador, it seems that the Greek government has some information that the Turkish authorities are trying to gather refugees and immigrants across Turkey opposite of Lesbos, Chios and Cos. Do you think that a situation like the one we face in Evros is possible in the near future? Do you have any comment, any information about these?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks for the question, Christina. I try not to make predictions about the future because I usually get it wrong, but what I would emphasize is, first of all, I don’t think a lot has changed on the Turkish story over the past few weeks. The good news is that the crisis situation in Evros on the land border was resolved in large part due to resolute action by the Greek government, strong support from your EU partners, and strong support from the United States. We continue to make clear that we view the refugee problem as being first and foremost a humanitarian one and it needs to be dealt with through the existing mechanism of the EU-Turkey agreement.
I have been in very close touch over the past few days with the Foreign Ministry, with the Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry, Themos Demiris, with Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos, and I think you saw also that I spoke yesterday with George Koumoutsakos from the Migration Ministry. So we’re exchanging information, we’re exchanging perspectives.
The United States government has not seen any specific evidence of a new wave of migrants coming across the straits from Chios and Lesbos but we’re watching this very closely and we have made clear, as I said, that this is a humanitarian issue and it needs to be dealt with as a humanitarian issue. Turkey is bearing a significant burden. That burden has become more challenging because there’s a very severe Coronavirus situation inside Turkey today.
But we’re going to stay in touch with Greece on this. And as I noted, we have paid special attention to the challenge globally of refugee and migrant populations in an era of Coronavirus, and that’s why the United States has made a significant additional contribution to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for that purpose. But thank you for the question.
Journalist: With Deputy Minister Koumoutsakos did you discuss any specific steps in assisting the Greek government on the migrant issue?
Ambassador Pyatt: We had a good discussion of some of the specific needs that Greece has identified. Also on the assistance that has been coming from the European Union and where some of the gaps are that the United States might be in a position to fill.
I don’t have anything new to announce on that today, but we have a very good sense of what the Greek requirements are and we’re working hard on those.
Journalist: Mr. Ambassador, the Turkish economy seems to be troubled. And there are concerns that it could become a new Coronavirus hotspot. Do you think that this economic bad situation in Turkey might have an impact in the Greek-Turkish relations in the policy level?
Ambassador Pyatt: Alexia, I have to answer that one with my same point about not making predictions. I’ve learned especially not to make predictions about Greece-Turkey relations. But let me emphasize that our hope is the same as the hope that I hear from the Prime Minister and every member of his Cabinet. This is a government which has made very clear at multiple opportunities that it is not seeking confrontation from Turkey, that it wants a normal NATO relationship with Turkey, and that the government recognizes that with so many other challenges and opportunities right now nobody gains from the kind of security confrontation —- which is a risk any time you have overflights of Greek territory like the ones that happened over the weekend with Turkish aircraft flying over undisputed Greek territory, over islands, over land mass.
So I think this government in particular, Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ government, has made very, very clear that like the United States it wants to see a Turkey which is integrated with the West, which is part of NATO, and is behaving as a good neighbor. So we’re going to have to keep working on that.
I can’t make any predictions about what’s going to happen inside Turkey aside from noting that it’s very clear that Turkey now faces one of the most severe Coronavirus problems in the world. So I expect that will be a focus of considerable attention in the weeks ahead. Thank you.
Journalist: Mr. Ambassador, you talked a little bit about the way that Greece has handled the crisis and I wonder whether there is a way that Greece can build on that success story as you mentioned.
And whether you would encourage some American tourists maybe to visit Greece during the summer, or whether you’re working on that side. Thank you.
Ambassador Pyatt: Really, really important questions. Again, I think Greece has become a case study of how to effectively tackle this problem. We all hope that that effectiveness will allow a return to something more like business as usual sooner rather than later. But as Dr. Fauci has pointed out a couple of times in his briefings in the United States, governments don’t get to decide when things get back to normal. The virus will decide. And so from that perspective it’s really hard to predict what the summer is going to look like.
What I can tell you is, my message to American citizens will be that the Greek government has been extremely effective in its management of this problem; has succeeded in building a culture of social distancing which has created a dramatic difference between the situation here in Greece and the situation in similarly sized Western European countries. If you look at Belgium or Netherlands and just look at the numbers of deaths or the numbers of cases there compared to Greece. Prime Minister Mitsotakis should be very proud of what he and his team have accomplished.
Whether we’re going to see enough progress that we’re in a situation where people begin to travel again this summer, I think it’s just too early to say right now. I can tell you that there is nobody more eager to get back to business as usual and enjoying the delights of a Greek summer than me. And as I said, I have tried to be very, very disciplined about respecting the government’s restrictive measures.
So I think we’re going to have to wait and see what happens in the next few months. Obviously a lot is going to depend on how the government shapes its gradual strategy for a return to normal. I think that’s what everybody has to be ready for is a process which does not produce an overnight change from black to white but rather sees a gradual phasing in of a less restrictive environment.
Journalist: Mr. Ambassador, do you believe misinformation and disinformation has played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you for raising the question, George. I think it’s been a huge issue and I think there are two dimensions of it.
One is simple fake news, and I know that the NATO leaders will be talking about this problem today. The NATO Secretary General flagged this going into the Defense Ministers meeting as one of the challenges that we as allies need to deal with in this new hybrid information environment that NATO has been grappling with for the past several years.
You’ve seen that the State Department in Washington has talked about Russian misrepresentation of the Coronavirus and its origins. And there was a long New York Times story about this yesterday. You’ve also seen the Chinese government’s efforts at misdirection — outrageous statements suggesting that somehow this disease originated somewhere other than Wuhan, China which is clearly where it originated.
So there’s that element of it which is just plain old misinformation and manipulation of information, and then there’s also the challenge of how we strengthen all of our systems to combat it in an environment where there is understandable fear among communities, how to prevent that fear from being used to weaken our democracy.
I think one of the lessons from the past few months is that democracies have the tools to deal with a threat like this. You only need to look at the good management of the Coronavirus challenge in South Korea, in Japan. And I think on the other side you can also see in China what happens when you don’t have a free press. When you don’t have journalists like yourselves asking the hard questions which is one of the reasons why this virus became a global challenge and not just a challenge for the people of Wuhan, because there was not an issue of transparency. There wasn’t a free media making sure that the government was being rigorous in its approach.
So thank you for the question. It’s one that we’re going to continue to work on. We’ve been working with the DCN, the Digital Communications Network, up in Thessaloniki. I’m impressed by the work that they’ve done. Also their ability to build regional networks because this is clearly not just a Greece problem. It’s a problem for our whole transatlantic community, and as I said, I think that’s one of the points that Secretary General Stoltenberg will make at the Ministerial today.
Journalist: Mr. Ambassador, Antenna’s correspondent in the U.S., Thanasis Tsitsas, had an exclusive [inaudible] a couple of days. Exxon Mobil is going to postpone their drilling off of Cyprus. How is this crisis, the pandemic, is going to affect their south of Crete endeavor on the one hand? And on the other hand, what will be the overall effect on the ever-growing Greek-American relationship because of the pandemic?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks, Niko.
Let me start on the energy question and there are really three different levels to this. The global energy marketplace has faced two severe disruptions over the past few months: one is the energy price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia; and then the other is the demand shock from the reduction in the global economy and global commerce. So you have fewer people driving, fewer ships going to sea, fewer flights. So, demand for energy has reduced significantly. That’s going to cause a short term disruption in plans. I think that’s what lies behind some of the decisions that you’ve seen from ExxonMobil and others.
I think in terms of the situation with Crete, remember that this is a three-way consortium — Hellenic Petroleum, Total and ExxonMobil. These are all huge companies which make their plans at the level of decades, not months or quarters. So I think the structural aspects, all of the things that have helped to propel Greece’s new role as a regional energy hub are unchanged by the Coronavirus crisis. The EastMed pipeline remains important. TAP remains tremendously important. The IGB Pipeline is moving ahead. We continue our work in support of the FSRU in Alexandroupolis. In fact, I was impressed to see the other day that since December Greece has taken seven cargoes of American LNG. Niko, I know you’ll remember from —
I lost the signal for a second, there.
I think Niko, you will remember certainly from Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington but also Prime Minister Tsipris’ visit to Washington, the strong emphasis there on American LNG exports. That’s really happening now.
So these structural changes are going to remain. I think you’re going to see some temporary slowdown in expenditure plans again because of the shock that the global market has suffered. But the big structural picture won’t change.
As I mentioned, I think you’re also going to continue to see a very strong focus on continued growth of renewables. The Prime Minister has made a courageous commitment in that area as well.
Then on your question about the U.S.-Greece relationship more generally, I think if anything this Coronavirus crisis makes the investment that we have made in the U.S.-Greek strategic relationship even more important. I’ve been in regular contact with Michael Kratsios in the President’s Office of Science and Technology. We’ve concluded negotiations on a U.S.-Greece Science and Technology Agreement. Once we get that signed one of the areas where we want to continue work is all the possibilities in terms of the health sector.
I think you will see after this crisis all of our governments, and all of our international institutions, treating the issue of global health and pandemic disease as a much more significant national security challenge. Nobody is going to ever again say that health issues are soft or are not relevant to international security. So from that perspective the wealth of human capital that Greece has — Professor Tsiodras is a great example of somebody educated in the United States with his own impeccable credentials as a scientist and as a researcher — all of those are going to be areas that we’re going to continue to work on as we build out the strategic agenda that’s embedded into our Strategic Dialogue, the five pillars there. So I’m not worried at all about the pace and the tempo of the relationship.
I should note also on the military and security relationship, Souda Bay today is busier than ever before. In part because it has remained unaffected by Coronavirus so it’s a very, very important platform as the U.S. military and NATO demonstrate our continued defensive capabilities, being able to use the platform that Souda Bay provides to reprovision, to allow ships to take a break from their duties at sea. It’s even more important in part because of the challenges that we face in Italy and Spain which are the other two major hubs for the U.S. Navy in Europe.
So I don’t worry for a second about the health of the U.S.-Greece relationship. What I do recognize though, as I said in my opening remarks, is that I think the global economic crisis that has resulted from this pandemic is going to lead us to put an even greater focus on an issue that I know you know I’ve been working on for four years now which is how we build trade and investment and how we get American companies to take a serious look at the opportunities here. Thanks for the question.
Journalist: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. We would like your opinion on that, do you think that the decision of Mr. President to cut the funding of the World Health Organization is in favor of the trade dispute with China?
Ambassador Pyatt: I’m not going to add a lot to what the President had to say on this. What I would emphasize is we have been, since its founding, the largest funder of the World Health Organization. In 2019 our contributions exceeded $400 million. So as Secretary Pompeo said in one of his remarks yesterday, we want to make sure that those resources are fit for purpose and are achieving the objectives that are intended and the objectives that lie behind the contribution that the American taxpayers have made.
So I would view this much more in that context than as a trade issue.
Thank you, sir. Did you want to say anything else in closing?
Ambassador Pyatt: Again, most importantly kalo Pascha. It’s really good to see everybody healthy and well. Please look after your families, stay home.
This is my fourth Easter in Greece and I have learned that there is nothing more special than a Greek Easter. We’re going to have to spend it at home this year. We’ll miss the Epitaphios and all of the ritual and the atmosphere, but also the food. I don’t think I’m going to be able to barbecue a lamb in my backyard.
But I will look forward to seeing everybody in person as soon as possible. I recognize as the Prime Minister has said in his remarks that the sacrifices we make now are the investment that we’re making in a more normal future.
So thank you all, and Kalo Pascha to everybody.
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