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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias, on “Skai” radio, with journalist Aris Portosalte (25 November 2019)
A. PORTOSALTE: Nikos Dendias, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is here with us.
Good morning, Minister, and I wish you a good week.
N. DENDIAS: Good morning, Mr. Portosalte. I wish you a good week, too, and another good century to “Kathimerini”.
A. PORTOSALTE: Really! You, too, were at the event. It was a great event, held in an old factory.
N. DENDIAS: Very original, and the edition of the paper was very nice. If you’ll allow me to make a final comment on what you said, my takeaway was the excellent presentation made by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who identified what we know from history but is important to underscore: that “Kathimerini” began as a “spear” of the People’s Party against the liberalism of Eleftherios Venizelos, and today it has evolved, in reality, into a voice of the liberal current in Greece.
Of course, the liberalism of Venizelos and the liberal current in Greece today don’t mean exactly the same thing, but there are similarities.
On the other hand, allow me to underscore an excellent article by Georgios Vlachos, regardless of whether you agree with him, written when Eleftherios Venizelos died – an article worth reading. It’s a long piece, a psychological profile of the deceased Venizelos. He profiles him as an opponent, underscoring his flaws, but also acknowledging his virtues, and it’s a wonderfully written article. Wonderfully written.
A. PORTOSALTE: Great writing. Mr. Dendias, I assume we won’t be placing all our hopes in the weather conditions. Will Greece and Turkey succeed in communicating, at the meeting with Mr. Erdogan that is currently being prepared. Will we be able to convince him that as much as he wants to go head to head with Europe that we, his neighbours, are the ones suffering the consequences? Does he want to hurt his neighbour? I don’t know.
N. DENDIAS: I’ll be frank. It’s not always easy to communicate with the Turkish side, even when it is obvious what is just, correct, legal and moral. Greece is making an effort, first of all, to explain to Turkey that there are given obligations. And the government is making a domestic effort to organize a system for handling migration flows – a system that also fortifies the country’s borders.
We all know this isn’t easy. If you will, the numbers exceed the current capacity of the system, so this system has to develop very quickly. But, the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that there is no way we will allow Turkey to treat the migration issue as a bilateral issue. Nor will we allow Turkey to use migration flows as leverage against our country. These two things will not happen.
Beyond that, Turkey can always find in us – especially in the Mitsotakis government – a serious and honest interlocutor who also understands Turkey’s problems. Turkey is hosting 4 million migrants/refugees. Greece is the one who, in spite of Turkey’s conduct on various issues, supported Turkey’s request for economic assistance from the European Union. Turkey needs to see this and appreciate it. In any event, it is the duty of the Greek government to fortify the country, and the Mitsotakis government is doing this. We will not let the country fall prey to Turkey’s will if Turkey is not prepared to see what its obligations are.
A. PORTOSALTE: I use your verb, to “fortify” the country. I hear this from you, from Mr. Stefanis, and the hirings that will be made at our borders, etc. But what we are hearing in the end, what public opinion is hearing, Mr. Dendias, is that today Greece saved another 50, saved another 70 – that another 600 people entered the country. So, what are we guarding? There’s a contradiction.
N. DENDIAS: I’m not responsible for handling this, so I’m speaking as a member of the government, not as the competent Minister. I say this to clarify my role. I handled this issue for two years. When I took over, I found a situation in Evros where the influx was 700 people a day. Within three months that was down to 10 people a month. And this system was explained at the Council of Ministers. It was fully accepted by the European Union. We returned 50,000 people, created the closed centres – which were harshly criticised by the opposition at the time. The competent Minister who took over apologized later on for the harsh criticism levelled at the New Democracy government during that time. We created an Asylum Service, the best European first-reception Service.
During the Syriza years, all of this – I won’t say it fell apart. That’s not polite. But in any event, it wasn't developed in a way that would enable it to deal with the problems on the islands.
A. PORTOSALTE: Now you’re giving a clear response, Mr. Dendias, and this is why public opinion must be informed once again, in depth, through the state, the government Services. You’re saying that when you want to, when you have the will, you can do it.
N. DENDIAS: You can. And the Mitsotakis government has the will to it and the constitutional duty to do it. In other words, we're not just opting to do this. We have specific political goals. We want to do one thing and not another. But on this we have no choice. No one chose us to govern the country so that we could just direct traffic at our borders. We are obliged to safeguard the country. And we will do this. There are initial difficulties, yes. Do you want to accuse us of not accurately measuring the precise magnitude of the problem? You can say that too.
A. PORTOSALTE: We said that and we said it in good time. We started our criticism last September.
N. DENDIAS: No one is infallible. But we have and will perform our constitutional duty to guard the country’s borders.
A. PORTOSALTE: You said the migration flows were reduced back then, when you were the competent Minister. Was this a result of weather conditions and rough seas, winter – or was it because you said, “Stop, no one else is coming in.”? Let’s clarify that, too.
N. DENDIAS: At that time, the flows weren’t coming in via the sea. The migration flows were over land, through Evros. There is the public opinion that flows were halted by the wall. The wall didn’t stop the flow – it was only 40 km long. The Evros border is over 180-190 km. There was a whole system of cameras, border guards. We stationed 2,500 people there.
A. PORTOSALTE: In other words, the people who wanted to cross into Greece saw what you’d done and stayed away – they didn’t try to cross the border illegally?
N. DENDIAS: There was no chance of anyone crossing the border illegally. As soon as the cameras picked them up, the Turkish authorities were informed and we called the Turkish border guards to do their job. Because, you know, Turkey is a safe country for migrants. No one is in danger in Turkey.
Greece is under no obligation to accept anyone who comes across the border without question. Turkey is a safe country. Turkey isn’t a safe country for Turks, who want political asylum, or for refugees from Syria, for whatever reasons there may be. These people must possess travel documents that tell us who they are. You can’t have just anyone come in and tell us whatever they want. Have you seen anyone throw away their passport and not say they are Turkish if they want to get into Greece and ask for asylum and protection?
The country can and must do it. We have no choice in the matter – anything else is nonsense. The country has to protect its borders.
A. PORTOSALTE: Can it protect its maritime borders, too, Mr. Dendias?
N. DENDIAS: Of course it can, and the procurement of an additional 10 speedboats is a step in the right direction. The previous government should have implemented the system of cameras and monitoring that exists – the study from the National Technical University – and the tender has been announced. It should have activated the centre ...
A. PORTOSALTE: I interrupt you, but at the same time, the public hear that even when Greece notifies Turkey – the Turkish coast guard – Turkey doesn’t respond. Is this true?
N. DENDIAS: That’s right. In large part it’s true. Of course, we don’t have the advanced system provided for, which would allow us to monitor and see the movements of those who want to cross into Greece long before their boats get here. Because they gather to get in the boats, Mr. Portosalte. And they are visible when they are gathering.
In Evros, with each person hidden separately in the bushes, it was much more difficult to see them. When they want to cross by sea, they gather somewhere before the get in the boat. This is visible. Think of the traffickers as travel agents. But it is completely illegal and completely immoral. And they gather these people together. You can see this. You notify the Turks. This system is not in place. It should have been in place for some years now. There are drones, there are cameras, there are other technical means. The Aegean is visible, it must become visible.
A. PORTOSALTE: So you’re saying we’ll see results from here on in.
N. DENDIAS: The Prime Minister has given clear instructions and the government has made clear commitments. We have no choice in the matter. And what is our choice? Excuse me, but 10,000 come in and you let them stay. Great. The next day, another 20,000 come in and you let them stay. The day after that, 40,000 come. Where will this end?
A. PORTOSALTE: There is the view that, for humanitarian reasons, Greece must accept people who – some of them will document the fact that they are refugees, others won’t succeed and will simply stay on as migrants. But we have to take them.
N. DENDIAS: I call to mind what President Macron has said on this matter. It is not a matter of willingness, it is a matter of capability. We can’t take in 1 billion people who would like to move and come to Europe. We simply can’t do it. Even if we leave, there still won’t be enough room. So there’s no point in doubling the number of arrivals each day, because it leads to a humanitarian impasse.
And the belief that we can bring all of these people in, serves to mobilise them, and in reality, it is advertising in the hands of those who are trafficking these people – exploiting their pain and their need for a better life – and making a fortune.
A. PORTOSALTE: So, in short, Greece isn’t inviting criticism by saying, “guys, we can’t take in any more people.” Because there is the view in the Greek society we are living in that Greece is risking being accused of lacking humanity. I’m saying this, Mr. Dendias, because I hear this sort of thing.
N. DENDIAS: Doesn’t what is happening at Moria, which is hosting numbers well beyond its capacity, expose us to criticism from the global community? Is it exposing Greece to criticism to explain how much it can handle? Isn’t it exposing Greece to criticism to take in numbers that it can’t take care of, with the result that they live in miserable conditions and some are exploited by drug dealers, becoming “mules” in the wider area of central Athens so that, in their misfortune, these people can feed themselves? The drug dealers force them. We know all of this. It’s happening around us.
There is a limit to our capacity. We will certainly take as many as our capacity allows. We are Christians. Charity for those around us is a given. We will exhaust our capacity to help as many people as we can. But we can’t go beyond our capacity. It’s simple.
A. PORTOSALTE: Thank you very much, good day and have a good week.