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Foreign Minister Kotzias’ interview with AMNA - The Rhodes Conference for Security & Stability (September 8-9/2016): A Greek initiative to bring Europe closer to the Arab world
JOURNALIST: On Thursday and Friday we are hosting in Greece, on the island of Rhodes to be exact, the Conference for Security & Stability in the E. Mediterranean, where Arab and European states will be meeting on your own initiative. Would you like to elaborate on the objective thereof?
N. KOTZIAS: There is this historical, cultural and geographical area consisting of S.E. Europe and the E. Mediterranean. This is an area of shared interests. Yet, we have to restore its functionality. Its shared interests are interwoven with history and culture, concern new infrastructure, division of labour, security and stability. This is the first time in many decades we will be discussing relations between the two constituents, S.E. Europe and E. Mediterranean without Israel, Palestine or Turkey being at the core of our agenda. We are talking about relations between Arab and SE European countries.
JOURNALIST: Why did you choose Rhodes?
N. KOTZIAS: This very location, more than any other, connects those two areas, which is why I chose Rhodes. Moreover, let us not forget that the Ministry makes a point of, especially when times and seasons allow for it, expanding and decentralizing foreign policy-making. We had the meeting with my Turkish counterpart, M. Çavuşoğlu, in Crete; we will be having the Quadripartite this October in Thessaloniki, wherefrom we shall be going to Mt. Athos as well. Now, we are having this meeting of Arab and other European countries in Rhodes.
JOURNALIST: This initiative of yours was it promptly welcome or was there maybe reticence on the part of your peers? What did the Arabs think of the Conference, how did Europeans react and what did the Slovak Presidency say?
N. KOTZIAS: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Italy, Croatia and Slovakia are the European countries participating in the Conference in Rhodes. On the part of the Arab world, there is Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, UAE, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The plan initially provided for a total of eight, four European and four Arab countries, and now, as you can see, we got up to 14. Let it be noted that there were more who wished to be included, but in this particular case the Conference would have lost sight of the original purpose for which we organise it in the first place. The Arabs showed great interest in this initiative and they are actually the ones who wanted to have more countries participate. The Slovak Presidency, for its part, saw the Conference as a great chance to get to know a number of Arab countries.
JOURNALIST: You are in particularly good terms with your Egyptian counterpart, Mr. Shoukry, to whom you presented your idea of organising this Conference during your last state visit to Cairo in February. Did the two Ministries of Foreign Affairs work together to that end?
N. KOTZIAS: Indeed, we sent the drafts for the Conference to Egypt first, agreed on them and then forwarded them to everyone else. We do have a special relationship with Egypt, which has its own historical connection to the Arab world. I personally always bear in mind the fact that at the dawn of the 20th century Egypt was the one nurturing modern Arab culture. Egypt is where Arab-speaking motion pictures started from, it gave the world great Arab poets and singers, was home to big universities and reformist schools.
JOURNALIST: Time and again, you have spoken of a triangle of instability in our region. What kind of cooperation do countries in this region need to foster for stability and security purposes?
N. KOTZIAS: With a view to tackling the triangle of instability we have established a series of tripartite partnerships. There are tripartite meetings with Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon and we are going to have one with Palestine as well. We have not just had our tripartite arrangements expand and increase but, most importantly, in the case of Israel and Egypt we have used a new model whereby tripartite partnerships permeate the entire MFA chain of command: general directorates, secretaries general, ministers, presidents and prime ministers. Cooperation concerns multiple sectors, for instance in the case of Egypt the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry for Transport are collaborating, too.
Just think of this triangle as a multilayered, multifaceted globe encompassing all issues. In cooperating with Egypt, we thought we had to capitalize on our experience from other such tripartite partnerships and envelop it institutionally. This is what we are doing in Rhodes: the Conference is bringing the various countries, which are involved in our tripartite arrangements and would like to participate in a joint forum for security and stability, closer together. We are not defining security in military terms, we are not defining it solely in connection to terrorism, challenges and disasters but would rather think of it in positive terms. We do think of it in terms of versatile networks, from energy to infrastructure, to help stabilize the entire region through initiatives and common actions.
JOURNALIST: Greece is making a comeback to the Balkans and the Middle East with this initiative aimed at ‘bridging’ the two worlds, the European and the Arab, at a very difficult point in time. Is it turning over a new leaf in our policy for the wider region?
N. KOTZIAS: Greece has indeed made a comeback to the Balkans. We aspire to connect the policy we endorsed back in the 1990s, the one in favour of creating networks and developing the mainland of the Balkans, with the policy of the last decade, which strengthened the European orientation of countries in our region. We want to build a hinterland inside a European-oriented S.E. Europe. Now we are trying to connect this place with the Arab world.
JOURNALIST: Do you aspire to having the Rhodes Conference convene every year? Have you talked about it with the rest of the participants?
N. KOTZIAS: Yes, we wish to have the Rhodes Conference become an institution and hold it on a regular basis. We are, moreover, about to formalise Balkan Cooperation but also the -biennial, though- Conference on the Protection of Cultural & Religious Minorities. As I stated recently at a speech I actually made at the University in Skopje, where I was invited, next year the initiative will still be ours but an Arab country along with Austria have agreed to support it and work for it since day one.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the setup for Rhodes could expand further?
N. KOTZIAS: If it is to expand, the respective decision should be made by all participants together. When I had the quadripartite meeting on cross-border cooperation of the four Balkan states convene for the first time, what I had in mind was to also extend an invitation, on top of the four countries, to whomever else we wanted to have on board. Yet, the other three peers did not wish for the set-up to expand, they want to be ‘linked’ in a special institutional relationship. And thus we reverted to the initial plan, which we shall be adhering to again this year in Thessaloniki.