Ambassador’s Remarks at the AMCHAM Greek Economy Conference

Ambassador Pyatt delivers remarks at AMCHAM Greek Economy Conference (State Department Photo)

Monday, November 28, 2016
2:00 pm
InterContinental Hotel, Athens, Greece

(As delivered)

Καλησπέρα, good afternoon everybody.  Thank you, Simos, for giving me the opportunity to be with you here today.  I heard before how important this annual conference was and I listened as Elias described it as the biggest economic conversation that happens in Athens every year.  So it’s a particular honor for me to be part of this conversation.

I’m especially honored to be able to be with you and speak in the presence of Minister Tsakalotos who has been such a strong partner for Secretary of Treasury Lew and all of us in the interagency team who work to support Greece as you try to navigate out of this economic crisis.  I’m also very pleased, as Simos noted, we are joined today by Jonathan Cohen who is the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State for Greece and some of the surrounding countries but we think of him as the ‘Greece DAS’ in the European Affairs Bureau.  So thank you, Jonathan, for being with us.

I have had a pretty remarkable first two months as U.S. Ambassador in Greece – a real whirlwind.  During that time, I’ve been able to travel around the country a lot, listening, learning from people about the challenges that Greece faces, and, especially, the ongoing economic crisis.  And today, what I would like to do is share some of my observations and my hopes for the future, and also talk a little bit about what I believe must be done in order to reach our shared goal of a prosperous Greece that continues to be a pillar of European stability.  And, of course, I’ll also reflect a little bit on President Obama’s really historic visit to Athens and how we’re trying to build on that.

The visit of President Obama was just about the most uplifting way I could possibly imagine to begin my three years here in Athens.  My intention now, indeed our whole Embassy team’s intention, is to work as hard as we possibly can to sustain the momentum from President Obama’s visit, to bring the United States and Greece even closer together than they already are, both now and during the coming years.

As some of you know, until this summer, I was the American Ambassador in Ukraine.  I had the opportunity there to witness first hand Ukraine’s revolution.  To see the sacrifices that the Ukrainian people made to defend their democratic rights and their chosen future as part of the European family, it really left an indelible mark on me.  I have always had a deep appreciation for the importance of European institutions and European democracy – but that experience, those three years in Kiev, made that an even more profound belief from our side.  So serving now, as American Ambassador to Greece, the birthplace of democracy, really is a particular honor for me.

Like many of you, I was truly moved by President Obama’s reflections on the power of democracy during his speech at the Niarchos Center.  President Obama eloquently described the strong connection between our shared democratic values and economic success, reminding us that “open, democratic societies can deliver more prosperity.  Because when people are free to think for themselves and share ideas and discover and to create… through the Internet and technology, that’s when innovation is unleashed, that’s when economies truly flourish.”  So sound economic policies, in turn, protect and preserve the stability of democratic institutions.  When countries’ economies do not work, democracy can “become distorted and, in some cases, break down.”  Important words.

So we cannot talk about the economy in a vacuum.  Democracy and economic issues go hand in hand.  Just as democracy requires participation and commitment by individual citizens to succeed, our economies, whether in the U.S. or in Greece, need the buy in of individuals, businesses, and governments to thrive.  And because Greece’s democratic institutions have weathered this lengthy economic crisis in a way that would have tested any nation, I have no doubt that Greece can emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

The United States strongly believes that it is critical that Greece emerges from this economic crisis as quickly as possible.  For the sake of Greece, for the sake of the European Union.  The EU is our most important transatlantic partner and the EU in turn needs a stable Greece with a growing economy.  As President Obama reflected, “today, more than ever, the world needs a Europe that is strong and prosperous and democratic.”  He also made the point, sometimes forgotten amid the headlines, that the European Union is one of the “great political and economic achievements of human history.”  So let me underline this fundamental point – the United States has and will continue to support Greece—our partner and our ally—as a critical element of sustaining the European success story.

I am also a strong believer in public-private cooperation.  Creating and capitalizing on market opportunities is an essential part of Greece’s way forward.  With the support of the government and the private sector, Greece can continue to be an incubator for young talent and ideas, unleashing the next wave of Greek creativity on the world.  One thing that’s clear to me from my first weeks in Athens is that Greece has tremendous human capital and its people have exceptional capacity for innovation.

The optimism and hope I have seen among so many Greek entrepreneurs is a testament to this country’s resilience.  The prolonged economic crisis could have broken the spirit of many Greeks.  Instead, what I see across the country are creative people making changes in their communities.  They’re building networks inside Greece and internationally.  They are crowdfunding and seeking ways to attract foreign investment.

One of the defining characteristics of the global economy in the 21st century will be the application of technology and increasing connections between all of our markets and societies.  It will take some effort to navigate this new global marketplace, but the rewards are spectacular.  As President Obama emphasized during his visit to Athens, we cannot shy away from technology and globalization – even when they disrupt the way things have always been or cause uncertainty about the future.  As he said, “the jobs of the future will inevitably be different from the jobs of the past.  So we can’t look backwards for answers, we have to look forward.”  This narrative of technological progress and hope has been the defining story of my 27 years as an American diplomat.

I have already had the opportunity to meet many forward-looking, inspiring entrepreneurs with the vision that Greece needs.  Positive change is happening in this country and a new generation of businesses and political leaders is emerging.  And there is no question that enterprising Greeks can and do succeed in the competitive global economy – the challenge for government is to help unlock that capacity.

On our end, the U.S. Embassy in Athens has proudly supported a range of entrepreneurship programs and exchanges.  We’ve offered workshops that teach business owners how to pitch their ideas and get funding. We’ve trained young people on English skills tailored to doing business.

We’ve have sponsored delegations to attend the South by Southwest Festival, where entrepreneurs and creative professionals pitch their ideas, learn from their peers, find mentors, network with investors, and raise capital.  To increase our impact, we joined forces with the Hellenic Initiative to support an even larger Greek delegation to South by Southwest.

And speaking of the Hellenic Initiative, our American diaspora partners are a critical component to the success of these programs and, indeed, economic recovery in Greece.  The Greek-American community is at the very core of the relationship between the people of our two countries, and I am very grateful for their support and partnership, and the special role they play.

The Embassy and the Hellenic Initiative also partnered to send an impressive delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that President Obama hosted in California this past June.  When President Obama spoke there, he said something particularly relevant to Greeks who are eager to open businesses; something, in my opinion, that has been too difficult to do in Greece in recent years.

President Obama told the young entrepreneurs that “[w]hen people can start their own businesses… [i]t can make whole communities more prosperous and more secure.  It offers a positive path for young people seeking the chance to make something of themselves, and can empower people who have previously been locked out of the existing social order …  giv[ing] them a chance to contribute and to lead.”

I know there are young Greek entrepreneurs looking for the chance to do just this.  Greek political leaders have a responsibility to these young people – to create an environment conducive for business growth.  The role of government is to support and reward innovation, to encourage entrepreneurship, to continue to invest in educating young people, and give them the skills and training they need to compete in Greece and, indeed, anywhere in the world.

Of course, governments also have a responsibility to protect vulnerable people from the shocks our globalized world can cause.  As President Obama said, “in the years and decades ahead, our countries have to make sure that the benefits of an integrated global economy are more broadly shared by more people, and that the negative impacts are squarely addressed.”  The Greek government can fulfill its dual role – encouraging entrepreneurship while defending equality – by sustaining the reform process.

Let’s be clear, government of Greece has made significant progress in making adjustments to build competitiveness.  But, as President Obama said, and I think we can all agree, there is more to do.  We hope Greece will continue its reform process, cut red tape, and make it easier to start a business and to do business.  In my initial cabinet meetings, I have encouraged Greece’s government officials to work in tandem with the AmCham and the business community to capitalize on this untapped potential of Greece, to attract foreign capital, and to ensure that the recent economic upturn is sustained and accelerated.  This means concrete improvements in the business and regulatory environment to create favorable conditions for investment and giving Greek entrepreneurs the tools they need to succeed.

For example, a stable, predictable tax and regulatory system, conducive to long-term strategic planning and allocation of resources, and continued repayment of arrears to the private sector, will demonstrate that the Greek government is committed to supporting business and investors currently operating in the country.  This will also show other foreign investors that there are opportunities for successful investment in Greece and that the Greek government is a good partner.  Recent statements from the Greek government, acknowledging that Greece must attract more outside investment in order to generate sustainable economic growth, are extremely encouraging.  The United States remains Greece’s committed partner in this pursuit.

If Greece can create an environment more conducive to starting small businesses and eliminating unnecessary regulatory hurdles, I am sure young people will feel more confident about investing their talents and putting down their business roots here in Greece.

The economic crisis, subsequent austerity measures, and necessary reforms have certainly created extraordinary pain.  Part of the reason President Obama visited Athens was to shine a spotlight on the resilience of the Greek people, and to emphasize the progress that has been made, and to lift up a more hopeful narrative about this country’s future.

President Obama also underlined that austerity alone is not an adequate strategy.  Greece needs a growth strategy to increase revenue and relieve debt.  The Greek people also need hope that a brighter future lays ahead.  To this end, the United States will continue to advocate strongly for real debt relief which will help Greece stay on this path toward sustained economic recovery.  As partners and allies, the United States will continue to do everything we possibly can to help Greece as it recovers from the financial crisis and continues on its path to sustainable growth.  As Ambassador, I will work as hard as I can to cultivate entrepreneurship and innovation and to expand the commercial ties between the United States and Greece.

We want private U.S. companies to get the support they need from the Greek government to grow and prosper in this country.  Bilateral trade between our two countries is much smaller than it should be and U.S. investment in Greece has recently been declining.  I want to see that trend reversed.  I have a great team at here the Embassy who are committed to working with U.S. businesses and with the Greek government to capture these economic opportunities.  I’m looking forward to advancing these ideas at the next Delphi Economic Forum, and making a full court press for our 2017 trade mission with the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.  Our doors are always open and I look forward to hearing more from you about ways we can improve our joint programs in the future.

I also want to be sure to mention the importance of energy, something the U.S. Embassy in Greece has been keenly engaged on over the past several years, and I also was focused on from my previous post.  A secure supply of energy is vital to any economy.  Greece has made great strides in developing its renewable energy sources and is a key player in efforts to ensure the diversity of supply for natural gas to Southeast Europe.  Greece and its partners have taken important steps towards the completion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, TAP, which is a key element of the Southern Gas Corridor – along with other important regional infrastructure projects – will provide diversification of energy sources and free countries in the region from relying solely on Gazprom as an energy supplier.

While I’ve learned that it’s the market that drives this sector, you can be sure that the United States will continue to provide strong support to these important regional energy projects.  TAP, in tandem with other critical gas interconnector and LNG delivery projects around Greece, will bolster regional energy security and provide true diversification of gas supplies for the first time in Southeastern Europe.  Here, too, I am eager to hear more from our industry partners.

So to conclude, it is my great hope that 2017 will be a turning point for Greece – that we will see a return to economic growth and new opportunities for the Greek people.  I am certain that small businesses and entrepreneurs will be the backbone of Greece’s modern economy, powered by new ideas and transformative technology.  I am proud to be your partner as Greece works to reestablish its place in the global economy – strong, stable, and innovative.  And, I know you will find no stronger friend in this enterprise than the United States of America.

Thank you very much.