Exclusive Interview: Greek Australians may sometimes feel overlooked by Greece, but Dr Kostas Vlasis says he is addressing their needs

Neos Kosmos challenged Dr Kostas Vlasis about the needs of Greek Australia's diaspora and he spoke of initiatives to draw them back, as well as his focus on improving digitisation, improving languages in the Antipodes, the much-needed DTA and everything else from the Diaspora Vote to Diaspora Day

The diaspora of Australia, despite being robust, is often overshadowed by those of Europe and America.

There was not one Greek Australian intellectual represented in the Greece 2021 committee, there is no Double Taxation Agreement between Greece and Australia, nor an office of the Greek National Tourism Organisation in Australia despite being offered space for free by the Greek Community of Melbourne. For this reason, Neos Kosmos asked Greece’s Minister of the Diaspora, Dr Kostas Vlasis, to share his insights into the needs of Greek Australians and how Greek policy is made to specifically cater to those Down Under.

Dr Vlasis told Neos Kosmos he shares a “very close” relationship with the Greek Diaspora, especially that of the United States, and said that Arcadia, his “special homeland” was one of the many points of departure for many immigrants who moved abroad. Even before his appointment as Deputy Minister of the Diaspora, he had been in constant contact with Greek Australians and other Diasporans.

“As a Professor at the Medical School of the University of Athens, I was in constant collaboration with Greek doctors around the world as well as academics, long before I was assigned the portfolio of Greeks abroad,” he said, pointing to the many Greek academics who have enjoyed global success, “showcasing significant scientific achievements and remarkable research work, especially in the medical sector,” he told Neos Kosmos.

Incentives to live in Greece

Much is being done to woo back the educated Greeks who left Greece during the debt crisis and also, in the process, draw any highly-regarded minds to the country. The reverse brain drain is well and truly underway – or at least that’s the message from Dr Vlasis who would like to see the return of those talented young people who left, disappointed, because they saw no future in Greece at the time.

“Greece needs highly-specialised professionals, researchers and academics to transfer new knowledge and technology back to the country and to contribute to the country’s economic growth potential and competitiveness,” he said, while emphasising that the government has been trying to create the “appropriate environment” to ensure the return of its finest.

Dr Vlasis believes that “in order to bring them back we have set as a priority to regain citizens’ trust in the State”, pointing to various reforms which are being implemented “such as the improvement of infrastructure, the digitalisation of the state and the simplification of the procedures”.

He pointed to the Rebrain Greece Programme, the first part was about subsidising 70 per cent of the salaries for 500 Greek scientists from abroad, while another pillar of the programme was supported by a network of universities, research institutes, municipalities, scientific institutes of social partners and other organisations and was about developing a platform for the interconnection between the companies operating in Greece and abroad.

“Apart from Rebrain Greece, we have also introduced tax incentives of up to 50 per cent within a period of seven years in order for Greeks abroad to transfer their tax base to Greece,” he said, adding that there have already been encouraging signs for the brain drain reversal.

“Last year, 130,000 Greek expats decided to return to their country,” Dr Vlasis said. “Greece can be the ideal place to work and live.”

READ MORE: “Why not work out of Kastellorizo?” Greece’s PM Mitsotakis asks Greek Australian diaspora

Despite these incentives, Greek Australians – by moving to Greece –  would place themselves in the position of being taxed twice for the same income bearing in mind that there is no Double Tax Agreement (DTA) currently in place. “Indeed the DTA between Greece and Australia is an issue which is of great concern to the members of our Diaspora, especially the entrepreneurs. We support the DTA and we are aware that it will further boost the investments to Greece by our Diaspora,” he said, pointing to the ongoing process for this Agreement to be concluded. “These types of Agreements take quite a long time. As Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has already told (Neos Kosmos). We are very close to start negotiating the DTA which would be for the benefit of both Greece and Australia.”

PLUSES Rebrain Greece, tax incentives for people who move their taxes to Greece
MINUSES No DTA in place, so Greek Australians are taxed twice

READ MORE: Seeking a Double Taxation Agreement: Moves are being made to protect Greek Australians getting taxed twice

Keeping language alive

During a recent Open Dialogue series, Dr Vlasis had praised the fluency of Greek Australian children and the great success in maintaining La Trobe University’s Greek programme. We asked him if he was aware that reality is a far cry from the fluent Greek spoken by students on World Greek Language Day (9 February) in a few well-curated videos. Is he aware that young Greek Australians barely speak the language of their grandparents?

“I am well aware of the fact that people, in our case Greeks, who live in a pure foreign environment, are inevitably influenced by this; especially the young generation,” he told Neos Kosmos, and added that the conservation of language was of “pivotal importance”.

Asked about the inadequate books offered by the Greek government, which are too advanced for ages of the children they are meant for, Dr Vlasis threw the ball to Greece’s Ministry of Education, stating that this is not so much an issue for his department. He nonetheless spoke of efforts to improve the use of high technology and encouraged people to use the “staellinika” online platform “through which our young friends and (more), can learn the Greek language and history”, and he added that the same platform would soon be available in Spanish and Portuguese.

READ MORE: Konstantinos Vlasis, the man responsible for the diaspora, celebrates his birthday with Greek Australians and says, “We want you back”

Asked about successful programmes of yesteryear, such as the trips to Greece offered to the diaspora, and whether these would be revived to reignite the passion for Greece which previous generations shared, Dr Vlasis dampened the prospect of such initiatives being offered any time soon.

“You wisely mention a remembrance of your generation. But allow me to underline that at the first quarter of 21st century things have radically changed,” he said, suggesting teens are no longer interested in interacting in the place of their heritage in physical ways.

“Teenagers and young people have different needs and I would say different opportunities to satisfy them. their way to communicate with their peers cannot be compared to any of the past. In the blink of an eye they exchange ideas, points of views; they are in contact with each other regardless of physical distance. In addition they have enriched their ways of travelling by seizing opportunities that were completely unknown even at the turn of their century.”

On his part, he urged young Greeks “to keep their contact with the Greek language which will help them to maintain vivid routes with the language of their ancestors” but stopped short of offering any groundbreaking solutions.

PLUSES Sta Ellinika program utilises technology
MINUSES Nothing else seems to be happening

READ MORE: A warning for Greek language in Australia: Use it or you’ll lose it

Constitutional right to vote

Though Dr Vlasis said that the “Diaspora amounts to a second Greece”, the decades-long dream of first generation migrants to be able to vote in Greek elections from the place and from the country of their permanent residency will only be a reality in diluted form.

“We have exerted our efforts to correct any defects of the Bill 4648/2019,” Dr Vlasis said, adding that the Greek government wants the diaspora “to be politically aware and actively involved in the voting procedure,” he said.

“Whatever applies to Greeks, applies to Greeks abroad as well. We don’t want double standards in the right of vote,” he said.

Asked about MeRA25 Leader Yanis Varoufakis’ criticism of the Bill, stating that it treats the Diaspora as “second class citizens” by not allowing for them to vote for their own representatives, Dr Vlasis dispelled any such notions, stating that any Greek citizens, regardless of where they live, even those who have left the country, will be able to vote and their vote would be equally counted.

There was no specific response given by Dr Vlasis regarding the creation of a Diaspora Party, but he did tell Neos Kosmos that the Greek government doesn’t want “double standards in the right to vote”.

PLUSES A pledge to correct Bill 4648/2019, Greeks will vote in the next elections
MINUSES Greeks will only be able to vote from select points and not via postal votes

READ MORE: Greece’s plans for diaspora vote: Going postal and the Danaids

Consular services

Dr Vlasis said his priority has been to “improve the consular services provided to Greeks Abroad” and the main way has been via the digitisation of the public services.

“From the very beginning we have decided to cut the Gordian knot of red tape and proceed to important changes in order to regain citizens’ trust,” he said, pointing to the utilisation of new technology and simplifying processes to significantly reduce the time needed for administrative processes to take place, and he said that soon Greek citizens would be able to receive a birth certificate in a few hours rather than the three- to- six months needed.

“Also, by the end of the year, all Greek missions abroad will be able to provide remote citizen services via video conference,” he said in reference to MyConsulLive – a service already running in more than 70 Missions which “allows citizens to be attended by a consular officer without visiting the Consulate or Embassy”.

“After thorough study, we came to the conclusion that 70 per cent of the phone calls made at a Consulate referred to similar requests. That being the case, we established a 24/7 virtual assistance manager (chatbot) which answers any questions regarding consular services,” he said.

“The service is offered so far by the New York and London Consulates. I have to admit that it really saves time, both for the citizens and the civil servants. Lastly, I would like to mention that soon, instead of the citizen visiting the Consulate, it will be the other way around. We have expanded consular services to remoted areas by organising outreach trips to collect passport applications. Our Mobile Passport Unit will undertake the task of collecting passport applications in remoted areas.”

PLUSES Digitisation of processes, cutting through red tape, mobile consular units
MINUSES None that we could think of

READ MORE: Greek government looks to cut through red tape at embassies and consulates abroad

About Greek Australians

Greek Australians are often overlooked when it comes to Greece’s policies for Greeks abroad. For instance, there was not one Greek Australian representative in the committee of experts for the Greece2021 committee, there is no Double Taxation Agreement between Greece and Australia, and despite Greek National Tourism Organisations around the world, Australia is still lacking such an office despite the Greek Community of Melbourne’s efforts to get one.

Asked about the uniqueness and challenges of Greek Australians, Dr Vlasis said that the Diaspora Down Under is “equally unique to any other worldwide”. Focusing on the Greek Diaspora as a whole, he spoke of it as a “precious part of our country”.

“We are proud of their efforts, their contribution both abroad and home, and their distinction as members of the society they live and spend their life. In this context, Greek Australian Diaspora is facing the challenges of our times; the way to deal with a continually changing world and to overcome environmental issues that have already rung the bell of our door,” he said.

“Let’s not forget the catastrophic consequences of the blazes that devastated Australia in the recent years. In addition, they also face challenges that concern the Greek community itself, such as the maintenance of the Greek tradition, the bonds with the mother country and their relatives. We are talking of the fourth and even fifth generation that grow in this beautiful country and most of them have only remote memories from their ancestors and the life in Greece.”

PLUSES A respect for the Diaspora
MINUSES No real focus on the uniqueness of Greek Australians

Diaspora Day

Dr Vlasis said he has received 150 proposals for the creation of a Day for the Greek Diaspora, and thanked “everyone for their valuable contribution”. He pointed to some “ingenious ideas” but stopped short of telling us which dates have been suggested.

He spoke of the significance of having a date to honour the Diaspora, especially during a “milestone year for Greece” which is celebrating 200 years since the Greek War of Independence.

“Let’s not forget that in the past decade Greece had a reputation that distorted its real potential, ” he said.

“I can assure you that the motherland does never forget the contribution of the Greek Diaspora during the Revolution period, and expresses its gratitude to those who contributed during these 200 years to the transformation of our country into a modern state of the 21st century. This is of outmost importance to us.”

Dr Vlasis also expressed his gratitude to the Diaspora for the help it has always offered Greece, even now during the devastating fires which swept through the country. Asked what Greeks abroad can do to help, Dr Vlasis pointed to the Greece’s Ministry of Finance which recently opened a special account under the name “State Aid Account – Contributions from Individuals” (Λογαριασμός Κρατικής Αρωγής – Εισφορές Ιδιωτών) where anybody can contribute and help those affected by the catastrophe.

PLUSES The Diaspora will be honoured with its special day
MINUSES More initiatives are needed to change attitudes concerning the Diaspora from within Greece

Dr Kostas Vlasis in Parliament. Photo: Supplied

The success of whether the the current government’s policies will bear fruit will be seen in the future, as will the work of Dr Vlasis’ predecessors.

“When I was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs responsible for the Greek Diaspora, I planned a number of meetings and communications with many of my predecessors in order to obtain the necessary inside info on my portfolio,” he said, adding that he has tried to apply “a consistent and coherent strategy based on continuity” so as to “meet some lasting demands of the Greek Diaspora”.

Meanwhile, he looks to the future, and hopes that COVID-19 restrictions will ease soon enough to make a series of planned trips abroad, including to Australia.