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Press Conference of Minister of Foreign Affairs, N. Kotzias, upon completion of the 2nd Ministerial Meeting between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Thessaloniki, 05.10.2017)
MODERATOR: Good evening and welcome to the press conference following the Second Ministerial Meeting between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nikos Kotzias, will be making a brief evaluation of the meeting and then you will have the opportunity to ask a limited -unfortunately due to time restrictions- number of questions.
Minister, you have the floor.
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you very much, Mr. Yennimatas. I think this is the first Press Conference we do together and I wish you every success. Thank you to the interpreters, the ladies who help us do our work. This is a difficult job indeed, which we do not acknowledge to the extent necessary. Thanks also to the staff of the Hyatt Hotel and also to the police authorities for their work and to all of you for joining us this afternoon. There is no international meeting without it being promoted through the mass media, so thank you all for joining us for this reason.
This formalized collaboration between the four countries of Southeastern Europe, of the South, as I like to call them, is one of 15 international collaborations that Greek diplomacy has undertaken during the last three years, to be soon. This is a meeting which aims to contribute to the stability and development of the region. In our region it is one of the two collaborations of this kind. One comprises the four member-states of the EU: Greece, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, and the second is the one we’ve had over the last two days.
We discussed various issues with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, in the presence of the Ministers of Interior, about problems affecting the region. How we can help develop the region’s role both in the European continent and internationally. And today, primarily, we spoke about issues relating to security, either as regards people or the environment, especially fire safety, as well as energy policy issues.
Yesterday, we agreed that our next meeting’s main topic be upon issues concerning the cohesion funds, which are, of course, connected to the new EU budget, which, in turn, is related to Brexit. It is through this mechanism that redistribution of funds amongst member-states of the EU and candidate countries will happen. And it is our common interest not to see a limitation of funds for South Europe.
We also agreed that the future of the European Union will be on the agenda, and how small or medium size countries, such as ours, envision this future.
What we chiefly want to achieve through these meetings is to agree, to identify and to evaluate what brings us together and the future of the region. And mainly, what Greek Foreign Policy is today aiming for, that is, the resolution of our problems and the promotion of a positive agenda. Ways to develop our synergies further, both in the economic and cultural sector, but also in the fields of education and research and on energy and internal security. We have agreed on a range of measures during the plenary meetings, as well as in the bilateral meetings that were extremely productive.
Bilaterally, we discussed on how to deepen our collaboration and adopt measures that will benefit our society.
The Ministers of the Interior did the same. They agreed to arrange a meeting of the Heads of the Police Authorities of the four countries in Thessaloniki. Also, a meeting of the Heads of the four Fire Services in Ptolemaida, where, following Nikos Toskas’ great efforts, the School of Non Commissioned Officers of the Hellenic Fire Service was established. Situated quite close to our northern borders, it is an institution where firemen will be receiving training, since not all countries of the region have established mid or higher level Fire Service institutions. This emerged during this summer’s devastating fires.
We also agreed to an exchange of operational information that can help combat organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, and other forms of organized crime and illegal activities. In addition, as regards citizen protection, it was agreed to hold a large scale exercise in Ptolemaida.
There was also a very interesting debate on issues of collaboration on energy. As you are aware, the new energy pipelines, either for natural gas or electricity or oil, go through southeastern Europe. Greece provides for the connection of the Balkan countries to the LNG pipelines, and of other forms of energy that will be crossing Greece.
At the meeting we also extensively discussed on the need to exploit renewable energy resources and other forms of energy, particularly wind power, solar power. On this field, our country, compared to the other three, holds a comparative advantage, particularly as regards the know-how of transforming these natural phenomena into energy. We also discussed the necessary reforms that have to be undertaken so as to transport this energy in the most effective and economic way.
Overall, the discussions took place in a very positive atmosphere, demonstrating how the future of our country, as well as of the other three countries, is in Europe; a Europe where we will combine our European focus with regional collaboration. The meeting also showed that our people, our societies, despite all that’s been said, follow a path of mutual understanding and friendship. Let me remind you that millions of people from these countries holiday in Greece and millions of Greeks spend, particular the winter holidays, in our neighboring countries, primarily in the mountains of Bulgaria.
We demonstrated the willingness to find solutions to all the problems stemming from the past, solutions based on the principle that history should be not our prison, but a school from which we draw conclusions and lessons for the future. I believe, therefore, that this meeting is yet another step towards cooperation, mutual trust and friendship between the countries of the South, of southeastern Europe.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: We will now give the floor to questions. I would ask you to introduce yourselves and the medium that you represent.
JOURNALIST: The European Commission called for the European Council to decide on Bulgaria’s Schengen membership. Did you discuss this at the bilateral meetings with the Bulgarian delegation? What is the position of Greece on Bulgarian membership? Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: Greece holds a principled position on this issue for a while now. We support the accession of Bulgaria, and of Romania, to the Schengen area. We do this because we want to see the area unified, as this is in Europe’s favour. We do this because we stand in solidarity and are supportive to these countries, and also, because the expansion of the area of internal EU security will, at the same time, facilitate our own security.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question please.
JOURNALIST: Minister, it seems that discussions have gone very well on all these issues of low politics you just mentioned. But, the thorny issues of the past are still present. Is there anything positive underway you could inform us about?
N. KOTZIAS: There are positive messages concerning pending issues from the past. For one, there is the general framework of our relationships, which takes positive steps every day. These issues are being discussed on a daily basis and I expect positive results, not only today, but also in the following months.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Next question.
JOURNALIST: I would like to stay on the subject of energy. You talked about cooperation with the countries of Southern Europe on energy. There is already the TAP pipeline project with Bulgaria and Romania. How do you see this cooperation extending to Albania and FYROM? Because, there is another project underway there.
N. KOTZIAS: We have the TAP pipeline, the ‘vertical’ pipeline to Bulgaria, Romania and further, we also have a natural gas pipeline that we have agreed to construct together with our northern neighbor, in the framework of our confidence building measures, which will materialize in the construction of a pipeline from Thessaloniki to Skopje. There is discussion for the modification of an old oil pipeline as well. We have also held discussions with international players on the construction of an LNG station in Northern Greece, which is going to feed in the TAP pipeline and the countries you mentioned. But, as I said, we also discussed other forms of energy on which Greece possesses the knowhow, which will be extended and disseminated to our neighboring countries.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.
JOURNALIST: I would like to ask you how you see and how your colleagues see the role of Thessaloniki in the broader region.
N. KOTZIAS: I think that Thessaloniki is a natural hub for the entire region and this is clear to everyone. A large part of the neighboring countries’ population and the leadership of these countries love Thessaloniki. They visit the area very often; they have holidays in Khalkidhiki, for example, or go to Katerini. The ministers that were here these days love coming to Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki is convenient geographically, because it is the closest large Greek city to Skopje and to Sofia, and although it is slightly more distant from Tirana, Albanians also love it very much. And we were very fortunate to have this lovely weather these days. We enjoyed a lovely hospitality as we always experience in Thessaloniki. Moreover, I believe that this justifies the Prime Minister’s, as well as our, decision to hold international meetings not only in Athens, but here in Thessaloniki and other greek cities. I remind you that we had one in Kavala recently, another on the island of Corfu, or in Rhodes, where we organized the conference on security and stability. I have welcomed a number of Foreign Ministers in Crete, most recently Mr. Cavusoglu, and I reserve a number of invitations for my counterparts to visit an array of greek cities.
JOURNALIST: Allow me to stick to the more thorny issues. You met with representatives of three countries. Two of them, with which there are problems and issues that have not yet been resolved, wish to accede to the EU and to NATO. Did you discuss such issues today at the meeting and what preconditions need to be met, in order for Greece to support their claims?
N.KOTZIAS: First of all, let me tell you that our foreign policy is one of friendship and development of relations. The aim of diplomacy is to resolve, not create, problems. So, allow me to say something exceeding your question, but in the same spirit. Often, when people deal with European issues, they cite the case of Germany and France, as a historic example of how two countries in perpetual conflict resolved their problems. But, this spans 150-200 years. Greece and Bulgaria have had issues for 1600 years. There was a time that one could only rise to the Byzantine throne, on the condition he had come to be known as a “Bulgar Slayer”. We, ourselves, experienced the triple occupation of northern Greece. Nevertheless, we see that history has left these issues behind. What I mean is that problems have solutions. Therefore, we should proceed with good compromises, and take pains to guarantee that these be constructive and mutually beneficial, not “rotten compromises”, as I like to call them. It is my belief that these compromises should be forged on the basis of international law, the European acquis, and the prerequisites that the EU sets for its new members.
COORDINATOR: One final question, please.
JOURNALIST: We have been following all these initiatives you mentioned. The day before yesterday we had the meeting in Varna, today we have this meeting. What is changing through these initiatives in our region? What next steps should we anticipate?
N.KOTZIAS: I have made an analysis that I share with my colleagues. With the collapse of real socialism, there emerged a new will in the Balkans to develop inter-state relations. We witnessed foreign investments, bank synergies, and civil society relations. In the dawn of the 21st century, we’ve interests shifted towards a more european orientation. A new kind of antagonism emerged, relating to who would be the first to accede to the EU, first to satisfy the relevant criteria, what we have come to know as “conditionality”.
Today, our policy rests upon the combination of lessons learned from those two eras, in order to carve the European orientation of the region through regional cooperation. The countries of our region are small, or medium sized, comparatively small on a global scale. When the west Balkan states succeed in joining the EU, combined with the accession of 2-3 more states from the East, then the EU will comprise 37 to 38 countries.
Obviously, small countries with populations of one or two millions, but even those with 10-15 millions will not be in a position to play a central role in the EU, unless they collaborate. So, what we stand for is a combination of the experience of the 1990’s, that is establishment of networks and relations in the region, with a European orientation, which first arose from here, in Thessaloniki, in 2003.
The second thing that is changing is that our country has stopped being underestimated. And everybody sees that, despite the crisis that we went through, this country still possesses the largest economy and has the largest potential to exercise soft or hard power in the region.
Thirdly, what changed is that during the 90’s Greece demonstrated a degree of arrogance, as it saw other countries collapse, yet, nowadays Greek diplomacy has learned its lessons. That is, that it should respect others, as it demands the respect of others. And, furthermore, that what’s required for the development of relations, is the cultivation of trust upon which friendly relations will be established.
In my opinion, relationships between our peoples, our societies, fare much better than how they appear in public discourse, in any country. And, as I say this, I am reminded of what my dear friend, the foreign Minister of Albania said, during a speech I delivered in the University of Tirana, where I had the honor of being invited. Namely, that there exists the paradox of the local population starting their day full of life with the sounds of Greek music and then they speak against us. Later on, they go out, have a Greek-style souvlaki and then we see them lashing out on us once more. The paradox lies in the fact that despite the criticism, despite the problems that exist, there is mutual understanding, mutual respect and love between our peoples. And this can be seen in the big tourist flows during recent years, when the Greek people welcome them with pleasure, while they themselves feel in Greece like at home. I think that these developments, the lessons learned both by them and us, as well as the ways we conduct the foreign policy of an upgraded Greece, coupled with a sense of prudence from our part, restore our role and acceptance in the region.
COORDINATOR: Next question, please.
JOURNALIST: Since Mr. Toskas is also here at the panel, I would like to ask whether you only spoke about internal security and organized crime, or the refugee issue was discussed as well. In the latter, have you adopted any measures?
N. TOSKAS: There was a common understanding regarding the threats, the risks and the problems, regarding internal security in the region. Within the scope of this common consideration, of course we spoke about issues of terrorism and organized crime. We also talked about how the refugee issue is developing and what prospects, what possibilities arise over the next few years. And of course we also spoke about civil protection issues. We established common ground, as Mr. Kotzias told you, regarding this collaboration and, yes, the refugee issue was also discussed regarding the way in which it is evolving.
COORDINATOR: One final question please.
JOURNALIST:. Just following upon my colleague’s question. Is there a possibility that in case of future increase of the refugee numbers we may see again closed borders from FYROM, or Bulgaria? Did you talk and come to an understanding on this? And what about the possibility of extremist cells, affiliated to jihadists and omnipresent in various areas in the Balkans?
N. TOSKAS: Right now the situation regarding the refugee crisis is the one you know very well. We all support the EU - Turkey Agreement and we hope that this agreement will be maintained for a long period. When it comes to terrorism, we agreed to intensify the exchange of information regarding related issues. There are no specific threats from jihadi groups posing as a serious problem in the Balkans. Nevertheless, we are intensifying surveillance in all domains.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Kotzias, I would like to ask you the following. There were some negative comments regarding a geography book in the Albanian schools. Many Greek regions, such as Western Macedonia and a big chunk of Epirus are illustrated as part of Albania. What is your take on this?
N. KOTZIAS: I showed these maps to my colleagues in the Foreign Affairs Council about a year ago. So, my take is that these maps are unthinkable for European standards. However, we have taken steps since then, and we are now discussing these issues with the Albanian colleagues. There is a joint group for this and we have marked significant progress, pending two schoolbooks to conclude the revision of the relevant bibliography by the end of next year.
One last question. I can see this gentleman who has been asking to take the floor. I am sorry I am intervening.
JOURNALIST: What I want to ask concerns what transpired after the meeting you had in New York with some Greek journalists. It was leaked that during this briefing you mentioned that apart from the name issue there exist a number of other issues that need be resolved: the issue of language, the issue of nationhood, etc. However, you yourself stated in the past that this does not concern identity, rather it regards the irredentism coming from the neigbouring country. So, could you explain, are we talking only about the name of the country or about these other issues? Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: I don’t believe that it would be wise on the part of a Minister to comment on journalists. Whatever I need to say, I say it in public. But since you ask me, I would like to answer: We haven’t started yet, but we are going to have, I hope, at some point, a very substantial discussion on the name issue and anything related to that. I have never mentioned wether this is related to nationhood or language. Never have I said such things. It would be best to ask the journalist him/herself what exactly he or she means and where his information came from. I can only take responsibility for what I say.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Have a good afternoon.