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Foreign Minister Kotzias’ Press Conference at the Rhodes "Conference for Security and Stability" (09.09.16)
N. KOTZIAS: We opted to have this meeting in Rhodes because of the island’s long history. The first Israelo-Palestinian meetings, an armistice agreement and international Middle East conferences aimed at finding a solution to the issue back in the 1940s were actually held here, in Rhodes. Moreover, there were many meetings with regard to this region back in the 1950s, the 1970s and the start of the 1980s. It is not accidental nor is was it random as Rhodes brings together various styles and cultures, spanning a wide historical range from ancient Greece to Italian architecture at the heart of the city of Rhodes.
Rhodes is where various civilizations and cultures meet: North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, especially S.E. Europe. It is a crossroads, a hub connecting East and West, South and North.
I wish, on that note, to extend my thanks to the city of Rhodes, the Mayor and the Regional Governor who will be hosting us for lunch today. Thank you for taking such great care of everything and everyone. I wish to also express my gratitude to the departments of the Ministry of Public Order who made sure our visitors felt at ease.
Let me, moreover, acknowledge and thank the directorates and departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because tasks like this might seem self-evident and easy, still they call for hard work, a lot of workload, especially for A6, the Directorate for Arab countries and the Middle East, the Protocol Department and, last but not least, the Information and Public Diplomacy Department which is working really hard and you, in particular, are aware of that.
Now, why did we undertake this initiative? As you know, we have already established five tripartite partnerships with Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and we are also working on another, among Cyprus, Greece and Palestine, which is due in the next UN General Assembly.
This is also quite telling and revealing of our excellent relations with countries in the region and the upgraded status of Greece as a country working for security and stability in the region.
On top of that, we believe in the continuity of history and traditions in SE Europe, in particular the Balkans, and MENA.
The world community has been dealing with this region mostly as a place of conflict and warfare rather than because of its positive prospects, energy and scope for positive action.
The objective of this Conference was to look for and into positive actions to help our countries. Thus, we agreed to have the Rhodes Conference every year and invite the rest of the Gulf countries to attend. We also agreed to work on the basis of the following principles:
First, we do not wish for third party intervention in the region. We can work together and capitalize on help from the outside, nonetheless, this region has to build and develop its own relations based on trust and a positive agenda. That is an agenda in favour of networking and protecting public goods for the sake of the region including, for instance, culture, combating corruption, working on energy, transport, institutions, education, with particular emphasis and attention to what young people need.
We also dealt, though not to a great extend, with the migrant and refugee issues since all of us in this region agree it is others that are causing the flows of refugees, but then again someone else ends up paying the price. Some are bombarding places and others are eventually called upon to deal with the refugee issue.
We also tackled issues of geostrategic importance, especially for the Arab countries: the fight against terror, Syria and Libya, ways to contribute and help deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we are all in favor of a two-state solution and we talked about growth and development in the region.
Moreover, we agreed on a number of practical measures, as I am a practical man myself. Each country taking part in this Conference has already agreed to undertake the preparation of one action each and get all the other participants on board. We are inaugurating our common actions through cooperating in the field of green technologies, with Libya and Italy in charge.
We have also agreed that our universities should be working together. On the occasion of the centenary of failed agreements which set the colonial borders of this region, we are going to have an international conference with universities from the entire region.
We are also looking into possibly having a motion pictures festival with movies from the whole region.
Therefore, this is a series of practical issues we agreed on and a number of common actions to somehow make a difference and change the regional agenda on the core premise that we do not wish for interference from the outside. We can foster cooperation from the inside, which can actually come in many forms and prove beneficial for everyone and all sectors, starting with the economy through education and culture.
Let me inform you of the fact that, and as you know I am quite sensitive to cultural diplomacy myself, all parties to this Conference came up with proposals and suggestions with regard to it. Needless to remind you of ties: cultural, historical but also personal, connecting us in this region.
REPORTER: Minister, how easy was it for countries having such varied and different perspectives on politics and democracy to work together? Yesterday and today, here, you had a gathering of countries from Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Is this an easy venture?
N. KOTZIAS: When it comes to our foreign policy, the main criterion is not about what is easy or what is difficult but rather what is necessary, and in our opinion this is necessary. Cooperation is necessary, this type of cooperation.
And there is a second criterion: on the one hand, we have different political systems and setups, they may be different but we stand united in our shared interest and concern to ensure security and stability for our people.
As I often say, and this indeed had been subject to controversy but now the EU is starting to get the point, there are some who seem to think it may be ok if, for instance, there is instability in Egypt, but they do not realize what it really means to have a country of 97 million people destabilize, when 65 million of the population is under 28, most of them jobless in a state sharing a border with Sudan. Sudan is where officially the civil war may be over, it is not really over though. And further south there is Somalia, and Ethiopia where there have been clashes and conflicts in recent months and on the left hand side, on the map, there are other states and terrorist organizations acting, for example, in Chad and so on.
And so from that point of view, when it comes to stability and security, it is to the shared interest of us all, states in the region, to work together and encourage networking and contacts. Let me reiterate my basic claim, which I always make before European organisations and institutions: it was someone else that started bombarding Syria and Iraq but it is others that are called upon to receive and accommodate economic migrants and refugees.
So, you see, this is something we all concerned about and we do share our interests with the rest of the countries here.
Last, we want to have joint actions and activities in numerous sectors, from the field of energy to academia. It is all about the needs of communities and people in the region; it does not depend on how one government treats another.
REPORTER: I am here on behalf of Egyptian media and TV. I would like to know whether this conference has something to do with the Arab-European Summit, due in Athens on 3-4 November, and what it means for Greece to be playing a major role, act like an ambassador, if you will, for both Europe and the Arab world.
N. KOTZIAS: The upcoming business meeting of Arab and European countries in November is something entirely different to this Conference where we have been discussing security and stability. To be sure, both are related to the wider context of efforts Greece has been exerting to foster relations with the Arab world.
As regards the EU, it is a well-known fact we see ourselves as the representative of our region’s interests and culture in the European Union. We have participated in long and hard talks to prevent interventions in states in the region, and we perceive ourselves as a state, a society, a government that understands, much better than others, all that is happening, what is brewing, and what the needs of the region may be.
I sometimes tell our partners ‘you are too far off and cannot sense nor "smell" what is happening in the region. You cannot understand, respond or may be you do not care enough to respond and cater to the needs and the interests of this region’. So, we see ourselves as a friend and an advocate of the interests of the Arab states when dealing with European institutions.
REPORTER: Minister, what differentiates this Conference from other permanent setups and fora, such as the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue or others? And what if there are common actions, will EU funds be used to fund them? Or national funds? How do you see the financing of such actions going through?
N. KOTZIAS: The Euro-Mediterranean conference, or the EuroMed, where EU- members from the South gather, and they are having a meeting of heads of state and government today in Athens as we speak, is an institution. It is a regular, international gathering dealing with the Mediterranean, about its overall problems and affinities with the EU. In our case, here, we are proceeding with multilateral diplomatic action aspiring to bring together SE Europe, N. Africa and the Middle East, which for thousands of years have been, to a certain extent, one single cultural, social and economic area. We want to reinvigorate the internal relations of this space. Other setups are working on the relationship of the European Union, or some European partners, with the rest of the Mediterranean countries. They are not focused on fostering and developing a special privileged relationship for countries in this area. We, as a state, are present in various international bodies, but we are also promoting multilateral partnerships.
REPORTER: Minister, the Slovak Minister and representative of EU presidency welcomed this initiative, and indeed said this could be a new path for peace. What can the significance thereof be for Greece, both in the context of the EU and that of the European presidency?
N. KOTZIAS: First, I am afraid I forgot to respond to the question about funding. Financing will be found by means of our interstate relations and we will try to capitalize on international scope, including UN and EU programs. So far EU programs are being mostly utilized by the rich countries of the European Union. It is high time we, in this region, manage on our own what we receive ourselves.
The Slovak Presidency is friendly towards Arab states. I would say that Slovakia stood by our side, and so did a number of other countries, in trying to develop EU relations with the Arab states, without the elements of intervention, interference and tutorship, since there are many from Europe who tend to talk to countries ‘by waving their fingers’. And I am pleased because after 20 months in my capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece I am no longer alone in suggesting that this region be assisted and supported to achieve growth. Still, some have to stop waving their finger much like preachers as they are the ones who nonetheless blatantly interfere, and they at times even violate international law in the region.
From that point of view, the Slovak presidency is a positive one, and it also intends to invite Egypt to a discussion on a European level. I personally sent a letter to the European Commission to request that past decisions be changed, decisions previous Greek governments had actually endorsed to the detriment of Arab states, especially Egypt, for example.
REPORTER: All that you have discussed in the past few days, Mr. Minister, has to do with regional forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Turkey and Israel. Did you actually refer to these two countries at all during the meeting? And how do you intend to move forward with the implementation of all that you are decinding here? Will you do so in cooperation with Turkey or Israel or without them?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey was not discussed at all. Some participants referred to Israel, but it was not the main topic since this Conference mainly tried to draft a positive agenda. Israel and the Palestinian issue as well as the war in Syria are on the agenda; still, I have to acquaint you with the fact that, as I said in my opening statement, we should not exhaust our discussions about this area by confining it to war and conflict. We need to have a positive agenda for cooperation and common development in the region and Greece has taken the lead. Of course, an parameter to this common effort for growth is that the Palestinian issue should be resolved with the creation of two states in the region.
REPORTER: Good afternoon, Minister. In what areas of synergies, if you could possibly list them, could there be common ground for cooperation after the Conference and is there a timeline? Because we are hugely experienced and aware of conferences that started with good intentions and at the end they got nowhere.
N. KOTZIAS: Let alone the fact that, in the end intentions turn sour and bad…
What I have here, in detail, is a list of issues including security and cooperation of scientific centers on region-related issues. We are faced with this outstanding phenomenon where our region is being researched and studied by scientific centers outside the region with the UN and the EU funding them. These funds should come here and research centers in our area need to cooperate for that.
Fields that we have earmarked include history, culture and technology in the region. The Arab world is highly interested in technological cooperation. There was a long discussion on green technologies. Then, there should also be partnerships between universities. A proposal we eventually agreed upon yesterday is about establishing a network consisting of at least one university from each of the 12 countries represented in this Conference.
The next point is culture. A series of actions was considered, music festivals, cinema festivals, etc. What we agreed on, in principal, for this year was for a motion pictures festival to be held, not in Cairo, as I originally proposed, but in Alexandria, like our Egyptian peers proposed.
Another important point was energy. I have to say that states like the United Arab Emirates have developed high technology, not natural gas and oil, but RES. We think that as a region we can come up with our own perception, production and trade around renewable energy source forms.
We had discussions on transportation and especially mercantile marine. There are many discussions, and not just today, with regard to the creation of a corridor linking Eastern Africa through the ports of Egypt to Eastern Europe through the ports in Northern Greece, Macedonia and Eastern Thrace.
We discussed protection of populations and I have to avow that participants were very strict with regard to human rights, because wars have been waged in their name which ended up violating every human right. The death toll of the last war was 450,000 people, 20 million people have been uprooted, people are drowning in the Mediterranean: what sort of human rights protection is this?
There was discussion on good governance and how it can be defined, as well as ways to develop various forms of institutional cooperation, exchange data and intelligence. Special reference was made to combating human trafficking and yet another field of special concern is the young.
We have made six decisions and agreed that in the next quarter we are going to have preparatory work done by each country that was allocated a task.
As you know, last year we had the International Conference for the protection of religious and cultural minorities in the Middle East since what the West is projecting as a standard, i.e. the coexistence of people with different cultures and different religions, existed for millennia and has a long history in the East. We have set up a center that gets to work with many EU entities and the Arab world and it is our pleasure to be joined by its Director. He is, and I am stating this as an Professor, not as Minister, a top expert on the Arab World, and that is Sotiris Roussos, sitting right there, behind you. He teaches at the University of Peloponnese and will be coordinating such matters, which I hope materialise.
It is apparent here, there is volition on all sides to make this Conference a regular institution. This is the third international institution we have put in place in Greece over the past year, with regard to the wider region and actually with the Middle East. We had the conference on Balkan cross-border cooperation, the Conference on protection of religious and cultural minorities and so now the Rhodes Conference is the third institution we are ushering in.
REPORTER: You said that energy is among the top issues on the Conference’s agenda. Could you elaborate on that? Have there been bilateral meetings? Is there more on energy cooperation and countries participating to this Conference?
N. KOTZIAS: The issue of energy cooperation is very wide and has to do with tripartite agreements and respective tripartite partnerships between Greece-Cyprus-Egypt and Greece-Cyprus-Israel in particular. We have developed alternative energy corridors. We did not go into great depth or detail. Yesterday and today reference was made to other energy forms, especially RES. Let us not forget that the International Renewable Energy Agency HQ is in the United Arab Emirates. And we had a discussion especially on how this can be utilized.
REPORTER: I wanted to ask about the refugee issue, about intentions and views aired and whether any decisions were made. And the second part of my question: within the framework of strengthening Greece's bridge-building role, what are the next steps and initiatives that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs intends to take?
N. KOTZIAS: Well, the refugee crisis was discussed extensively, notably by Ioannis Kasoulides from Cyprus, who made a very interesting classification of the refugee issue and its course, i.e. what problems there are where it begins, what is there in transit and the host country, integration-wise. We talked about how the states that bear the greatest burden could be helped out. These countries are, on the one hand, Turkey, which was not discussed, but, on the other hand, there is Jordan and Lebanon. Lebanon is the country with the biggest refugee population as a percentage of its population, the world over. When I became Minister of Foreign Affairs there were long discussions and great controversy at a European level regarding the assistance to these countries.
Let me remind you that the United Nations had stopped backing areas in Lebanon and Jordan packed with refugees. This has now changed thanks to our efforts; now, there are industrial areas, which our Conference props up, and agricultural areas developing in Jordan and Lebanon, especially in Jordan, which is creating five zones, where refugees are being integrated with part of the local population. We also had a brief discussion on the large refugee flows Egypt has been getting and its overall experience. Quite possibly not everyone is aware of that, but Egypt has over 5 million refugees it has managed to integrate to a great extent, which is why international media are not focusing that much on it, in comparison.
Yet, the example of Egypt, which we discussed, is very interesting, because many researchers and statespeople expect new refugee flows to come not only from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, but Sub-Saharan Africa. There are two reasons why.
First, the population there has doubled. It currently amounts to one billion in Africa, but it will be in excess of two billion in a few years. And secondly, climate experts are expecting huge climate changes and the desertification of regions that are currently being used for agricultural economy purposes and production of foodstuff in Africa. In addition, the water shortage will shift refugee flows to the North. Egypt has acquainted us with its own experience and that is what Europe will experience next.
Our upcoming initiatives are numerous. In October we are going to host the initiative I mentioned. It is my pleasure to announce that in my recent visit to Beijing with the Prime Minister China agreed to start implementing, as of 2017, the dream that I have had for the past 20-25 years, which is about establishing the GC10, namely the group of the leading world cultures and peoples. China played a decisive role due to its history, size and cultural tradition. Participants shall consist of China, India, the old Mesopotamia which is today’s Iraq, Egypt of course, Greece, amongst the European countries Italy, Mexico and Bolivia.
We have more initiatives in store but unfortunately not enough time to elaborate on all today.
REPORTER: The refugee issue is very important, because our islands have received a huge number of refugees. According to the Commissioner, at least, but also the EU, if we had the hot spots, we would have received respective funding. So far, we haven’t seen much happening there.
Now, here is my question. Since you have had this discussion in the framework of your Conference, can you somehow exert pressure to have commitment made for more? There is the refugee issue; beyond what is discussed on all levels and we all know it, it seems that…
N. KOTZIAS: The refugee issue is an issue that brings together the Arab countries and us in this region, because as you probably know Bulgaria is also receiving refugees, Albania is quite insecure with regard to this matter and Italy has been receiving flows from Libya. Slovakia is called upon to deal with this, because it is one of its priorities in exercising the Presidency, so both sides care about this.
Thus, we did say we are going to have further discussions on this issue. What all agree on is that we need to help put an end to the war in Syria which is the main source of origin for refugees. The phenomenon of Syrian refugees opened the door to more coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maghreb countries. Some are flows are direct, they just cross over to the coasts of Europe, and others are coming via Turkey.
Indeed, we are faced with a new phenomenon, it is quite singular as there are refugees coming, not in great numbers but these are steady flows nonetheless, to Cyprus. These are Syrian refugees, who they are not coming straight from Syria, despite the fact that the distance is not that big, they are coming via Turkey. So, this is one thing, putting an end to the war in Syria. Secondly, it is important to provide financial assistance to Jordan and Lebanon where there are between 3.5 million and 4 million refugees.
Therefore, this type of cooperation is much more elaborate and complicated than the EU-Turkey agreement. Thoughts were aired about working between us, the countries of North Africa and the EU, but we have not finalised that framework. It calls for discussion, on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the Arab countries.
REPORTER: Are you happy with what your colleagues have told you, their assurances, or is it possible that maybe a few months down the line you will be the one who tried but was left hanging? Are you feeling secure and reassured given the conversations you had?
N. KOTZIAS: Well, just like I always say, there was no other prophet after Christ and Mohammed. When it comes to politics, you can use two verbs: ‘can’ and/or ‘want’. In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘cannot’, not being able. It is either about you wanting to do things or not. So, I was really pleased to notice everyone’s clear volition to have this region develop in a new way.
So, time will tell and hopefully we will be instrumental in that, because we will be there to push things. There is no infinite power or resources on the part of the Ministry, but there is a will.
REPORTER: How do you plan to tackle extremism in some of the partner countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt? We heard that a good counter to extremism is an open society and democracy, and I would like to know how you plan to encourage that in these places.
N. KOTZIAS: This was not a specific issue in our discussions. It was certainly referred to by some interlocutors. Terrorism is linked to various social problems, the sense of an impasse that dozens of millions of young people have and practical socio-economic measures but it is also about an ideological war about whether problems need to be dealt with in this life or in the afterlife, in heaven.