Καλησπέρα σας! Nikos, thank you so much for having me here. I’ve been looking forward to meeting with your association. Each time I visit Thessaloniki, I’m reminded of the significant role played by the American affiliated institutions in northern Greece – these institutions are the foundation of our bilateral relationship here – the Alumni Association, Anatolia College, American Farm School, Pinewood, the American Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, AHEPA, all of you. In your work on a daily basis, you strengthen the bonds between the U.S. and Greece by strengthening our people-to-people connections.
As I’m sure all of you know, the U.S. will be the honored country at this year’s Thessaloniki International Fair – TIF – the signature activity of the U.S. Mission in Greece for 2018.
There’s a strategic objective behind our participation in TIF this year. First, of course, is to celebrate the very best in American technology, American innovation, American entrepreneurship, characteristics which mark the competitive and dynamic parts of the U.S. economy, but also to get the message out to the international audience that Greece is back, that Greece is open for business, that the economy has started to turn around, that there are real opportunities here in terms of American and international investment. The United States wants to help ensure that this really is the year that Greece turns the page on the crisis.
There’s a very strong political commitment from the U.S. Government to our role at TIF. President Trump with Prime Minister Tsipras last October emphasized the importance we place on the United States’ status as honored country, and he committed to sending a Cabinet-level U.S. delegation. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has indicated he will lead the delegation to TIF. And the Embassy and U.S. Foreign Commercial Service are collaborating with the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce to feature leading American companies in technology, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food and education inside the American pavilion.
This year’s week-long TIF extravaganza is expected to draw 300,000 visitors from across the region. And we’re organizing a fantastic program for those visitors to highlight all the facets of U.S.-Greece relations. Over the course of the week, there will be a series of conferences and seminars on energy, education, entrepreneurship, and communications. For the cultural program, we plan to blanket Thessaloniki, on bus stops, billboards and public buildings, with iconic works of American Art, by bringing a project created by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of Art.
I’m anticipating a great momentum for us in northern Greece, as the U.S. participation at TIF 2018 comes at a moment when US-Greek relations are stronger than they have been in many years. And our intention is not to have TIF be a one-time event, but rather to serve as a springboard for renewed American engagement in this part of Greece, building on the foundation you all represent.
There is another important dimension to the TIF, however, as it will also mark the end of the third bailout and the substantial progress Greece has made toward reforming its economy and returning the country to sustainable growth. And so we hope this summer, as Greece returns to global markets, we will see renewed activity from the American market.
The resilience of the Greeks coupled with government efforts over the past five years has made this growth possible. This resiliency has always stood out during my time in Greece. I’ve seen the courage and determination amongst the established business communities, start-ups and entrepreneurs.
So, now I’ll turn to where we are on attracting U.S. investments to Greece. I have more American companies coming to see me at the Embassy right now than at any time since I arrived. American investors are taking a new look at Greece.
Whether it’s interest in the Syros shipyard, and I understand that process is almost complete and ONEX has already restarted operations there — or American interest in the Alexandroupolis port privatization, and in tourism related services, big American investors and companies are looking for ways to partner with Greek companies because they see true value here.
Another sector I think is not sufficiently heralded in Greece is entrepreneurship and startups. It’s one of the great untold success stories of Greece, and for my part, I’m committed to doing all I can to help sustain it. I’ve seen it in Patras, I’ve seen it in Heraklion, I’ve seen it in Athens, and I’ve seen it here in Thessaloniki: highly competitive start-ups with innovative ideas, leveraging the strong human capital that Greece enjoys to deliver products that are globally relevant. This is why Tesla, for instance, has chosen to open a new research and engineering lab in Athens.
Greece’s future economic success depends, in large part, on its resilient and talented human capital and on the quality of its innovation economy, which is another important value that our two countries share.
A few weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by the Greek pharmaceutical association. There was a presentation from a highly accomplished Greek-American named Fay Christodoulou. She’s a graduate of the Polytechnion who moved to Silicon Valley, and she now has a start-up with 30 employees. She embodies Greece’s human capital, which is truly world-class, and she had some great ideas on an important piece of the overall picture, namely how to attract young, intelligent and industrious Greeks back to Greece or to stay here in the first place.
In terms of other investment opportunities for American companies, privatization is at the top of the list. I often point out that American companies bring transparency and high standards of corporate governance, and they are looking for the same from their Greek partners. There have been some success stories in this area. One, that I think many people here experience on a regular basis, is Fraport and what’s happened with the airports and the improvements taking place in terms of efficiencies and how Greece’s civil aviation industry operates. I hope that during my tenure here we will see similar progress on some of the other key privatizations, like Hellenikon, that have been outstanding for too long.
We also recently saw the privatization of the Thessaloniki Port, which I heard a lot about, starting with my first visit to Thessaloniki in October 2016. I’ve spoken forcefully on this topic, specifically on the transparency of the transaction and the source of funding, which includes a letter of guarantee from a Russian bank currently under U.S. sanctions. The upcoming privatization of other ports in the region – Alexandroupolis and Kavala – presents new opportunities for industrial and agricultural development. I’ve seen Alexandroupolis Port firsthand and know that it can serve as a strategic transit point.
So, there is a lot of interest on the part of American companies and a lot of opportunities for them in northern Greece. Now, it’s up to the government to sustain the message Prime Minister Tsipras conveyed when he was in the U.S. about investment, openness and predictability – creating an environment that allows for economic growth. Foreign investors, especially from the U.S., are looking for certainty, and moving ahead on the progress we’ve already seen on several key privatization projects, stability in the tax and regulatory regime, could all help attract new foreign capital at a moment when Greece is poised to move forward.
In this context, Greece is also at a tipping point in terms of establishing itself as a major European energy hub. We have all come to agree on the importance of European energy diversification, and as Prime Minister Tsipras points out, almost every major new energy route coming into Europe will pass through Greece.
The Trans Adriatic Pipeline is coming along nicely. Last year when I was in Thessaloniki for our Independence Day celebration, I had the opportunity to visit one of the construction sites. What an impressive project. The scale of the construction is immense and hard to fully comprehend until you see it in person. This pipeline will bring new sources of energy into Greece and to Europe – helping to create additional energy security for the region.
The Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector is an additional infrastructure project that will bring new non-Russian sources of natural gas to Bulgaria, a country that has so far depended 100% on one source for its gas needs.
Here, I’d also like to mention a regional project that the U.S. has opposed and which would undermine Europe’s energy security, and by extension, American energy security, and that’s the Nordstream II project. It would divide Europe and strengthen Russia’s ability to use its energy resources for political coercion and to increase its political influence. It would also give Russia more power to circumvent Ukraine, diminishing its revenues and eliminating an otherwise powerful disincentive against further Russian aggression there.
Nor is there any particular resource need for this project. There are many other important natural gas projects in this area that will accelerate the vision that the Greek and American governments share of seeing Greece develop into an energy hub. The floating storage and regasification unit, or FSRU, near Alexandroupolis will create another entry point for LNG into the European gas grid, and we hope that Greek government commitments will be realized and Greece will soon start importing American LNG as well, improving competition in the market and rewarding the average consumer, who will ultimately enjoy the lower prices that true competition will generate.
Likewise, the development of the Kavala natural gas storage site will create a new reality where the Greece has the ability to emerge as a gas trading hub. You also see it in upstream projects now moving forward, in the hydrocarbon sector, but also renewables where we have increased interest recently from big American companies like General Electric.
Something that all these companies know well is that one of Greece’s greatest resources is its geography, which presents real opportunities for Greece in attracting investment and creating jobs in infrastructure and energy.
Thessaloniki is the major entry point into not just Greece but also the Balkan region to the north. The development of regional road, rail, and energy linkages will benefit Greece and bring the entire region closer together.
For centuries, Greece has been a gateway between the Middle East, the Balkans, and Europe. Greece’s economic success will ultimately depend not just on the actions you take here, but the economic prosperity of the broader neighborhood. You have heard me refer to Greece as a pillar of stability in a complicated region. In this regard, we see Greece as a hub for economic development and a leader on policy matters.
The United States and Greece share a commitment to integrating the Western Balkans into European institutions – a goal that meets our mutual security interests. Having all of the countries of the Western Balkans in NATO will make the alliance stronger and the region more stable. In terms of defense security, I hope you all know how much we value our bilateral cooperation at Souda Bay, which advances both bilateral and NATO objectives for regional peace and security. This strategic locale enables us to service Sixth Fleet ships and aircraft on missions throughout the region. I would also emphasize how our cooperation continues to expand.
Last year, Greece contributed tremendously to the success of Atlantic Resolve by enabling a substantial portion of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade to enter the European theater through the port of Thessaloniki and to depart through the port of Alexandropoulis. As a result, the Alliance’s logistical capability, interoperability, and ability to mobilize resources efficiently was demonstrated. We also saw a better and more innovative way to use existing resources here in Greece to achieve our joint and multilateral objectives, something that we plan to continue doing in the future.
This cooperation both between our militaries, as well as our defense industry, is strategically important and good for our economies. Earlier today I had the pleasure of visiting the NRDC headquarters and the Third Army Corps. Thessaloniki will be NATO Joint-Command for two years, starting this summer, highlighting again the strategic importance of this city.
In closing, I would observe that we have a lot to celebrate in our bilateral relationship during this very pivotal year, with the U.S. as the honored country at TIF, and I want to emphasize that we are working very hard to make it an event that doesn’t end on the last day of the fair but creates networks and investment opportunities that will continue to grow stronger.
And in that vein, I want to highlight an upcoming event, the SelectUSA conference in June. Last year, AmCham Greece helped assemble an impressive delegation of Greek companies to the SelectUSA Investment Summit, and there was especially strong northern Greek participation from firms like Pyramis metals, Baresquare software, Kouimtzis equipment, National Can Hellas, and Ergon Foods. It’s a proven platform for Greek businesses to expand into the U.S. market and to establish networks that could also result in investment from the U.S. into Greece.
So on June 21-22, I’ll be headed to SelectUSA, and I hope to be accompanying another strong Greek delegation, including top companies from northern Greece.
I’d like to end by thanking everyone here, Minister Kollia, TIF-HELEXPO, AmCham, the mayor(s), Nikos Philippou, all of you, business and local leaders, entrepreneurs and friends, students and American university graduates. I believe your support will make 2018 a historic year in our bilateral relationship, and especially our relationship with northern Greece.