Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has taken a tough line on migrants as he turns around the country’s economy. It’s a trade-off that voters and the European Union seem more than willing to abide.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece has been accused of illegally pushing asylum seekers back at sea. He has acknowledged that the state’s intelligence service wiretapped an opposition leader. He has consolidated media control as press freedom in Greece has dropped to the lowest in Europe.
It is the sort of thing that the guardians of European Union values often scorn in right-wing populist leaders, whether it be Giorgia Meloni of Italy or Viktor Orban of Hungary. But with Greece holding national elections on Sunday, Brussels has instead lauded Mr. Mitsotakis, a pro-Europe conservative, for bringing stability to the Greek economy, for sending military aid to Ukraine and for providing regional stability in a time of potential upheaval in Turkey.
Above all, European Union leaders appear to have cut Mr. Mitsotakis slack for doing the continent’s unpleasant work of keeping migrants at bay, a development that shows just how much Europe has shifted, with crackdowns formerly associated with the right wing drifting into the mainstream.
“I’m helping Europe on numerous fronts,” Mr. Mitsotakis said in a brief interview on Tuesday in the port city of Piraeus, where, in his trademark blue dress shirt and slacks, the 55-year-old rallied adoring voters on crowded streets. “It’s bought us reasonable good will.”
With Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, calling Greece’s border enforcement Europe’s “shield,” Mr. Mitsotakis argued that after the arrival of more than a million migrants and asylum seekers destabilized the continent’s politics by entering through Greece during the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, Europe had come around to Greece’s tougher approach.
Migrants on a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey in 2020.Credit…Michael Varaklas/Associated Press
“We’ve been able to sort of change, I think, the European approach vis-?-vis migration,” said Mr. Mitsotakis, a self-described progressive, disputing the notion that the policy — which critics say includes illegally pushing asylum seekers back — was hard-right.
“Right-wing or a central policy,” said Mr. Mitsotakis, the leader of the nominally center-right New Democracy party, “I don’t know what it is, but I have to protect my borders.”
In turn, Europe seems to have protected Mr. Mitsotakis.
“It’s the Mitsotakis exception,” said Alberto Alemanno, a professor of European Union law at the HEC Paris business school. Mr. Mitsotakis’ special treatment has derived from his political closeness to Ms. von der Leyen, Mr. Alemanno said, and his willingness to build — with funding from the bloc — a vast network of migrant centers that have proved politically popular in Greece.
Mr. Mitsotakis argued that some “leftist Illuminati in Brussels” failed to see that he was saving lives with his policy, something that he said Europe’s leaders appreciated.
“We’re no longer sort of the poster child for problems in Europe,” he said, adding that what he had done “offers a lot of people relief.”
Greeks included. Before Sunday’s elections, Mr. Mitsotakis held a comfortable lead in the polls against his main rival, Alexis Tsipras, of the left-wing Syriza party, even if the prime minister still appeared to lack enough support to win outright. A second round of elections looks probable in July.
Alexis Tsipras, left, and Mr. Mitsotakis taking part in a televised debate at the headquarters of the state broadcaster ERT this month.Credit…Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters
Around the neighborhood where Mr. Mitsotakis campaigned, people talked about how he had made their native Greek islands that were once overrun with migrants livable again, how he had been the first Greek prime minister invited to speak to a joint session of Congress in Washington, and how he had stood up to Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who himself faces an election runoff next weekend.
Greeks around the country appreciate how Mr. Mitsotakis has cut taxes and debt and increased digitization, minimum wages and pensions.
For a decade, Greece was Europe’s thumping migraine. The country’s catastrophic 2010 debt crisis nearly sank the European Union. Humiliating bailouts followed, and a decade of stark austerity policies — directed by Germany — cut pensions and public services, shrank economic output by a quarter, inflated unemployment and prompted thousands of young and professional Greeks to flee.
In 2015, under the leadership of Mr. Tsipras, Greeks voted to reject Europe’s many-strings-attached aid package, and the country was nearly ejected from the eurozone. Social unrest and talk of “Grexit” mounted, but Mr. Tsipras ended up carrying out the required overhauls and moderated in the following years, arguing that Greece had started on the road to recovery.
But in 2019 he lost to Mr. Mitsotakis — the son of a former prime minister, trained at Harvard and Stanford, at ease in Washington — who seemed the personification of the establishment. He promised to right the Greek ship.
“This was always my bet,” Mr. Mitsotakis said. “And I think that we delivered.”
His government has spurred growth at twice the eurozone average. Big multinational corporations and start-ups have invested.Tourism is skyrocketing.
Tourists visiting the Acropolis in Athens in October.Credit…Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press
The country is paying back creditors ahead of schedule, and Mr. Mitsotakis expects, if he wins, international rating agencies to lift Greece’s bonds out of junk status. The number of migrant arrivals has dropped off 90 percent since the crisis in 2015, but also significantly since Mr. Mitsotakis took office four years ago.
“A European success story,” The Economist called Greece under Mr. Mitsotakis.
But he argues that he needs another four years to finish the job. Greece, which still has the European Union’s highest national debt, is also the bloc’s second-poorest nation, after Bulgaria. Tax evasion is still common, and the country’s judicial system is so slow that it scares off investors.
Critics of Mr. Mitsotakis say that, apart from the economy, he represents a danger to Greece’s values, and that Europe is diverting its eyes as it focuses on the financials and the declining number of migrants.
Humanitarian groups have accused Mr. Mitsotakis of illegally pushing back migrants by land and sea. He has hardly run away from the issue, recently visiting Lesbos, the Greek island that became synonymous with the abominable conditions of its Moria camp, which was crammed with 20,000 refugees before burning down.
“Moria is no more,” Mr. Mitsotakis said in the interview. “It simply doesn’t exist. I mean, you have olive groves and we have an ultramodern reception facility that’s been built with European money.” Critics have denounced the new camp’s prisonlike conditions, but Greeks overwhelmingly support his tough line.
Mr. Mitsotakis during a campaign event on the island of Lesbos last week.Credit…Elias Marcou/Reuters
Europe is “less on top of Greece for doing pushbacks and all the sort of things,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, who heads the Brussels office for the Center for European Reform, a think tank.
The latitude given Greece, she said, was in part recognition that the country had lived through a decade of brutal austerity. But it also reflected that Europe as a whole is “basically unable to help” Greece and other nations at the front line of the migration crisis, and therefore lets “these governments do what they do.”
Migration aside, there are other more immediate concerns at home. In February, a train crash killed 57 people, exposing Greece’s rickety infrastructure and the limits of Mr. Mitsotakis’ talk of modernization. Reporters Without Borders deemed Greece the worst country in the European Union for press freedom in its 2023 index.
Destroyed train cars at the site of a crash where two trains collided near the Greek city of Larissa in March.Credit…Angelos Tzortzinis for The New York Times
Over the summer, Mr. Mitsotakis’ top intelligence official got caught wiretapping journalists and politicians, including Nikos Androulakis, the leader of the opposition Pasok party and member of European Parliament. Mr. Mitsotakis denied, to the incredulity of many, knowing anything about it. Some of the people his intelligence services listened in on were also found to have illegal malware on their devices. The government has denied putting it there.
But Mr. Mitsotakis, in a televised debate this month, conceded that Mr. Androulakis should not have been wiretapped. The spying was an especially bad idea, it turns out, because Mr. Androulakis’s support may prove pivotal to the election’s ultimate outcome.
Yet the scandal is way down on voters’ list of priorities, as is Mr. Mitsotakis’ treatment of migrants.
John Vrakas, 66, who was handing out fliers for Mr. Tsipras across from the square where Mr. Mitsotakis was due to speak, shrugged that Europe didn’t seem particularly bothered as long as the prime minister assuaged their concerns on the economy and Ukraine. “It’s a kind of trade,” he said.
It is one that Greek voters seem happy to make.
As Mr. Mitsotakis walked the streets, a bus driver reached out the window and clasped his hand. “Supporters until the end,” chanted a group of men in front of a cafe. “We trust you,” a woman shouted from her jewelry shop.
What “resonates in Europe,” Mr. Mitsotakis said, was that his was an “anti-populist government” that had brought much-appreciated stability back to Greece in a rough region.
He got up from the interview in a small and otherwise empty restaurant, and shook more hands on the way to the square, where he launched into a short stump speech interrupted by chiming church bells.
“I’m not sure who they are tolling for,” Mr. Mitsotakis exclaimed, “but not for us.”
In Athens this month.Credit…Orestis Panagiotou/EPA, via Shutterstock
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.