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Press conference at the conclusion of the Quadrilateral Meeting of Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and FYROM, in Thessaloniki, on cross-border cooperation (22 April 2016)
N. KOTZIAS: I would like to welcome you to this first meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Ministers of Interior of the four neighboring countries of Greece in Southern Balkans, in Southeastern Europe.
I had the pleasure to have with me at this meeting my three counterparts and the four Ministers of Interior. Our discussion was about the cooperation among the four countries, the need to combat criminal networks, negative networks, in order to develop and promote the positive, creative networks in the future.
We feel the need to help towards the institutional development of our countries and ensure financing, the need to promote good governance in all countries of the region and strong democratic institutions.
We have all agreed that we find ourselves in a process of reconstruction for tackling the major problems of our times, especially the refugee issue. We are learning how to better organize our cooperation and our coordination in an active way, in an effective way, in solidarity, based on our common democratic values.
We all want to cooperate in order to record and control the routes for the movement of populations, in the struggle against trafficking and networks of trafficking, to work together in order to find the correct mechanism for legal migration and how to tackle long-term problems.
Yesterday, our discussion was moderated by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the meeting we had today was moderated by the Ministers of Interior. We all agreed to the following.
First of all, this meeting is beneficial and we all agreed to turn it into a permanent institutional mechanism of cooperation, which will convene every six months, at least, and, if necessary, on an extraordinary basis.
We also agreed that this mechanism, besides the level of Ministers, and in order to optimize collaboration at our ministerial meetings, should be held at least at the level of directors and of experts and specialists.
This was the case when we had the meeting in Athens, last week, between the Secretary Generals of the Ministers of Foreign Affair and the Police Directors of Albania, Italy and Greece.
We also agreed that this cooperation of ours aims at having common principles, based on humanitarian principles, on humanism, on appreciating the different and the other, on safeguarding the security and safety of our citizens and on the stabilization of Southeastern Europe.
We all have to develop solidarity amongst us and mutual understanding, as well. We need further communication and frequent clarifications. And we will use all potential media and means that we have for this communication. For example, video conferencing and teleconferencing, in order to promote good neighbourliness, the creation of joint centers, like the center of Tripartite Cooperation among Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.
We all agreed that we should contribute to the reform of the provisions in the Dublin Treaty. And that we should use NGOs in an organized way. Because NGOs can offer a lot, but we should make a list of these NGOs, in order to have a more coordinated evaluation of these NGOs.
We agreed that we should have special measures to support special social categories and groups. Especially unescorted children, that is children with no families, that move around our countries or children that lose their families while they are moving.
To make our work successful, we agreed that we should support common and joint policies concerning Jordan and Lebanon. We should support the development of strategies regarding these countries from the point of view of the European Union and contribute, with all of our power, to the stability of Egypt. Because its geographical position, its geographical size, the fact that it has a population of over 97 million, of whom two thirds are young people, make it a very critical player in the future of the region.
We also agreed that we need to coordinate, by all possible means, with coordination and communication, our control and our common action on the borders towards the return and relocation of the people moving in this region.
We also highlighted the need to distinguish, institutionally, between refugees and economic migrants, whose rights – and the manner in which they are dealt with – are not always the same.
In the meeting we had today, in the Interior Ministers meeting we underlined the need for further cooperation among the intelligence services of the four countries that participated in the meeting.
We need to exchange information that has to do with the fight against organized crime and human trafficking.
We also looked into the agreement between the EU and Turkey from a particular point of view. We have found that at this time Turkey has been implementing this agreement successfully, I would say. The people moving from Turkey to the Greek islands have fallen in numbers.
Yet, bearing in mind that there might be some gaps in the implementation of this decision, a plan B is needed for emergency situations that might arise.
Finally, in our meeting we also talked about security and safety issues which might be the issue for our next meeting. We also talked about terrorism underscoring that the refugee issue is not related with terrorism. Terrorism has to do with illegal networks and other factors that generate it and reproduce it.
Thank you very much for your attention.
I would like to thank once again my counterparts and my colleagues from the three neighbouring countries. I would like also to thank all four of them, and Mr. Toskas, for their participation in this meeting.
I would like also to thank the directorates of our Ministry, the political directorate in particular, the Information Department, the Protocol Department, who made this successful meeting possible in a relatively short time.
I would like also to thank our directorate here in Thessaloniki. I would like to thank the personnel of this hotel for hosting us and for providing the best services to us in a very touching way.
Finally, I would like also to thank the reporters and journalists who showed interest and acknowledged the value of this meeting.
As far as I know, Mr. Efthymiou, the journalists of each country will have the possibility to ask one question. Mr. Efthymiou is our Ministry’s new spokesperson. You have the floor, Mr. Efthymiou.
Finally I would like to thank in particular the presence of the Dutch Presidency, thank you very much for being here, it is an excellent Presidency, as I have said in the past. And I would like also to thank the representative of Slovakia’s Presidency, which is taking over after summer. Two friendly countries with excellent Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Interior, who have helped our region a great deal, as well as me personally in the cooperation we have. My fondest greetings to your ministers. Thank you very much for making the long trip to Thessaloniki.
COORDINATOR: We will take four questions, one from a journalist of each country. I thank you for saying your name and the Minister whom you are addressing.
JOURNALIST: Alexander Markou, Top Channel. At this moment, the refugee crisis is at its culmination. What is the position of the Albanian government in treating it, since we are talking about closing down the Balkan corridor and the possibility of an alternative route?
D. BUSHATI: Thank you very much for the question, although it is a little bizarre I have been asked in Albanian, now I have to respond in English, but I would like to be very clear and very precise that we have always had a coherent position concerning the migration crisis, demonstrated since October 2015, and this is not a black and white matter of opening or closing borders, receiving or not receiving refugees.
It is a commitment to become part of a European-wide solution based on solidarity and capacity. And the fact that both myself and Interior Minister are here today is a clear demonstration of our commitment to work for a European solution. This is the first.
The second element has to do with the migration tourism nexus. So these are issues which are intertwined and we need to work in both fronts, not only among our countries or among this neighborhood that is present here in Thessaloniki, but also with other countries, such as Italy and others that have been affected by the crisis, as we see that there is always a potential for shifting the routes.
And the third point that I would like to mention here once again is the need for an enhanced cooperation between European member states, on one hand, and Western Balkan countries on the other hand, that should take into account not only elements related to crisis management, but it should also offer more political certainty for our region.
S. TAHIRI: I will add just one point. As my colleague had three points, so thanking also Nikos, I think we have the huge challenge to cooperate with one another, and practically we are obliged to cooperate.
What we have done so far has been serving only as a symbol to show us that the room to cooperate much more than what we have done until now is quite huge. We have to be able to guarantee the right balance between our common values, solidarity and humanity, but also security. Not allowing terrorist elements to use the flows of immigrants, threatening our societies.
With the only concern of mine, which I’ve had the chance to exchange our views with the Greek Interior Minister, we should be effective. Bureaucracy is able to kill all our initiatives. And we should succeed, first and foremost, on our capacity to kill bureaucracy. And then to be able to collaborate together for the sake of our citizens in all the countries.
Immigrants are coming from an EU country, which is Greece, to non-EU countries, to go back to another EU country. And this is the right moment and the right chance to show, jointly, that we have the common destination, the common challenge. And we should find common solutions, European solutions, towards this challenge and others.
COORDINATOR: Next question, please.
JOURNALIST: My name is Tonia Dimitrova, Bulgarian National Television. My question is to Mr. Mitov. You‘ve discussed the national support for the migrants and refugees. Could you be, at this time of moment, more specific, what kind of financial support could you and what form, in what form would this financial support will be for the migrants and the refugees.
D. MITOV: I’m not really sure what exactly has been transmitted during the translation. What we have discussed actually is to try and somehow unify our position when it comes to financial support towards the people from the European instruments towards the people who are already here, who are already in the European Union, in the framework, that’s one thing.
And second, especially when it comes to Greece. Because Greece is bearing a lot of responsibilities right now. A lot of burden. We need to focus in our efforts, in order to help Greece to manage this unprecedented situation. That’s one thing.
Second. Minister Kotzias already said, what we need to do is to clearly distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. The first category of people, refugees, for them there is the relocation mechanism and also we need to provide them with all the instruments for international protection. We have certain type of responsibilities towards those people.
But when it comes to economic migrants, there’s very different approach. And here comes the policy of return and readmission. We need to be very firm in that regard and we need to keep in mind that when it comes to economic migration, there are legal ways to do that. And that is a controlled process.
Cooperation with third countries is extremely important, in order for those countries to be cooperative in receiving back their own citizens, who have irregularly crossed the borders of European Union countries. And that is something which I think everyone agrees around, that this type of policies need to be not only responsibility of the Member-States, the Nation-States, but also that it needs to be lifted up to the European Union level.
So, the European Union diplomacy, the European Union action service needs to engage. And it does, already. Thanks to the Dutch Presidency, this type of instrument has been already put in place and a lot of initial work has been already done in that regard.
We have a lot more to do. But the return and repatriation policies are of primary importance when it comes to distinguishing the two categories of people.
I have said it before and I will say it once again, we have certain type of responsibilities towards refugees. Our social systems, our education systems are not going to withhold large, or absorb even, large numbers of inflowing people.
So that is why we need to be very much in control of the process.
The agreements between the European Union and Turkey gives a lot of hope, thus we have taken a first and very important step towards the control and the management of our borders, of our external borders.
We need to look at the European Union as one whole, as a union indeed. The Union has external borders and we need to concentrate our efforts towards exactly that dimension.
And of course we have talked a lot about the fight against human smuggling. That is the ugly phenomenon which basically assists this type of illegal and irregular crossing of borders of indiscriminate numbers of people.
The human smugglers have their networks from their very first till the very last points on the routes of the migration. And we need to take care of all networks, all those criminal networks which are active inside the European Union, inside the country members of the European Union and of course inside the partner countries who are with candidate intentions.
This regional cooperation is extremely important and that is why we are extremely grateful to the Greek initiative to manage this forum, to organize and start the dialogue around the border management, around the fight against human smuggling. And of course contingency planning if, we hope not of course, but if that EU-Turkey agreement doesn’t hold, we need contingency planning and Minister Kotzias was very explicit about it.
COORDINATOR: Next question, please.
JOURNALIST: Jasmin Tasefska, …Macedonian State News Agency. My question to Minister Poposki.
Minister, whether and to what extend the migration crisis has affected the relations between the four countries and in the region in general?
N. POPOSKI: First of all we believe that this is a good format that has been conveyed now on the topic of the migration. But we feel it is a good format for a number of other issues that we can be dealing with in the future.
Obviously because of the reality on the ground we wouldn’t be able to say that this migration crisis affects our relations towards east and west, meaning Albania and Bulgaria, to the same extend as it does on the south on the Greek borders, because we have the reality of tens of thousands migrants that are stationed there.
So the parallel cannot be drawn on all sides. And obviously it is easier to cooperate with both of our neighbors where we don’t have these masses of migrants coming in.
Considering the situation and the reality and the gravity of it on the corridor south north, meaning all the migrants that are now crossing into Greece from Turkey and continuing their road upstream, I have to say that in 2016 we have moved in a situation where we do have a cooperation. We have seen 2015 without any cooperation whatsoever.
This year we have established our communication channels. There is a serious improvement both on the side of the Ministry of Interior and at the diplomatic channels on communicating on these issues.
It doesn’t mean that automatically everything will be resolved, but we have to be conscious that still today activists, NGOs and human smugglers are cooperating across boarders in an easier manner than state institutions do.
And I think that one of the messages that we are sending from these meetings is that we are going to coordinate our efforts, we are going to try to avoid having solutions which are at the expense of only one country. And in this case I think that we both have to send the clear message, this is our role, this is how our government sees it, we have to send the clear message that the road through the Balkans for the migrants is not going to see the same evolution as it has in 2015, but on the other side Greece should not be left to deal on its own with tens of thousands of migrants that are on Greek territory right now, and for that we need to work on readmission and relocation. And I think that pretty much everyone around this table, and it is very good to see the Dutch Presidency of the European Union present here, that we need to focus that this situation does not last for any longer.
There is an EU plan. It might not be the perfect one, but it is definitely the only one that we have on the table and each one of us has to make sure that it works.
Our bilateral relations are going to continue beyond the migration crisis. The migration crisis is perhaps only an opportunity to show to each other that we are dedicated to building good relations in the long run, and we have that responsibility.
COORDINATOR: Last question, please.
JOURNALIST: Spyros Sideris. I am from the Independent Balkan News Agency.
I would like to ask questions to Mr. Kotzias and Mr. Toskas, and I think my question has to do with the other ministers.
You said that the prospects are positive concerning this meeting of the four countries. Is there a common ground for cooperation at the moment, when there are differences among some countries? Could these differences become barriers to this effort? How important is the stability in the region?
Mr. Toskas, is it possible to have cooperation on an issue that has to do with national security and national security issues?
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you for the question. I would like also to thank once again the Ministers from Bulgaria, Albania, from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I would like to thank the current and future presidencies from the Netherlands and the Slovak Republic.
I would like to make a statement about foreign affairs in general. Foreign policy should have specific characteristics. Foreign policy is not mass media. Foreign policy is not everyday activism, which I love and I adopt. Foreign policy is not political opposition discourse.
Foreign policy should have stability, certainty and should be flexible; it should be serious, it should be composed, it should be exercised in a sober way and in a decisive way whenever that is necessary.
I am saying this because, often in a great number of EU member-states, and in our country sometimes, we lose this clear way of thinking and sober way of thinking, in order for one person or another to create a soundbite or two seconds on a TV channel.
TV channels and newspapers do their jobs, but ministers of foreign affairs shouldn’t be interested only in promoting themselves, but they should try to promote a good climate of cooperation and stability with other countries, and mainly their neighbors.
Consequently, our policy – and I believe that this is the policy of the Ministers from the other states as well – is that foreign policy should try to overcome problems and should try to find a solution to them, and find common solutions in order to improve the lives of peoples and states.
In national defense the medium is weapons, whereas in foreign policy the medium that we use is negotiations. And I would like to believe – as a kind of expert, both academically and from a professional standpoint, not just as Minister for foreign policy – that negotiations, the potential for the diplomatic resolution of problems, is the strongest of any means.
Do we have differences with other countries? Yes, we do have, but there are different points of views within each country. Could we overcome these differences? If we want to overcome them, what is needed is creative solutions and good personal relations and desire to find a solution.
As you know, we exercise a proactive foreign policy. We make proposals towards all sides, to Turkey, having to do with the Cyprus question, the issue of the name with our northern neighbors. And any problems that might have come up in the past or that we have to resolve for the future, with Italy, Albania, common actions with Bulgaria.
We are also preparing our next meeting in September, in the second week in September, on the island of Rhodes. And this will be a meeting among a number of EU member states and Arab countries, Mediterranean countries, and our Bulgarian friends will participate, as well. The topic of this meeting will be security and stability.
We don’t have the same outlook as all of the countries that will be coming to Rhodes. We don’t have the same form of political system. But we have a shared will, stability and security. And I think that today these two things are very important for the Balkan region as well – and on this basis we are moving ahead.
And the although I am the oldest Minister of Foreign Affairs in this forum, there is a strange coincidence, that three of the Ministers here are born in 1977. I want to say that we have very, very good, friendly and creative interpersonal relations, which support and contribute to – in my opinion – the seeking of the solutions that I described earlier.
And I think our meetings today and yesterday contributed to our having relations of sincerity, trust, to our not being suspicious of one another, be aware that we have differences. Truly.
Diplomacy means seeking means to a better life for societies and countries, ways to resolve or moderate the importance of the problems. Problems will always exist.
N. TOSKAS: During the last crises it was evident that it is necessary to have common grounds of cooperation. There are problems that have to do with each country in particular but cannot be tackled if there is no cooperation.
It was clear that we should assess the whole situation together. That we should organize our efforts and coordinate our efforts. It was also clear that we should find a balance concerning the problems and the particularities that might come up. Earlier, for example, we referred to good and some problematic NGOs.
We need to take decisions quickly. We can combine democracy, freedom and security. If there is no security we can’t have democracy and freedom.
This cooperation is more necessary than ever if we want to tackle common crime. And at this meeting held on the initiative of the Foreign Ministry, it was clear that there is need to discuss face to face in order to open up ways of cooperation, because often, unfortunately, the problem doesn’t wait for us; common crime does not wait for us. So we need to coordinate with one another and talk and deal quickly and decisively with the various situation.
This was a good opportunity and a good beginning for this cooperation. And naturally the effort and assistance of the European Union and the other collaborators contributed to this.