Ambassador’s Discussion with the Hellenic Entrepreneurs Association (EENE)

July 10, 2018

Moderator: Ambassador Pyatt, thank you welcome. Of course everyone knows Ambassador Pyatt, he has been here for the last couple of years in Athens, and previously he was Ambassador in Ukraine. You can take a look at his brief resume in the leaflets we handed out, I suppose. Ambassador Pyatt has been a very vocal, I would say, advocate of Greek entrepreneurship and Greek investments. And I’m expecting we’ll listen to all your expectations about the Greek economy in the near future, so the floor is yours, and then we’ll continue to our discussion.

Ambassador Pyatt: Great, well thank you. First of all, let me say thank you to Vassilis, to EENE, for the invitation today. I was really delighted to come back, I was here a year ago, and I think if you look at the road that Greece has travelled in those twelve months, it gives you a good sense about why we are optimistic about Greece’s prospects. I was in New York and Washington last month with Deputy Minister Charitstis, very successful conversations with investors. Also, important engagements with our Secretary of Commerce and the Trump Administration. At the moment when the U.S. has made a strategic investment in our relationship with Greece, recognizing both that we have a U.S. stake in Greece’s emergence now from eight years of economic crisis, and that we are poised to really cultivate this bilateral relationship as one of the key pillars of U.S. strategy in Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. So we have made a very strong commitment to working with the government to see that 2018 really is the year that Greece successfully emerges from the crisis and gets on a trajectory toward sustainable growth.

The other reason that I was so glad to come back to EENE is because we believe entrepreneurship and the startup sector is going to be one of the key ingredients for Greece’s long term recovery. This is one of the untold success stories, the resiliency of the Greek startup sector. There was a terrific Reuters article in May that described the growth of that sector, pointing out that our partners at Endeavor, when they did a headcount of startups in 2010, they counted 16 companies. Today, there are various studies that put the number of successful startups in Greece over a thousand. You have significant money moving into this area – the EquiFund will put 260 million euros on the table, with the prospect of 1 billion euros of investment in startups by 2022. This is a sector where in 2012, total investment was 5 million. So that gives you a sense of the growth that’s happing there, and as I said this is one of the things that makes us optimistic about where the Greek economy is going and this effort that we’ve made.

The United States is also keenly focus on the energy sector and the opportunities that that provides for investment, but also the strategic benefits that arise from Greece’s emergence as a major European energy hub. Projects like TAP, the IGB Interconnector, the FSRU in Alexandroupoli, the expansion of the Revithoussa facility, the privatization of the gas distribution network. All of these development will help cultivate Greece as a key hub of energy diversification and energy security for all of Europe, again a U.S. strategic interest.

So I look forward to taking the conversation in whatever direction is useful, but what I would underline, from the U.S. and certainly from my discussions last month in Washington with Congressional leaders, with the White House, with the Department of State, with the Pentagon, is a clear sense of encouragement and optimism about where we stand in our bilateral relationship with Greece, a great deal of satisfaction about the positive developments that have been marked on the economic scenario, including the important breakthrough last month with the Eurogroup for debt relief – a goal that the United States has been supporting vocally through two presidential administrations – and a recognition that while a lot of hard work lies ahead to see Greece continue to move forward economically, the building blocks are clearly there and there is a strong political commitment from the United States to doing everything we can to be supportive.

Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador. Let me ask a first question – you talk a lot with potential investors, what is the first question they make about Greece?

Ambassador Pyatt: Predictability.

Moderator: Are you talking about economic predictability or political stability?

Ambassador Pyatt: The role of the state. Less a matter of party politics, and more a matter of bureaucracy, and I see Lambda Development as one of the sponsors behind me, but I would just point to the Hellenikon project as probably the most high profile example of a major investment opportunity which has been held hostage for many years by bureaucratic entropy.

Moderator: There were rumors that even President Trump was once interested in the project, maybe like ten or twelve years ago.

Ambassador Pyatt: I have heard the same thing.

Moderator: Can you ask him about it? Alright, let’s take the issue, though – predictability. What’s your answer to potential investors on that?

Ambassador Pyatt: So my answer is twofold. One, that Greece represents a tremendous opportunity, if you look at Greece’s endowment of natural resources, its very strong human capital, and the fact that over the two years of my tenure here, clearly some of the uncertainty factors have been removed from the picture. When I arrives in the summer of 2016, people were worried about Grexit, they were worried about the government’s ability to hit the targets that were established by the Troika for conditionality, and they were worried about the stability of the financial system, the real risk that one of the systemic banks would fail. Those risks have now been removed, Greece is about to exit the third bailout, the banks have successfully passed their stress tests, and you see in Greek public opinion data a clear swing back in favor of Greece’s status as a strong member of the Eurozone. So on that score, elements of uncertainty have been removed. But the uncertainty that remains relates to the creation of a genuinely investment-friendly environment. I have no doubt of the Prime Minister’s and the government’s focus on this issue, and certainly Minister Charitsis in Washington, in Chicago, in New York delivered a very reassuring message. I expect Minister Tsakolotos will do exactly the same in New York today. But this is an area where investors are looking not just for declarations but for action.

Moderator: Now you talk a lot with potential investors again – what are the main areas, the main sectors they are interested in potentially investing into Greece. Is it just tourism, or is there other areas also?

Ambassador Pyatt: No, well tourism of course has seen great dynamism. We have a new $80 million investment by Avis in their car rental business with an enterprise value of $320 million. You have significant growth from our hotel companies – Wyndham, Hyatt, Marriott, and others – that reflects the buoyancy that you would expect in a sector which has seen very rapid growth recently.

Energy is also a very important area of U.S. investor interest. We have American investors interested in the Alexandroupoli FSRU, we have American investors interested in the privatization of Hellenic Petroleum, we have Americans that are interested in the renewables sector, G.E. Wind is growing its business in Greece. So clearly the energy sector is one – and again, it’s a sector where Greece is important not just as a market with 11 million people but as a regional hub, and that complements this vision that the United States has established of Greece as a regional pillar of stability, a partner we work with to advance shared goals, not just here in Greece but across the wider Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans and Black Sea region.

Moderator: Alright, what about taxation? We heard a lot of our speakers earlier talking about the issue. Is that an obstacle for potential investments?

Ambassador Pyatt: That’s an issue for the Greek political system to work out, jointly with your European creditors. What I hear from American investors, first and foremost, is predictability and the ability to make investment decisions with a clear sense of how the bureaucracy is going to engage with them.

Moderator: So I understand they’re not only talking about taxation but about judicial system, et cetera, stuff like that.

Ambassador Pyatt: The stuff like the multi-year delay in the Hellenikon project. We have an American company which is looking at an investment on the order of $1 billion for an integrated entertainment complex at Hellenikon and I should add in this regard, I’m sure we will talk more about the Thessaloniki International Fair, but TIF is one of the key U.S. vehicles to lift up the Greek economic narrative to put a positive spotlight on the return to growth in Greece but also to encourage American companies to come back into the Greek market and to grow their businesses here. We have nearly a hundred American companies committed to participate in the American pavilion representing trillions of dollars of capital, the very best of global American business, with a strong focus on innovation – companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, CISCO, Pfizer, and these are the companies that have built the competitive American economy – they’re all going to be there in Thessaloniki – and this is one of the things the United States is doing to try to capitalize on this crucial, important summer. TIF will open exactly two months from today – the seventh of September. We are working with AMCHAM on a major energy focus but then we’re working to put a positive spotlight on the startup sector that I talked about earlier. And I’m hoping, and I discussed with Deputy Prime Minister Dragasakis, with Minister Charitsis and Minister Tsakolotos the desirability of getting progress on some of these key pending investment opportunities before TIF precisely so we can point to these successes as evidence of how the government is taking action to drive investment forward. I think the government understands that foreign investment is a critical component to your economic story going forward. Greece has had an incredibly painful eight years and it’s poised to move ahead, doing so successfully will depend on tracking foreign investment. And certainly from the U.S. side, the U.S. government side we are prepared to do everything we possibly can to encourage that but results will depend on the messages that the government conveys.

Moderator: Should we expect some high profile visitors from the White House at TIF?

Ambassador Pyatt: We are still working on the full U.S. delegation and I’m confident as President Trump announced with Prime Minister Tsipras last October is that we will have a very high level heavy political delegation and also lots and lots of American companies.

Moderator: Let me shift the discussion to the geopolitical side. As American Ambassador I am sure you’ve been following closely all recent developments – on the Macedonian issue, your government played a central role in encouraging both countries, Greece and the FYROM, in reaching a deal on the name issue. Now, there’s still a lot to be done in terms of ratification of the agreement in both parliaments. How confident do you feel that both sides will get to the end of the road?

Ambassador Pyatt: I’m very confident that both sides will ultimately implement this deal because it’s clearly in the interest of both countries. We hope there will be an important step forward this week at the NATO summit, there’s some hard work that has to get done in Skopje, but I think importantly for Greece there are tremendous economic benefits from seeing this issues resolved. The unlocking of the bigger issue, of course the prospect of liberating the Greek relationship with the countries in the western Balkans, further developing the idea of Northern Greece, and Thessaloniki in particular, as the gateway to a market of nearly 30 million people – a role that Greece, historically, and that Thessaloniki historically, has played, and which the United States would like to see it restored once again. There are obviously some very difficult politics that need to get worked out, both here in Athens and in Skopje, and I will leave that to the politicians in both countries. But from an American standpoint, this is a very important step forward. Both Prime Ministers deserve credit for the political leadership they have demonstrated in taking his step, and we are going to be as supportive as we can of full implementation, including the difficult steps that will have to be made in Skopje in terms of constitutional change, in terms of “erga omnes” application, and in terms of reframing the relationship with Greece in terms of the positive agenda of economic cooperation.

 Moderator: Shall we expect a full invitation of Skopje tomorrow in NATO?

Ambassador Pyatt: I try to leave the predictions, Greece has the oracle of Delphi, the Oracle of Dodoni, you have lots of oracles and lots of other sources of predictions.

Moderator: Ok, finally, let me turn the discussion to our eastern neighbor, Turkey. The recent election of President Erdogan back into the Presidential role – is that a good thing for Greece or a bad thing for Greece?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Let me put it this way, and again, keeping with the economic focus today. It’s clear to us that Greece and Greek economic recovery benefit from stability in the relationship with Turkey. I always make the point that when I’m in Washington, America has no stronger ally in seeking to ensure that Turkey remains anchored in the West, and anchored in Euro Atlantic institutions, than the Hellenic Republic. We have a strong shared interest in seeing that Turkey remains oriented towards the West. Turkey has been a significant source of foreign investment here in Greece, including in the tourism sector, for instance. I think, again, my rule against predictions would suggest that I am not going to predict what the next couple of months is going to bring. Certainly the United States, like I believe the Greek government, is interested in seeing the relationship move forward in a stable way. There are some big issues in our bilateral relationships that have to be resolved.  You have the issue of the two soldiers, we have the issue of Pastor Brunson, both cases of individuals who have been detained unjustly, in our view. But we also believe Prime Minister Tsipras was on exactly the right track in his invitation to President Erdogan to come to Athens last December and we hope very much that this very engagement from Athens, from the Greek government, will prevail as the two capitols move forward.

Moderator: Over your tenure as American Ambassador in Athens over the last couple years what was your most intense moment during your tenure?

 Ambassador Pyatt: Well, I’m not done yet. I guess I would say two moments. One would be the visit of Prime Minister Tsipras to the White House – to the Oval Office last October. There is no greater honor that our government can bestow and I think everybody who engaged with the Prime Minister around that visit was impressed by the way he presented himself, by the message he conveyed of support for our alliance, commitment to our strong defense and law enforcement security relationship, and also the sense of economic opportunities. It was important that we start that visit in Chicago, including a visit the Prime Minister made to the 1871 startup incubator, and I think those kind of entrepreneurial energies are what is going to drive the Greek economy forward over the long term and unlocking those energies is the key challenge of the months and years ahead.

And then of course the visit of President Obama here to Athens, which I think was an enormous honor for all of us. It was an inspiring couple of days – his tour through the Acropolis, his address at the Niarchos Center, but more importantly for all of us at the Embassy, his very strong focus on the debt that we owe to Athens, the birthplace of our democratic values, and the importance of that component of who we are, who America is to our international engagement, and the unique status that Greece will always retain as the country that gave birth to that democratic practice and the importance of holding on to it. So, both are two very different Presidents, I don’t need to tell you that – but for me professionally, they were certainly highlights of my time here. And provided a very strong foundation for how we move forward, and also for me is a very positive aspect of the U.S. – Greece alliance which is the fact there is such strong support in the United States among the Republicans and Democrats for doing all that we can to continue to strengthen our alliance to help Greece move forward and to provide value in a relationship with a key democratic ally, and a country that lives in a very complicated and unpredictable region. And in Greece, which has proven itself time and again over the decades as one of our firmest allies in a country that has now after eight long difficult years, finally begun to turn the corner. And we have a strong interest in Greece continuing to succeed.