GIG: Over the past few years Greek-U.S. ties have reached an all-time high, with 2021 representing 200 years of friendship between both countries. What are the priorities under the Biden administration?
Pyatt: President Biden’s number one priority is to defeat the pandemic and then work with our international allies and partners to begin the process of sustainable economic recovery. We’re fortunate that there’s a very strong convergence between the policies and priorities that President Biden has set out and the approach of Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his government.
The other interesting aspect of the story relates to the smart way in which Prime Minister Mitsotakis managed the pandemic in Greece: an early lockdown following the scientists in terms of how to manage the reopening process. Because of this, Greece is going to emerge stronger than some other European economies from this global economic shock. And then there is also how the Mitsotakis government has used the pandemic to accelerate the process of reform, especially in terms of the digital economy and governance.
There was a very good conversation back in March between Prime Minister Mitsotakis and President Biden, and our leaders agreed to work together on economic recovery efforts. But they also agreed to continue the kind of effective partnership that you’ve seen between American companies and the Greek government, as both of our countries work through the challenges of this once in a lifetime disruption, the COVID-19 pandemic.
GIG: In which areas can bilateral relations improve?
Pyatt: President Biden has made clear that he wants to take a relationship that is already at a historic high point and make it stronger than it’s ever been before. This is a president who knows Greece, knows the region, and knows Prime Minister Mitsotakis. And I’m very proud of the contacts that we’ve already been able to establish between the Biden administration and counterparts here in Athens.
Now, as we work forward, obviously job one is to continue to grow our trade and investment relationship. I’m very excited about what’s been happening, even through the pandemic, with new investments from American companies like Microsoft and Amazon Web Services. Then, there’s what we see happening in the energy space.
President Biden has made clear that the climate crisis is one of his administration’s number one priorities, while Prime Minister Mitsotakis has also prioritised the challenge of climate change. And indeed, our special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, has made the point that the kind of ambitious goals that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has set – phasing out coal based power by 2025 and using the European Recovery Funds to support the rapid deployment of sustainable green energy options – all fit very well within the priorities of President Biden and his administration. The lignite phase-out is exactly the kind of bold, ambitious goal setting that the United States government has called on all of our allies to adopt. So we’ve got a lot of possibilities in that area.
We are very excited about what’s happening in the educational space, the expansion of ties between American universities and counterparts here in Greece, expanding opportunities for Greek students to study in the U.S. and for Americans to come here, recognising that that’s also a driver of innovation, and of people to people contacts.
Last year, Development Minister Georgiadis and Secretary of State Pompeo signed a new science and technology agreement, which sets out a framework on issues like intellectual property rights to facilitate work between our university laboratories on innovative new technologies and how to bring those technologies to market. So there’s really no limit to what we can do together.
But it’s also very clear to me that we’re seeing the further acceleration of a relationship that is very important to the United States in an environment where both of our governments are invested in each other’s success. The United States wants to see a Greece, which is a thriving European democracy, and Greece has a strong interest in the United States continuing to work on our transatlantic relationship and growing the ties between our governments in all the areas that we’re working on together under our Strategic Dialogue.
GIG: Prime Minister Mitsotakis has referred to the country’s Recovery and Resilience Plan, Greece 2.0, as an opportunity to reset Greece’s economic model. Bearing in mind the time you’ve been in Greece and your understanding of the changes that have come about, what is your assessment of this plan?
Pyatt: Over five years, I have seen Greece transition from being a real problem case for the European Union – a country where people worried about Greece leaving the eurozone, where people worried about Greece’s compliance with the conditions of the European troika, where people worried about the stability of the financial system – to a Greece that has become an example of good government performance. And nothing illustrates that better than the way in which Greece was ahead of the curve in meeting the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The European Recovery Fund’s €32 billion have the potential to be a huge game-changer in terms of the Greek economy. And we’re fortunate that the areas that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has prioritised, in particular digital and sustainable energy, fit almost perfectly with the priorities of President Biden, but also the areas in which American innovation, American investment leads the world.
GIG: Leading U.S. companies including Microsoft, Pfizer, and Cisco have chosen Greece as a location for significant technology and R&D investments. Why is this?
Pyatt: I talked earlier about how the government used the economic crisis as an opportunity to accelerate digital reforms. So, for instance, all of the measures that the government has taken in terms of the digital rollout of vaccine and vaccine certification run on a backbone of American technology: Amazon Web Services, Cisco, Microsoft, Google – they all worked with the government. The rapid rollout of distance learning, through a partnership between Cisco and the Greek Ministry of Education, helped to keep the Greek school system going through the pandemic. American companies, especially American technology companies, stepped forward.
And then, of course, there’s the iconic example: Pfizer, a company which none of us thought about a lot until our world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The transatlantic partnership between Pfizer and its partners in Germany, and then the leadership of Pfizer’s Greek American CEO Albert Bourla, a proud son of Thessaloniki, has put Pfizer right at the centre of global economic recovery, exactly at the time Pfizer is rapidly accelerating their investment in Greece.
I’ve had the opportunity to see that investment from its take-off phase in the summer of 2019, when Albert brought the Pfizer board to Athens to meet with Prime Minister Mitsotakis to hear his pitch to open a new digital innovation centre in Thessaloniki. This was followed by the expansion of that digital innovation centre as Pfizer discovered the rich well of human capital that Greece possesses. And now there’s Pfizer’s decision to expand out their footprint in Thessaloniki with a new Pfizer campus near the airport, which is being built and designed to accommodate up to 1,000 people.
This is an example of how American companies are coming to Greece. They’re discovering the human capital, and they’re leveraging that to grow their business, looking not just at the Greek market – the 11 million strong Greek market – but a wider Southeast European region of 30 million people.
It’s the same story with Microsoft. The Microsoft cloud computing investment in Greece began as a conversation between the Microsoft CEO and Prime Minister Mitsotakis at Davos. But it has now emerged as a major new Microsoft commitment to build a cloud computing infrastructure in Attica. This will be a catalyst for additional investment and the movement of the Greek government to a cloud based infrastructure, but it will also attract new companies that will come here to access the talent that take advantage of the infrastructure that’s building out. And that in turn attracts more.
So it’s a very exciting time where there’s a virtuous cycle between government reforms and government measures. One thing that has helped to unlock the interest of technology companies like Microsoft is the fact that we got Greece off of the USTR 301 watchlist. This happened in the first months of Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ government because he, Digital Governance Minister Pierrakakis, and Development Minister Georgiadis said they wanted to bring their standards up to the highest European level.
GIG. In your opinion, does Greece have what it takes to become a regional R&D centre?
Pyatt: An American company that I got to know relatively early in my time here is called Advent. They are a Boston headquartered company which specialises in hydrogen fuel cells, which, of course, has become very sexy in the context of the shift to sustainable energy options. It’s run by a Greek-American.
From the beginning, Advent has been operating both in Boston and Patras. I remember the first time I visited their laboratories in Patras; I felt like I had stumbled on a diamond in the rough because it was very clear that they were doing innovative, important work that would complement the priorities of the United States.
Now fast forward two years later: Advent has had its Nasdaq IPO, and is rapidly growing its headcount in Patras. When I recently visited their offices in Patras, everybody had impressive new lab equipment. Getting that IPO has clearly raised their game. But back in the United States, Advent is also making new acquisitions, including other companies in Silicon Valley.
They are bringing researchers from the United States to Greece to learn from their counterparts in Patras, and they’re sending members of their Patras team to the United States to inform about the research and innovation that’s being done there.
So Greece clearly has the human capital that it takes to develop a knowledge-based economy. And what’s happened over the past few years is that the government is adopting the policy changes to unlock that potential at exactly the same moment that big American companies are starting to realise the pool of talent that exists here.
And again, Pfizer is a terrific example of that. And I’m very excited that both Advent and Pfizer, for instance, have become engines not just for growing employment here in Greece, but also for brain gain. So a large number of the job applicants that they are receiving are Greeks who left Greece at the peak of the economic crisis, because, let’s face it, this is a great place to live. And if you can find that, and you can find the job satisfaction, it’s a very attractive package.
GIG: On the energy front, green investments represent one of two drivers of Greece’s recovery plan with the government having set out highly ambitious energy transition targets. What role do you see the U.S. and U.S. companies playing? Has there been a shift in strategy since the U.S. re-joined the Paris Agreement?
Pyatt: President Biden and Energy Secretary Granholm have made very clear that the United States wants to be the leading global power in the transition to a green economy. This includes everything from electric mobility and innovative technology for energy capture through to wind, solar, and geothermal energy, as well as storage, distribution, and smart grids. However, it’s not just about the development of hardware, it’s about the technology work that’s being by big companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, all of which have divisions of their business focusing on smart grid technology and the integration of technology and clean energy generation.
These are also companies that all have a commitment to be 100% green in terms of their own organic energy sourcing. So, for instance, the new Microsoft cloud computing infrastructure in Greece will be fully powered by sustainable sources.
We have American companies that are very active already. GE, one of the world’s great powers for innovative wind power, is active in the Greek market again, while they have also been very active in the marketing of their super-efficient gas turbines. And gas is going to play a very important role over the next decade or two as Greece phases out coal and begins the transition to sustainable options.
There’s an American Texas based energy company called 547 that is poised to become one of the largest wind power operators in Greece. They already operate several wind farms in the Peloponnese, but they’re moving ahead with the licensing of a very large project in Western Macedonia. Indeed, I’ve been discussing that project with Energy Minister Skrekas.
I’ve also been in touch recently with America’s largest privately held green energy company Invenergy. Headquartered in Chicago, the company operates wind, solar and storage infrastructure across the United States and around the world. They have opened an office in Greece and are in talks with big Greek companies like PPC and Mytilineos about how to bring their technology in integration and network operation to the Greek marketplace.
So the United States is committed to lead the world in this green transition at the highest level, and American companies are looking at Greece as an important market, because of the resources that are here. Greece is the Saudi Arabia of wind and solar in terms of the resources that it enjoys, but also the policy innovations that have been made.
Energy Minister Skrekas, for instance, has talked to me about how he is trying to accelerate the licensing and regulatory aspects of these projects so that instead of taking 10 years from conception to execution, that time period can be squeezed down to just two or three. These are the kind of changes that American and other international green energy investors are looking to.
There are also interesting stories around the work that’s been done, for instance, with green islands. In the case of Astypalaia, where Volkswagen has taken the lead, a number of the American energy and technology companies that I work with have expressed an interest in looking at whether it’s possible to use that experiment as a laboratory. They’d like to understand how the energy economy is going to be changed by these new technologies, taking advantage of the fact that Greece is an EU member state with EU regulatory standards, yet not so big that it’s impossible to do something new and different.
GIG: How do you see Greece’s energy transition impacting exploratory efforts offshore Crete, particularly bearing in mind U.S. interests? Is the development of the country’s upstream hydrocarbon industry, in your opinion, compatible with a green agenda?
Pyatt: The energy transition is real and it’s happening. But it’s not going to go from black to white; there’s going to be a series of grades. I talked earlier about how important gas is going to be to Greece’s accelerated phase out of coal power. The question is where this gas is going to come from.
There’s been a rapid evolution of the regional energy map driven by policy investments that Greece has made in recent years, including in gas infrastructure. There’s the TAP pipeline – the first new energy infrastructure built in Europe, specifically to bring non-Russian gas to European consumers and the largest single foreign investment in Greece of the crisis decade. There’s the expanded terminal at Revythoussa, and the new floating regasification unit at Alexandroupoulis – that has U.S. investment through BlackRock, and which the United States government has strongly supported as an opportunity to diversify energy sources and routes in Southeastern Europe. And there’s also the new agreement between Greece and North Macedonia for a gas pipeline connecting both countries, which, again, will help to unlock the Balkan energy island, bringing gas to North Macedonia, Kosovo, and even Serbia.
So, whether Greece continues upstream gas and oil exploration is something that the market is going to be deciding. It’s very clear, talking to, for instance, Hellenic Petroleum (ELPE), that even Greek energy companies are looking to green their portfolios – ELPE has a large wind power and sustainable portfolio that it’s developing.
I think, ultimately, the bankability of these big offshore exploration projects is going to depend on the decisions of the license holders. I know that ELPE has already surrendered some of its licenses. I know that Exxon Mobil, which is a partner with ELPE and Total in the fields offshore Crete, is continuing to look at this issue. But I think for the United States, the priority is to see both that Greece continues to play this role as a guarantor of European energy security, but also that we continue to do everything we can to support the bold energy transition that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has committed himself to.
GIG: In terms of military cooperation, steps are being taken to deepen ties through the US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act. What does this mean from a practical perspective? How does Greece fit into the U.S.’ regional strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkan region?
Pyatt: Greece is one of our strongest military partners in NATO, and it happens to occupy a particularly strategic piece of geography. That has been true for two thousand five hundred years since Themistocles and the Athenian fleet were battling the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. You just need to look at the map to understand how important Greece is to the geopolitics of the Black Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean.
On Souda Bay, we have one of the United States’ most important naval facilities in this part of the world. We’ve also, under the 2019 expansion of our Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA), expanded the areas where we’re working together.
So there’s been extraordinary growth in U.S. military cooperation with Greece around the Port of Alexandroupoulis. In fact, we have two major ships operating there right now. It’s been the first time that we’ve been able to simultaneously do loading and unloading of two huge military cargo ships, demonstrating the utility of that port and the way in which American military cooperation, with the Hellenic armed forces, is enhancing the economic viability of that facility.
It’s the first time that anybody is using the rail line, for instance, which goes out onto the pier. And the United States is very committed to the two American companies that are participating in the privatisation of the Port of Alexandroupolis. We also have new operations going on in Stefanovikeio in Larissa.
We are expanding the scope and the complexity of our daily military cooperation in a way that enhances the readiness of U.S. military forces in Europe, but also builds interoperability and partnership between the Hellenic Armed Forces and the United States. The Eastern Mediterranean is a big part of that.
I’m very grateful for the support that the U.S. Congress, and in particular Senator Menendez and Senator Rubio, have provided through the East Med Act, which was signed by President Trump in December of 2019. And now the new Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act, which is intended to accelerate the process of military engagement and cooperation between our two countries, reflects how Congress on a bipartisan basis – Republicans and Democrats – are supporting what we are doing as the executive branch to try to expand that relationship.
Our governments have committed at the highest level now to the extension and deepening of our MDCA, and I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to complete that by the end of this year.
GIG: Greece has been bullish with respect to the reopening of its tourism industry. How optimistic are you that current efforts will succeed in attracting U.S. travellers?
Pyatt: Tourism is one of Greece’s heavy industries, accounting for about 25% of GDP. It was, of course, seriously disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bearing in mind that the United States has done relatively well on vaccine deployment and because Americans are travelling again, Greece has done very well to tap into that marketplace.
Tourism Minister Theoharis made the smart decision to open Greece to American tourists before many other EU Member States did. So as a result of that, we have a record number of direct flights from the United States to Athens this year, nine direct flights from American, Delta, United, Emirates, and literally hundreds of thousands of American tourists coming to Greece as their first foray abroad after a very difficult year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re also seeing growth in the cruise sector where a number of major American cruise lines are, for the first time, home porting out of Piraeus, running cruises that rather than starting in Barcelona or in Italy are starting and finishing here in Piraeus, putting money into the Greek economy, but also allowing Americans to discover the unique joys of this part of the Aegean.
GIG: What message would you send to U.S. investors and companies who are considering doing business in Greece?
Pyatt: The first message is that the time really has never been better to come to Greece to leverage the opportunities in the country. Greece is emerging from a global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s doing so with enhanced confidence, with a government that has accelerated the process of reform. I talked already about what’s happening in the digital space with a government that is enjoying the best bilateral relationship that we’ve ever had between Athens and Washington, D.C., and with a government that is committed to growing the portfolio of American trade and investment in this country. So it’s a uniquely positive moment to be looking at the opportunities here.
I know that big American companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco – which is playing a critical role in Thessaloniki –, Pfizer, Deloitte, among others, are all growing their footprints in Greece.
Now is the time to take advantage of the transformation that Greece is going through, precisely because that process is going to be accelerated by the RRF – a €32 billion investment that Prime Minister Mitsotakis and the Greek government are now making in rapid economic recovery.