Tsiaras talks

From the double tax issue to language, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Kostas Tsiaras talks exclusively to Neos Kosmos on all the issues affecting Greeks in Australia

Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Kostas Tsiaras is in Australia for the first time. The minister responsible for Greeks abroad talked exclusively with Neos Kosmos, on all the issues impacting Greek Australians. Here’s the full interview:
Neos Kosmos: You have repeatedly expressed the need for reinvention of the World Hellenic Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE). There is a view that this institution is costly and inefficient – as was clear by the poor attendance when you asked expatriates to submit their views for the new body. Why do you go on with SAE and how do you envision its future?
Kostas Tsiaras: One of our priorities is to remobilise the Greek diaspora through another model; by adapting its institutional framework to the contemporary circumstances which is required by the current difficult situation in our country. It is a fact that the public consultation turnout on the bill on the SAE through “opengov” was lower than expected. But I want to point out that, at the same time, even until today, we have received several written comments and observations from individuals, as well as by organizations of Greeks abroad. All these comments are currently being processed in order to achieve the best results in conditions of democratic dialogue and broad consensus.
SAE, the World Council of Hellenes abroad, which, in the Greek Constitution has the task of expressing all the forces of the Greeks worldwide, has completed one cycle. In the past, the SAE – and we should be honest about it – was not able to represent the Ecumenical Hellenism. It failed its mission to be the institutional interlocutor to the Greek state and of course, the most critical is that it did not fulfil the advisory role, which had been set as one of the conditions of its founding document.
Now is the time to build a SAE more representative and thus more creative, which will have the capability to mobilize all the forces of Ecumenical Hellenism. This requires the participation of all Greeks located in all corners of the earth and not the participation of a very small number of them. We will make every effort to ensure maximum representation of all regions of the world that ethnic Greeks live in, and avoid practices of the past.
We focused on three specific principles. These principles are the self-organization of the institution, its self-financing and the representation of all Greeks abroad. Self-organization is a necessary condition if we want to eliminate any attempt of manipulation. At this point, I want to categorically make absolutely clear that the intention of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Government, is that events which might have been observed in the past, relating to the operation of SAE, will not be repeated.
The World Council of Hellenes Abroad will operate autonomously and through a process that will stem from its own members and its own organization.
Self-financing is the second principle. You know very well that the Greek state is at a very critical situation. There are no resources to support basic needs and basic structures and financing SAE in the manner that has been done in the past is obviously an option that can not be supported at this time. We all know that several organizations of Greeks Abroad support their function by means of self-financing, organizing fund-raising activities. In this context, SAE can obviously find similar ways to financially support its own function and activity such as membership fees, donations etc.
The third axis is the representation of all Greeks abroad, without exception. What has happened so far? SAE, generally speaking, operated through representatives of organizations and in many cases through their respective federations. In this way, however, individuals of Greek descent were not represented. Thus, there was just a vague impression of its role and a strong feeling that “here is something that we can not attend, and therefore can not support.” By providing the opportunity to every Greek abroad to become a member of SAE, we hope to create a sense of perspective that SAE belongs to everyone and represents everyone. It is a major challenge in the present time.
All this, of course, could easily be implemented , especially with the use of modern technology. In very simple words, it is not necessary, for instance, in the process of Regional Assemblies or in the elections of the Assembly, for members to be physically present in a particular place in order to vote. Instead, they could exercise their right to vote at a specific time, by using modern technology, through a specified process.
We believe that this kind of new organisational structure corresponds to the current needs, while in the same time the extremely important work of traditional forms of organization of Greeks abroad, will continue to provide valuable national services.
NK: The Greek Government is in favour of granting voting rights for the diaspora. Can you tell us who will vote, and when, where and who?
KT: The issue of participation in the national elections is a demand of our community abroad, dating to decades ago. Our party attempted, during the revision of the Constitution, to institutionalise the postal vote, but failed because it did not obtain the required majority in the Greek Parliament.
For decades, Greece regarded Hellenism abroad either with a ‘paternalistic approach’ or as an area to pursue petty party interests. We suggest another relationship with all Greeks. A relationship of mutual recognition, respect and trust. We need the dynamism, the proven will to help, the constructive proposals of all Greeks abroad in the national effort to rebuild our country.
Hellenism abroad is a huge national asset, which, through a two faceted process and on an equal base relationship, we have to recognize and promote.
In this context we consider imperative to strengthen the ties of overseas Greeks with our country and, by extension, to legislatively regulate their right to participate in national elections.
NK: Will Greece be supporting the inclusion of Modern Greek in Australia’s national curriculum and how?
KT: It is a very positive development, which demonstrates the exceptional dynamism of Greeks in Australia. It is well known that Greeks abroad, especially the younger generations, have an enviable presence in the social, scientific, economic and political affairs of the countries in which they live. With their participation in public affairs, they have become potential ambassadors of our country and regulatory factors in the political scene of their countries.
It is true that the education and learning of the Greek language is an imperative critical issue that we must address in a timely and effective manner. My view is that language along with religion are the two key elements that define Greek identity and the bond that links Greeks abroad with their motherland. Along with teaching history, they are key shapers of national consciousness. Without knowledge of the Greek language, the Greek diaspora will be lost permanently to Greece. So, I strongly believe that our primary concern, must be to enable Greeks Abroad to teach their children the Greek language.
This critical issue must be addressed in the context of the current financial crisis. I intend to discuss this matter with the competent Minister of Education. Taking into account that the same problem is faced by all Greeks abroad in all countries, we should definitely try to find ways to deal with it either by means of Greek State support or in collaboration with the private sector.
NK: The double taxation issue has caused turmoil for Greeks of the diaspora who have income in Greece. The diaspora has argued that this is a pointless, time consuming and costly process. Will the Greek Government revise this process?
KT: During the last months we have received letters from Greeks, who permanently reside abroad, as well as memos from organizations of Greeks abroad, mainly from countries with which we have not yet signed an Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation, on the issue of submission of the required relevant documents to the Greek tax authorities.
Their content raises serious reflection and concern about the ability of Greeks Abroad to respond to the new provisions and requirements. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs aims at resolving, in the most appropriate way, the issues concerning Greeks Abroad, and in that end has submitted these comments to the competent Ministry of Finance, in order to be taken into consideration as an additional basis in the examination of this issue.
NK: Is there a willingness from Athens to sign a bilateral agreement with Australia for the avoidance of double taxation of expatriates?
KT: We aim at the conclusion of a bilateral Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation which will further develop the bilateral economic relations, attract investment and movement of capital, and facilitate business between the two countries. In repeated Greek proposals on that matter, the Australian side consistently proposed instead an Agreement on Exchange of Counter Information on Tax Matters which was not accepted by the Greek side, as relevant agreements are meant only for non cooperating States. It must be noted that the exchange of information on tax matters between the two countries will be established within the framework of the provisions of the multilateral agreement signed between the OECD and the European Council in 2012 and will enter into force after ratification by both countries.
An Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation between Greece and Australia is always a matter of high priority for our country.
NK: Greece and Australia have expressed their intention to conclude an bilateral agreement for a tourist visa with the right to work for people aged 18 to 30 years. Although Australia has similar agreements with many other countries, agreements with Greece have not been signed. Why?
KT: The Greek government, in response to the strong desire of the Greek community, has proposed a bilateral agreement on youth mobility, along the lines of the corresponding agreement between Greece and Canada, recognizing the multiple benefits of this agreement for our youth. The Australian side counter proposed, in September 2012, the signing of a Memorandum for the visa type “work and holiday”. After a thorough study of the Australian proposal, with which we agree in principle, we believe that soon we will be able to conclude the negotiations and proceed to the signing of the Agreement.
NK: In 2015 Australia will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the landing of Gallipoli. Efforts are being made by politicians and Australian expatriates for the celebrations to include Lemnos. Will the Greek government be helping this effort?
KT: The Greek state participates annually in the Commemoration Events taking place in Lemnos, on the occasion of the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli. Two military cemeteries and a monument remind not only the presence of Australians and New Zealanders on the island of Lemnos , but also the common struggle of our people for freedom and democracy. Regarding the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, Lemnos will again be an integral part of the Commemoration Events, on one hand because of the island’s historic role in the campaign, and on the other because of its excellent modern infrastructure, enabling it to receive the Australians and New Zealanders who will visit to region.
NK: What steps will you take to promote Greek exports to Australia, and also to increase the number of tourists from Australia to Greece?
KT: We intend to promote our exports to Australia for traditional branded agricultural products like saffron of Kozani, Chios mastic, Messolonghi grey mullet bottargo (fish roe), Kalamata olives, branded wines, etc. Our export efforts must be accompanied by specific and targeted promotion actions, in order to highlight the comparative advantages of the Greek economy. Additionally, we will promote the organization of business missions. Prospective sectors for exports and partnerships with Australia include ​​renewable energy sources, aluminium industry, the maritime sector and related services, innovation in sectors like microelectronics and nanotechnology, etc.
Regarding the tourism sector, our aim is to strengthen the tourist flows from Australia to Greece. In this context, we intent to promote alternative forms of tourism such as gastronomy, sailing, religious tourism, spa, etc. The number of tourists from Australia to our country (a total of 100,627 tourists in the first nine months of 2012 compared with 92,423 in the corresponding period of 2011), although improved as compared with the previous year (up 8.9 per cent and 0.7 per cent ratio of total arrivals of foreign tourists in our country) is still relatively small and mainly generated by Australians of Greek descent who constitute about 2.6 per cent of the total Australian population. The improvement of the air connection between Australia and Greece is an important condition for the development of economic and trade relations as well as tourism.
Australian investments in Greece have large margins of improvement in domains such as the construction sector, real estate services, tourism, innovation and research.
However, it should be noted that the considerable distance between the two countries and the unfavourable exchange rate of the Australian dollar to the Euro, are significant factors which burden the export efforts and do not allow the full use of the opportunities offered, given the fact that Australia is a prosperous country with a sizeable and economically vibrant market.
Greek state encourages every extroverted business initiative because openness is the key which will enable our country to return to the path of development. This is the way to benefit from innovation, to attract investments and create new jobs, so much needed by our country.