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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, following the proceedings of the 2nd Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Visegrad group (Visegrad 4) and of the Balkan EU member states (Balkan-4) (Sounion, 11 May 2018)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to the press conference following the proceedings of today’s ministerial meeting between the Visegrad group, the EU countries of the Balkan region, and the Western Balkan candidates for EU membership. We will start with a statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Kotzias, which will be followed by a statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary – the presidency-in-office of the Visegrad group – Mr. Szijjarto. Afterwards there will be time for a limited number of questions. Thank you very much. Minister..
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you very much. I think that since yesterday, when we started our talks, we have had a very fruitful discussion, exchange of opinions and ideas, and we explored the issues associated with the future of the European Union, the enlargement of the European Union, and energy issues. There were 15 states here, with their Ministers, of which 10 are member states of the European Union. Two were absent, and also represented were five states of the Western Balkans that are candidates for accession to the European Union – or are planning to become candidates. We also had a special panel of four professors – whom I would like to thank – from Greece and abroad. What we call a brainstorming session, an intense exchange of ideas, with the aim of looking at the issues under consideration from different perspectives, beyond just the policies of the ministers. And it was a very creative discussion. As always, and as at the previous meeting, in Budapest, we talked openly and frankly, which doesn’t always happen at the formal meetings on the future of Europe. We talked about how we see its functions developing, the questions being raised regarding the future institutional system of the European Union, and areas in which we would like to see the European Union develop.
What I underscored personally, on behalf of the Greek government, can be found in my speech, which has been uploaded in Greek and English on the Ministry’s website, and I don’t think I need to repeat it. We also looked at problems in the relationship between the European Union and the nation state, and I think what we all agreed on is that we need to focus on the citizen and not on some metaphysical constructs, and we mustn’t be afraid to take bold initiatives. We also talked about issues concerning the future role of the European Union on the global stage. We talked about the relationship between deepening the European process and the enlargement process, and we underscored the need for the European Union and all of us, together with the role of the citizen, to remember the importance of the principles of solidarity. We looked at the issue of connectivity, regarding which, as you know, last week we decided, in Thessaloniki, to hold a major special international conference. Because together with enlargement, we discussed our relations with the six states of the Eastern Neighbourhood and the relations the European Union should have in the future with the whole of its environs.
We talked about the need for the candidate countries, the states associated with the European Union, to be included in our general discussion and policy, and one of our goals today was, given that we are talking about the future of the European Union, for interested states – states that are interested in joining the EU, and that we hope will become members – to participate in our debate. We also argued for the need to accelerate – for the two countries that have already begun their negotiations – the opening of Chapters and the whole process, and for this not to get bogged down in bureaucratic procedures.
We looked at issues associated with the future course of the European Union, including in our wider region and in the Eastern Mediterranean. And I remind you, in closing, that on 21 and 22 June we have the 3rd Rhodes Conference, which will look at the organization of an institutional system for security and stability in Europe, as happened in the 1970s for Europe, with the Helsinki Accords; we will look at similar forms and structures for the Eastern Mediterranean. As you remember, the Rhodes Conference started with 11 member states. Today, together with the Arab organizations, we are 24, and we are very proud of these initiatives our country is taking; initiatives that give us a special role and develop friendships with countries and states that may have a different historical course, different political outlooks, but often agree on the matter in question.
It is a great success and pleasure that we co-organized today’s meeting with Peter, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, and we will continue the collaboration between the Northeast and Southeast European Union, because we need to talk and to elaborate positions, and not abandon the fate of the future of Europe to just the thoughts and initiatives of one large country or another, or of the European Commission. Also needed are our thoughts, our wisdom, our common will.
MODERATOR: We will take a limited number of questions. Please state your name and the media outlet you represent.
JOURNALIST: Minister, following this second meeting, at which, from what we understand, a fruitful discussion took place, what do you think are the necessary steps, what path is being opened, and when do you think – or did you agree – your next meeting will be taking place? Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: First of all I want to say that, along with the Minister, Peter, I believe that we must also discuss our agreements and disagreements, because both are necessary for a democratic Europe to develop. We said we would look to hold the next meeting around October or November, in a Visegrad country, up north, so that the following meeting can take place at this time of the year in the south, because I must say that it was very good advertising to introduce everyone to Sounion; for them to see this area on their televisions in their countries.
Regarding the topics to be discussed, I made a number of suggestions, as did the Visegrad countries, and we agreed to make written proposals on this in the coming time. I think that, as you will have understood from my colleague’s speech, the subject of migration is among the subjects we will probably be looking at. We will also be discussing issues of connectivity and solidarity, and in general the need to initiate a democratic dialogue in the European Union; a dialogue that looks at Europe’s overall course in the future, so that we don’t just resolve issues as they arise, under the pressure of developments, in a fragmented manner and without criteria.
JOURNALIST: Minister, as the discussion concerned enlargement, in this direction could Greece agree to give a date for your neighbouring country – “beautiful Macedonia,” as you called it – to start accession negotiations without the resolution of the name issue? Now, in June, that is. Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: We talked about the value, the importance and the positive results of every enlargement. And this is why we also discussed our relations with the Eastern Neighbourhood; relations that concern six countries, three of which are in the EU. The term we used, “beautiful,” is the term we are using in the negotiations until we reach an agreement on the term that will be used. “Beautiful” is not a geographical qualifier. I think that from the moment we agree, and there is legal ratification of the agreement, the way to negotiations with the European Union will open up.
At 10:30 tomorrow, as you know, we are holding the next round of negotiations. Mr. Nimetz will be here, too. The previous round took place in Thessaloniki and wasn’t attended by Mr. Nimetz. I think that, provided both sides truly want to, from the bottom of our hearts, we will resolve an issue that should not be pending. And, as I say with my colleague Nikola Dimitrov, as ministers it is our job to resolve a problem that we did not create, and I want to underscore that. A problem that became remained entrenched, deteriorated in the Gruevski era. We are dealing with old problems, with neither of us or our current governments being responsible for creating them. But we have a responsibility to the region to resolve the problem. I firmly believe that the resolution of these problems, like the ratification of the agreements we are making with Albania – and you saw what we signed today – is a matter of people’s day-to-day lives; that this will improve our citizens’ lives, enhance the security and stability of our countries and the region.
Second, I believe – and I always say this, you will have learnt it by heart – that history should be a school, not a prison. And it imprisoned us on many issues. Issues that other countries resolved during the Cold War era, even if they were in different camps, but for us they arose after the Cold War. Because this specific problem with our friendly neighbour didn’t exist in this form as long as the Federation of Yugoslavia existed. So, because some people seem perplexed that we are dealing with such problems, the fact is, they emerged after the Cold War. I also want to say that our government believes that, now that we are emerging from the crisis, we need to emerge together, in synergy with our neighbouring countries and the Balkans, so that the region can develop, grow as a whole. And it is certain that each country’s growth will also contribute to Greece’s further growth. Just as it is certain that Greece’s growth will also facilitate the growth of these countries. We believe that there needs to be overall growth in this region, because the other regions, towards the eastern Mediterranean, east of us, and North Africa have a lot of problems due to the crises, wars, tensions.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you said earlier that the technical issues and day-to-day practical issues between Albania and Greece are going very well. But in the package of issues you are discussing, there are also historical and more difficult issues, such as the delimitation of maritime zones. First, whether there has been any progress on these issues. And second – this isn’t your issue, of course, but you will have an opinion – whether you know if the prime minister will be carrying out his visit to Albania before or after the elections.
N. KOTZIAS: What elections?
REPORTER: The elections here, I mean.
N. KOTZIAS: Certainly before, because the elections are in a year and a half. The prime minister’s trip would have taken place earlier, had not the process of the agreements got caught up in the institutional issue that arose in Albania between the government and the president, which delayed the whole process. I think that we have held the first meetings on the issues of economic zones. I think these are good and that, in the coming meetings that have been scheduled, they will lead to a fair agreement based on international law. I am optimistic about this agreement. I also must say that, together with this agreement, we will have a presidential decree on the abolition of the state of war, which is a kind of historical schizophrenia, along with certain agreements on land borders, which concern delimitation and determination of border markers.
I think the politicians must be present to resolve problems and free their countries’ hand of the constraints of the past. As you know, I am not a career politician. I was a candidate for the first time in 2015. I had never stood for election before. I have a great job. I believe that the job of university professor is the best low-paid job in the world, but the best job in the world. I am a political being, and I hope, during my time in office and thanks to the policy of Alexis Tsipras, to resolve the pending problems, because the opposition parties that have governed this land for the past forty years didn’t have the courage to resolve them. I hope they behave rationally and support these solutions. We had a discussion in Parliament yesterday on the agreement to provide Albania with assistance on European issues. Opposition parties supported it, but New Democracy had difficulty doing so. And I must say, I didn’t understand this, because they said we should have imposed conditionality. But when you are making an agreement to help someone, do you impose conditionality regarding how you will provide that help? These are mindsets from another era.
I think we will resolve the issues. We have resolved small and large problems, including that with drivers, etc. And I think we are determined to develop our cooperation. And it is my deep conviction that, in a European Union of 35 to 40 member states, small states, or at least mid-sized states, cannot play a role if they haven’t worked together and don’t have a common outlook, as the Visegrad and Benelux states do. Large states don’t need this. This can’t happen after they have all become members of the European Union. This is being forged now, when there are difficulties, when there are negotiations, so that we can have this common course within the European Union. And I want to say that the collaboration with the Visegrad group is a collaboration – with the exception of Poland, which is a large country – between mid-sized states that need to defend their rights in the upcoming institutional changes. I’ve been involved in many, many negotiations, so I know that the negotiations in Europe start from the enlargement and, before this process ends, will bring the institutional changes in the name of enlargement; institutional changes that are not always easy or pleasant. So there is also this aspect of the debate on the future of Europe.
JOURNALIST: I’d like to come back to the Skopje issue and the meeting you are having tomorrow. If I understood correctly, what you might discuss with Mr. Dimitrov also concerns the signing of an international agreement that will have a clear timeline providing for steps and obligations on both sides, for both countries, so that we can move ahead provided that, in the space of a year, two years, three years we have reached an agreement on what each side is asking for.
N. KOTZIAS: I have been hearing about a timeline since this morning, and I don’t know where that came from.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Tzanakoupoulos said it, on Alpha.
N. KOTZIAS: Yes, what did he say about two or three years?
JOURNALIST: He didn’t say two or three years. He just mentioned a timeline.
N. KOTZIAS: I haven’t heard of two or three years. I haven’t negotiated, I haven’t proposed two or three years, and they haven’t proposed two or three years to me – to be clear. We have Mr. Nimetz mediating. Based on UN Resolutions 817 and 845, Mr. Nimetz has undertaken to tell the UN when the countries have resolved the name issue, so that the agreement can be approved by the UN. Mr. Nimetz has a draft of his own, of a legal nature, that he will submit to the UN when the time comes. And next to this we have submitted a proposal to the other side concerning the resolution of certain issues, such as irredentism and the shaping of a joint programme for the future cooperation between the two states. In other words, along with the G2G meetings, meetings between directorates, cooperation on security, on economic issues, culture, education. And this is because, on the day we present it – and we will present it; I firmly believe the agreement on the name issue and related matters will come – we want it to be part of a comprehensive friendship and cooperation agreement. I don’t want an agreement that simply resolves some negative issues from the past without giving us something positive for the future.
Regarding the matter of progress, the outlook for the future, we have no problems. You see, the future is proving to be easier than the past. I hope we finish with these issues and prove that the past is indeed behind us, and the future belongs to both of us.
Thank you very much.
COORDINATOR: Thank you.