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Opening speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, at the 3rd Ministerial Meeting between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Thessaloniki, 3-4 May 2018)
Good morning. Once again, I thank you very much for accepting our invitation to Thessaloniki. This is an institution founded on the joint action and friendship between our four states. I especially thank Ekaterina Zaharieva, who found time, in the context of her Presidency-related duties, to be here with us. Thank you, Katerina.
I thank Nikola Dimitrov, with whom we always enjoy meeting here in Thessaloniki for creative discussions, and last but not least, my good friend, my oldest friend out of those present, Ditmir Bushati, with whom we have managed to find the path towards resolving decades-old problems between our countries.
I hope we succeed in resolving all of the region’s issues and in moving together on a creative European path. I thus welcome the 3rd conference of the states of the crossborder cooperation, and I would like to very briefly share some thoughts regarding the geostrategic changes taking place, as well as their significance for our cooperation.
We are the region of Europe which is closest to the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and eastern North Africa. We are the ones who first feel the changes that are taking place in this region, who have a sense of the problems, and the risks and the opportunities for development that exist in our region. I would say that the changes, particularly in North Africa, Libya, the Middle East, Syria, Iraq and the Eastern Mediterranean, are changes that underscore the tectonic shifts taking place on our planet.
The changes taking place on our planet possess certain traits, of which you are aware, which include the fact that we live in a changing world, where the role of the West is not, and cannot be, the same as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries; where new powers are emerging; where the role of the West – which is becoming progressively less influential – at this time is resulting in the major western powers focusing more on regions other than Southeast Europe. In particular, we have a major global shift in interest from what I call the ‘Atlantic Lake’ to the ‘Pacific Lake’. This means that the U.S. will be more and more focused on this major change, and less interested in the developments in Europe and our region.
I would also say that these changes demonstrate that Russia, especially in the Middle East, is re-emerging and is again showing it is interested in the region in which we live. And of course, if something is completely new, compared to how things were 20 or 30 years ago, it is the emergence of China as a major economic power with great capabilities in terms of projects and cooperation, in our region as well.
When the world changes and there are repercussions for our region, I think the same conclusion is drawn by Greece, as well as by all of us: that we have to intensify and deepen our cooperation in the region. We are seeing changes in the European Union. Changes we will be discussing in less than a week, at the international conference in Sounion, where all of the candidate countries and other Western Balkan states will be in attendance. Also present will be the Visegrad countries and the EU member states of the Balkans. I think that, in the coming weeks, we need to move ahead with cooperation, not just on the level of ministers, but also between the directorates of our ministries that deal with European affairs, so that we can more systematically, and in cooperation, take stock of and – to the extent that we can – influence the changes taking place in Europe. My country, like the Presidency, is open to any kind of assistance to the other two countries, if and when it is needed. And assistance with expertise on other issues as well.
In our opinion, the changes in the Middle East also require better coordination on our part. We talked about this yesterday evening. The changes taking place, and the wars being fought, have added, adjacent to the Israel-Palestine line of conflict – with or without inverted commas – three wars: in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
We are also of the opinion that our competent directorates for the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean can – and this will be productive – meet to exchange opinions and help us find a way to increase our joint action in the Middle East. The meeting we are holding in Rhodes this June, to which we are all invited, will also help. In Rhodes we will be meeting with all of the Arab states, and the Arab League and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss further developing a positive agenda between Southeast Europe and the Arab world.
There, while discussing the Middle East, it may be worth our while to assess certain new trends. There is the fact that Iran, through its collaboration in Iraq and Syria, as well as with Hezbollah, has in a way found an outlet from its own region to the Mediterranean. It has become a player that now acts and has a strong presence in the Middle East.
We also see the endless conflict in Syria. Here we have to do with what is ostensibly a civil war – one in which nine other powers are involved. A civil war with no end in sight, because people and materiel are flowing in from various countries, despite the exhaustion and destruction suffered by Syrian society itself. But this means that the conflict will be ongoing, and our four countries need to jointly confront the issues of migration and the flows of migrants and refugees.
And I would like to reiterate something I said publicly the day before yesterday: that the Syrian government’s new regulations and laws are causing concern, in Greece at least, because in a way they do not safeguard the property, formal or informal, of the 14 million Syrians who have moved, either within the country or abroad, through the terms and regulations being set. Which means that the return of millions of Syrians to their ancestral land will be more difficult than it would be without this legislation.
And we also have the presence of our neighbour Turkey in Afrin, which in our opinion is calling into question the Treaty of Lausanne on its eastern side, but this is a treaty that also concerns many other countries, including ours.
We think that the continuation of tensions in the Middle East renders imperative the continuation of cooperation between those of our ministries that deal with refugees, migration, security in our border regions. And we will have an in-depth discussion. Minister Toskas is also here. Our close cooperation must not concern only what I call a negative agenda. It must certainly also concern our development and cooperation in the sectors of energy and major infrastructure.
Last year we talked about our cooperation in the energy sector, the new pipelines, which was a very interesting and productive discussion. This year we have with us Mr. Spirtzis, so we can talk about what we can do to develop the region’s connectivity.
I think that we, as small and mid-sized states in Europe, need to develop not only our connectivity but our cooperation overall, with two goals in mind: to help the two states that are not yet members of the European Union to join, and to prepare, through our collaboration today, our future cooperation within the European Union.
Of course, this cooperation cannot be limited to the ministries and their directorates. It has to extend to the whole of society. Our thinking is that we can develop cooperation between our universities and research centres. We can hold international conferences and symposia on these issues. We can hold international meetings on connectivity issues. Railways, roads, airports. But also hydroplanes, as Mr. Spirtzis told us yesterday evening. And we can connect our countries in terms of energy, with ships, with pipelines, with cables. In any way we can. So we need to develop our cooperation in all sectors, from education to culture; and perhaps we will see a joint presence, whether through documents or through trips to countries where we have shared interests and which concern us, both with regard to our development as well as world peace.
I want to welcome you once again. I am very happy and satisfied, because the initiative we took two and a half years ago has become a common ground for our coexistence, exchange of opinions, with frankness, immediacy and sincerity, as always, and in a manner that another area of Europe would do well to adopt; an area where we mostly talk bureaucratically, rather than creatively and with sincerity.
We do have problems. We cannot develop our relations by covering these problems up. What we have been doing for years now – discussing them, exchanging thoughts, criticism, observations – helps to resolve the problems, and helps us move ahead. Of course, you know how life is. As soon as you solve one problem, others arise. We know from the Hydra, the myth of Heracles, that solving problems does not mean that you won’t have more. But these are problems with regard to development. These are problems that will open the way to the future, not problems from the past.
Thank you very much, and I would ask my friend and comrade, Mr. Toskas, as he did last year, to coordinate the discussion, our initial exchange of views. I must say that I consider it something of a feat that we have countries whose governments meet – G2G meetings, as they’re called – and not a quadrilateral meeting of certain ministers, but a composite quadrilateral meeting, which is a powerful format in terms of image and substance.
Thank you very much.