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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, N. Kotzias, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), with journalist M. Martens (12 July 2018)
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, there have been reports that Athens is willing to sign an agreement so that migrants found in Germany can be sent back to Greece if that was where they first entered Europe. Is this the case?
N. KOTZIAS: Together with Germany, we are seeking a European solution to the migration issue. The problem is that many people today tend to stick to national positions and thinking less on European lines. We are experiencing a contradiction: Some people want to give as many people as possible the chance to find their future in a European country. Other people want to build walls and keep these people out. The latter are flouting the humanitarian lessons we have drawn from European history. We have yet to find a balance between these two positions within the EU.
JOURNALIST: What might this balance be?
N. KOTZIAS: When the international community’s assistance for maintaining the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan was cut three years ago, I warned that this would lead to a new wave of refugees. I came under attack at that time, and some people claimed I was threatening Europe with a wave of refugees. Everything that happened after that, in the summer of 2015, caught everyone in Europe unprepared, because we didn’t want to acknowledge the problem immediately. Europe has to do a lot more to deal with the causes of migration. For example, the Assad government in Syria seized the property of Syrian migrants, which makes it even more difficult for them to return. And what’s more – this may sound cynical, but I have to say it: Countries that bombed Libya and Syria are not assuming the cost of the refugee flows that resulted from the bombardments.
JOURNALIST: If we go by who is responsible, they should probably open refugee camps in Russia ...
N. KOTZIAS: That could be discussed. What I’m saying is that the war in Syria has to end. Germany and Greece did not take part in these wars, but they are among the countries to bear the brunt of the refugee and migrations flows. It is on this basis that Prime Minister Tsipras and Chancellor Merkel are trying to find joint solutions. Some EU states are not willing to participate in European solutions to the migration issue. I understand this stance, though I don’t agree with it. One has to try to understand the reactions of these countries. What fears are being articulated there? These are countries that regained their national independence no more than 30 years ago. Subsequently, they voluntarily conceded a portion of their recently regained national sovereignty to the EU, and now they are seeing this impact the composition of their populations.
JOURNALIST: You just described countries like Hungary and Poland, but their stance has been shared by a growing number of people, including in Austria and Italy for some time now.
N. KOTZIAS: If we don’t find a European solution, each state will resort to national responses. To some extent, I can understand the Italians as well. They have received a large number of people from North Africa in recent years. And this isn’t just the result of the wars. There is also poverty and climate change.
JOURNALIST: A German politician proposed increasing the number of Frontex personnel to 100,000. But would this change anything for Greece?
N. KOTZIAS: It might be useful for us to have more Frontex personnel, but this won’t change certain geographical facts. The distance between some Greek islands and Turkey is only 800 or 1,200 metres. At first, not all European politicians realised that there are no international waters in these instances. Turkey’s territorial waters border on Greece’s territorial waters. As long as the vessels are in Turkish territorial waters, we can’t do anything. When they enter Greek territorial waters, we are obliged by international law to take these people in. Care has to be taken to avoid a situation like this being created in the first place.
N. KOTZIAS: Iran has three million refugees from Afghanistan; refugees inclined to move towards the West. Hundreds of thousands more are coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The governments of these countries aren’t doing anything to bring relief to these people and stop these flows. States like Afghanistan and Pakistan receive many billions of euros in support from the EU. This is why I insist that these countries must not only ease the fate of the refugees on their borders, but also take back their citizens from us. Pakistan isn’t doing this, whereas Egypt, for example, is taking people back. When states receive billions of euros in support, in the future this should be linked to certain conditions. They can’t just take money from Europe without cooperating on these issues.
JOURNALIST: Of course, there is already a modern tool for managing refugee flows: The EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016, which is aimed at stopping refugee flows in a way that is compatible with human rights. Reception of those needing protection will be immediate on the part of Turkey, while Greece will be able to return them. In practice, however ...
N. KOTZIAS: ... it doesn't work like that; as we would like it to work.
JOURNALIST: The mayor of Chios, for example, asks why the Aegean islands hardest hit by the refugee crisis don’t have their own asylum committees for examining appeals on second instance, so that the procedures can be completed quickly and in accordance with the human rights standards.
N. KOTZIAS: While this issue isn't in my ministerial portfolio, it sounds like a reasonable idea. Not every island could have one of these committees, of course, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the larger islands to have them. There would just have to be co-funding from Europe, but unfortunately we don’t have enough European support. Moreover, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs I have another problem: When we have tensions with Turkey, suddenly hundreds of refugees come to the islands. When there are no tensions, the flow virtually stops. And I always wonder: Is this coincidence or policy? I once said to the Turkish President, Erdogan, with whom I maintain good relations: “Tayyip, Allah made us neighbours to see if we can live together in brotherly love.”
JOURNALIST: They say Erdogan responded that you read the Koran a lot ...
N. KOTZIAS: He did say that, because he knows that, although I am an atheist, I greatly respect religions.
JOURNALIST: Months ago, Turkey arrested and detained two Greek soldiers who had lost their way and ended up in Turkish territory. This is an unusual situation between NATO partners.
N. KOTZIAS: Not just unusual, but unprecedented. The two soldiers have already been waiting for over four months for their trial to take place. They are “suspected of espionage”. Since when do spies walk around in uniforms? This is nonsense. Anything they allegedly saw there, ten metres across the border, anyone could have seen from the Greek side, using binoculars.
JOURNALIST: The arrest of the soldiers is blackmail.
N. KOTZIAS: I would like to phrase it differently. I don’t think freedom and human life have the same value in Turkey that they do in Greece. This often reminds me of the situation in the Middle East, where human life and freedom also have a different value than they have for us. We would never arrest two Turks and imprison them for months without a trial. No one has the right to play political games with human dignity and freedom. It is unacceptable.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you say you have received hundreds of threatening letters in recent weeks due to the agreement on resolving the name issue.
N. KOTZIAS: It’s true. I’ve received threatening letters, bullets, packages of blood-soaked soil.
JOURNALIST: North Macedonian soil soaked in Greek blood?
N. KOTZIAS: No, Greek soil soaked in Greek blood, which they have threatened will be my family’s blood in the future. But such threats don’t scare me.
JOURNALIST: At this point, would you dare to walk in the streets of Thessaloniki without a bodyguard?
N. KOTZIAS: Yes, I would. But my bodyguards wouldn’t let me.
JOURNALIST: New Democracy has called the day the Prespa agreement was signed a ‘day of shame’. You accuse the party (New Democracy) of contributing to perpetuating the climate of hatred.
N. KOTZIAS: In Greece, a climate of hatred was cultivated through such statements. I am very sorry that New Democracy cannot or will not acknowledge that resolving the name dispute is important for the security and national interests of Greece, the region and Europe as a whole. Apart from that, the party’s arguments are remarkably untrue. All sides won in the negotiations with Skopje, and in spite of this, we got more than New Democracy could ever have hoped for when it was carrying out negotiations.
JOURNALIST: Given the hate speech now being directed at you and the Prime Minister, surely you can more easily put yourself in the position of the then Prime Minister, Papandreou, and his Finance Minister, Papakonstantinou, who in 2010 and 2011 came in for all the accumulated hatred of all the parties and were vilified as “traitors” – just as you are being vilified now.
N. KOTZIAS: The comparison isn’t correct. Because we solved a problem. We didn't create one. And there weren't such threats and hatred at that time.
JOURNALIST: But your answer implies that Papandreou and Papakonstantinou created a problem that wouldn’t have existed without them.
N. KOTZIAS: The problem wouldn’t have existed, at least not in that form. They responded incorrectly to a difficult situation. Whereas, in the name dispute, we solved a problem.
JOURNALIST: In opinion polls, nearly 70% of Greeks are against the agreement.
N. KOTZIAS: Surveys conducted for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – surveys that aren’t for publication – show another picture: According to these surveys, some 55% are against the agreement, with 33% in favour. This is a good starting point if you consider that Syriza was the only party that supported the solution in Parliament. All of the other parties – the parties that, over 25 years, created and failed to resolve the problem – are against it. History cannot be a prison. It must be a school from which we learn. But we found ourselves trapped with this dispute in the “prison of history”. What’s more, surveys were carried out in Skopje regarding what name would get the most support. A majority rejected the names ‘Upper Macedonia’ and ‘New Macedonia’, for example. But ‘North Macedonia’ met with approval.
JOURNALIST: Has the dispute really been resolved? In Skopje, the prevailing fear is that they will fulfil their obligations under the deal – in other words, they’ll change their Constitution – but that the Hellenic Parliament will then fail to ratify the agreement because the current government will have lost its majority by then.
N. KOTZIAS: This was the discussion from the outset, when we were planning the choreography of the particular steps to the solution. The question immediately arose of what would happen if one side fulfilled its obligations and the other side didn’t. Anyone who looks carefully at the choreography created with Skopje will see that this danger is pre-empted. Let’s take the upcoming NATO Summit as an example: The opposition claims that North Macedonia could become a member of NATO even before our Parliament ratifies the agreement. This is nonsense. The opposition has obviously not even read the text of the agreement. What did we do? We said: After ratification by the Parliament in Skopje, North Macedonia will receive an invitation to join NATO, even before the process of amending their constitution is completed. But the invitation from NATO will clearly state that a country with the name ‘North Macedonia’ is being invited to join. If our neighbours really do change their Constitution, we will ratify the agreement with North Macedonia and the accession agreement with NATO, and we will do so directly. If our neighbours have fulfilled their duties, Greece will not be able to say, “No.” They will then be able to join NATO, and there will be no possibility anymore to block them. And nor do we want to block them.
JOURNALIST: The head of the main opposition party, Mitsotakis, has said that there is no way the agreement will be ratified with him as Prime Minister.
N. KOTZIAS: For three years now, Mitsotakis has been calling for immediate elections. But the ratification will take place before the next parliamentary elections. Mitsotakis says that the agreement will not be ratified in a Parliament in which New Democracy has a majority. I would be curious to see what he would really do in such a case. I don’t think he would do what he is now saying he would do. Because the agreement we have reached now is a thousand times better than all of the agreements New Democracy every attempted to negotiate.
JOURNALIST: So you’re saying, as a representative of this government, that the agreement with North Macedonia could be ratified by the current Parliament?
N. KOTZIAS: Of course. We believe that the constitutional changes will be made in Skopje by the end of this year. Then we will have to ratify the agreement directly – and in the six months up until then, the opposition will not even be able to call for a vote of no confidence, because they’ve already done that.
JOURNALIST: But what shape are relations in within the governing majority? The Independent Greeks party, Syriza’s partner in the government, doesn’t want to vote in favour of the agreement under any circumstances.
N. KOTZIAS: In an interview I gave in December 2017 – my first interview with North Macedonia as the central issue – I said that we have the support of a majority of MPs in parliament. And I am certain that this majority will continue to exist. At that time, I came under attack from the opposition, who said that, on the issue of ratifying the agreement with North Macedonia, we will not be able to rely on a majority of the governing parties. But nowhere in the Constitution or in the unwritten rules of Democracy does it say that we need such a majority. What counts is the majority of MPs, and there will be such a majority on the agreement. Syriza has 145 MPs, so it needs six more votes to achieve an absolute majority. What’s more, it is likely that more than one party will not participate in the vote in Parliament. So the (required) majority on that day may be as small as 130. For political reasons, we are pursuing a majority of over 150 votes, but from a strictly legal standpoint, we are not bound by that. In other words: The agreement with North Macedonia will be passed in Parliament in any case. But, again, I want to make this clear: We are pursuing a majority of over 150 votes, and that is what we’ll get. I’m not a prophet, of course – people may die; there could be an earthquake. But under normal conditions, we will have absolutely no problem getting these 151 votes. I counted precisely. It is true that “Independent Greeks” will not vote in favour of the agreement as a party, but there are MPs in that party who think it is a good agreement. There is also the “Potami” party. Not all of the Potami MPs support the agreement, of course, but some of them certainly do.
JOURNALIST: And can you depend on the unanimous agreement of Syriza MPs, including those from northern Greece?
N. KOTZIAS: I think so. Even though I’m not a member of that party, as you know.
JOURNALIST: If everything happens as you described it, it would still be a historical irony: a leftist government ‘gives’ NATO a new member.
N. KOTZIAS: We are not ‘giving’ NATO a new member. We are solving a problem because we think it is right and good to do so. Good for Europe, good for the Balkans, and good for Greece’s national interests. That North Macedonia will be able to join NATO via the resolution of this problem is just a consequence of our decision, not the motive for our decision. Our motive is to do something good for the Greeks and the peoples of the region.
JOURNALIST: Could one say that the success of this agreement would also be a historic victory for the Greek left over the right.
N. KOTZIAS: No. It is a historic victory of reason over absurdity, and a victory of history-as-a-school over history-as-a-prison.
JOURNALIST: Can we clarify something again: Will there really be an invitation from NATO for a country with the name ‘North Macedonia’ to join the alliance?
N. KOTZIAS: The invitation for the opening of accession negotiations will be given to North Macedonia, even if the state is still officially going under its old name. But the application to join NATO will be submitted under the new name. Which means that: If our neighbouring country doesn’t change its name, the invitation will no longer be valid. So the government in Skopje will first have to win the referendum. And it is holding the referendum under its own volition – it wasn’t a condition we set. Then it will have to change the Constitution, in three articles and 154 instances in which the Constitution refers to the state’s name. And then our Parliament will ratify the agreement on accession to NATO and the agreement with North Macedonia.
JOURNALIST: Does this mean that, a year from today, North Macedonia could, according to the roadmap, already be a member of NATO?
N. KOTZIAS: It will take about a year. In Montenegro’s case, the process from invitation to accession took eleven months. We studied all of this beforehand, so we could have a complete picture.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, thank you very much for the interview.