Obama pays farewell visit to Athens

Obama pays farewell visit to Athens

The visit by outgoing American President Barack Obama next week to Athens was planned on the certainty that it was going to take place after the victory of Hillary Clinton. And that his keynote speech was to be delivered on one of world’s best known locations for the practice of democracy. 

But none of the above turned out right. The Republican Donald Trump will enter the White House in January and Obama will not deliver his keynote speech in Athens where it was originally planned.

The Greek government had been preparing for Obama’s visit to Athens with great enthusiasm. Obama’s administration has often expressed its doubts on whether the right medicine has been given to Greece by its creditors (European Union, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) to come out of its seven years of economic crisis. The outgoing president had often urged Greece’s creditors to rethink how to alleviate the country’s unsustainable public debt. And his visit to Athens, this week, on Nov. 13-14, was meant to confirm all that.  

Obama was to deliver a major public speech from the actual location of the Pnyx, a rocky hill opposite Acropolis where Athenian citizens assembled and listened to their political leaders. It’s a site of great symbolism for a president of the most powerful democracy in the world!

But, the choice of Pnyx had to be canceled at the last moment “due to security” reasons. Instead, Obama will deliver his speech in a closed location, as yet undisclosed, before a limited audience.

Obama to visit two capitals in Europe: Athens and Berlin

Still, the Greek government is placing high importance on Obama’s visit, deeming it highly significant that he is closing his term as president by visiting two regions of the world, Europe and Latin America. And only two European capitals: Athens and Berlin. Greek analysts think that with the EU in deep existential reckoning and with the European south in continuous economic crisis, Obama’s visit is expected to send important messages regarding the American approach.

We will have to wait for the actual speech of Obama in Athens, and to assess it against the dramatic change of leadership in the U.S. 

But we already have some information about his approach. In a major pre-visit exclusive interview to Greek daily Kathimerini, Obama underlined that “with the rise of populist movements and questions about the future of European integration,” his visit to Greece “will be a chance to reaffirm the enduring values of democratic governance, diversity and tolerance that help keep us strong.” When questioned on his view about the recent statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan challenging international treaties relating to Greece, Obama replied indirectly saying that “despite the ongoing challenges in the Middle East, the EU and NATO are extraordinary forces for peace and stability.” He stressed that “democracy and human rights, economic openness, pluralism, and a rules-based system based on collective action, transformed Europe into a continent of peace and prosperity” and that through these values, “former rivals can become good neighbors and strong trading partners, and  a continent once wracked with conflict can move forward through trust and cooperation.” 

Chance for a solution on Cyprus

About Cyprus, he stated that the prospects for a lasting settlement “are the best we have seen for many years” while he had plenty of praise for Greece’s “compassion and generosity” to the refugees while underlining that the deal on the refugee issue between Turkey and the EU is “the best hope for managing arrivals in Europe in a way that’s orderly and humane.” And he attributed the refugee crisis to the “barbarity of the al-Assad regime in Syria and ISIL.”

The timing of the Obama visit to Athens comes at a particularly delicate moment for the Greek government. With its public support crumbling due to the detrimental effect of the latest bout of austerity measures, PM Alexis Tsipras has placed all hopes on a jump-start for the economy with a successful evaluation of the bailout program by the country’s creditors that would result in the release of the last tranche and of Greece becoming eligible for the ECB’s Quantitative Easing program. But all that depends on the creditors finally agreeing to a serious revamping of the government debt. 

Tsipras claims that “the discussion on debt is already on the table” and good news will come in a few weeks. In that sense, even after the defeat of Hilary Clinton, Obama’s speech in Athens is important. “Greeks need hope,” he said in an interview to the Greek daily. “I will continue to urge Greece’s creditors to take the steps by providing meaningful debt relief.” 

But we will have to wait until January to see whether the statements of the outgoing president also reflect the coming mood in Washington. Whatever the case, that’s likely to be a bit too late for Greece.