Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis followed up The Economist’s declaration of Greece as its “Country of the Year” for 2023 with an article in the well-known weekly magazine’s latest edition, first vilifying populism in Europe and then playing up Greece’s eyebrow-raising recovery from the “bailout era”.

Although Mitsotakis is facing serious challenges in country, particularly pesty inflation and pushing through a handful of liberal-minded reforms – recognition of non-state universities, postal voting for expatriates and legalizing same-sex marriage, among others – his and his government’s performance in the foreign policy and defense arena, as well as the country’s solid fiscal status, has won kudos from ratings firms, investors and foreign media.

The article reads:

The chequered history of Greek politics since 1945 suggests that where there is a vacuum there is often trouble. Never was that more apparent than in the decade following the global financial crisis that erupted in 2007, when the country was slowly but inexorably swallowed up by the empty promises of populism.

Greece’s embrace of a populist-led government was relatively short. But the damage was profound. The country I inherited when I was elected prime minister in 2019 was widely seen as the sick man of Europe.

Today Greece finds itself in a different place. In 2023 we were named The Economist’s country of the year; we have also topped the newspaper’s economic ranking two years running. In last summer’s election the leftist populist vote collapsed, and my party returned to power for a second term with an increased share of the vote.

And yet, post-pandemic, amid war, an energy crisis, a migration challenge and high inflation, the same populist impulses we have managed to see off in Greece are once again on the rise across much of the rest of Europe.

Which invites the question: what if anything can Greece’s experience since 2019 tell us about why that’s happening and what to do about it?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackling the rise of populism. But there are themes that run deep.

Take grievances. Even now the European liberal establishment of which I am a part is still largely unable or unwilling to accept that the grievances that fuel populist uprising—from globalisation to the rising cost of living—are real and genuinely held.

It’s an approach that manifests as “us and them” and says “we know best”. Such hectoring self-righteousness is catastrophic. It blinds us to people’s pain, clouds our judgment about which issues to prioritise and, eventually, turns voters away.

In 2015 Greece found itself at the forefront of the rise of populism. Its first populist government was elected in January of that year, and the country did it again eight months later. In doing so, Greece ushered in the full monty of populist ideology: a hybrid coalition of the extremes of both hard-left and hard-right.

The four years that followed taught me that populists promise the Earth, but ultimately their promises are grand, utterly empty and totally unachievable.

The answer to combating such extremes lies in delivering effective policies while being prepared to challenge and even junk your orthodoxy and your preconceptions, when necessary. That meant being prepared to flex rapidly in response to global events while embracing a new triangulation logic: pro-growth but fiscally responsible; robust on migration and assertive on security, alongside a strong foreign policy; and socially liberal at home.

On the economy, we were focused on growth: cutting taxes, supporting entrepreneurs, spurring investment through market reforms. But we also understood the importance of remaining fiscally responsible. The result was one of the highest growth rates in the euro zone and a rapid reduction of debt to gdp. Credit-rating agencies rewarded us by returning Greek debt to investment-grade status.

On migration, we unashamedly implemented tougher border controls. But at the same time we greatly shortened the time it took to process asylum claims, improved conditions in our reception centres and cleared legal pathways for labour mobility. On foreign policy, we built new regional partnerships around trade, security and energy provision. And in our relations with Turkey, we confronted the challenges head-on, while keeping the door to dialogue open.

These reforms allowed me to focus on a more liberal social platform at home: tackling inequality, improving public services through digitisation and even addressing progressive issues such as marriage equality. I was clear that, as long as the economy was robust, whatever fiscal surplus we generated above our targets would be used to support the most vulnerable households.

Between the elections of 2019 and 2023 people saw rapid change. Unemployment fell, growth rose sharply after the pandemic and we earned back the trust of markets and foreign investors. At the same time, the country shifted towards the green and digital economies of the future. Greece found a new voice nearer to the centre of the European Union. Relations with Turkey began to improve.

Greece’s application for funds from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, the centrepiece of the eu’s covid-19 recovery plan, was one of the largest of any member state and was approved before any other country. The European Commission recognised how our strategic use of funds dovetailed with our growth strategy: fostering a strong recovery and a more resilient economy and society.

The resounding election victory last June proved that the approach works. It was indeed possible to create a new anti-populist voter coalition of left and right.

Victory showed that it was possible to restrict the breathing space available to the populists by keeping our traditional right-wing and centre-right voters happy, while also expanding the appeal of our party to Greeks who identified as centrist or even centre-left. The extreme-right parties took 12%, but that was a far weaker showing than in most European countries. In an era of widespread cynicism, Greece has shown that politics can be done differently.

In the end, of course, the most powerful bulwark against populism is listening and delivering. The accolades awarded to Greece by this newspaper will mean little if its economy isn’t growing, and if it can’t generate the additional revenue needed to support health-care reform and better public education. For Greece, combating populism will continue to be about generating equitable economic growth while converging with a progressive, centrist Europe.

To do that requires honesty. When mistakes are made, they need to be acknowledged. And it requires the ability to show you are making a difference, not just overpromising. But above all it requires clarity. It’s about explaining why, for example, an investment-grade rating is not just about pleasing markets—it means lower borrowing costs for people’s mortgages—or why it’s important to attract foreign investment to create more high-paying jobs.

That matters because at its core all politics, while not necessarily always local, is always related to the individual, to family and to household well-being. Only by delivering on that can we begin to restore trust and defeat populism.”