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Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias, during the Parliamentary Plenary debate on the new MFA Statute (26 February 2021)
Mr. Speaker, I did not know that the Syriza parliamentary representative would ask for the floor. I must say, I would have arranged the order differently. I would have preferred to hear him first in order to answer to him, but ...
CHAIRMAN: He would have preferred the same.
N. DENDIAS: I assume he thought the same thing.
First of all, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make an initial statement on some current developments, the wider current developments in foreign policy issues. I want to reiterate that our country, our homeland, Greece, has confidence, and of course our neighbour Turkey will not succeed in creating a ‘Pavlov’s dog’ response in Greek foreign policy.
Greece reacts when and how it should. Not when Turkey wants it to and for reasons that are clear even to any primary school pupil. And I want to say that it is fortunate that, unlike in the past, the whole political spectrum read Turkey’s clear and simple planning in the same way – or in almost the same way.
Now, I want to move on to the issues of the legislation and comment on a few of the things said here by the rapporteurs. I would like to apologise for absenting myself from the hall for a few minutes. This had to do with my need to talk to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Libya.
I would also like to say to Ms. Sakorafa, who referred to our relations with Russia, that at 14:30 you will allow me to step out again, for a short while, to talk to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the second time in a week.
Just as I have spoken twice with Mr. Blinken – and this does not concern me; it concerns the Mitsotakis government and Greece.
I come to the key axes of the draft law. Ladies and gentlemen, the Mitsotakis government considers this draft law an important reform and vital modernisation of the Ministry. It incorporates economic diplomacy, public diplomacy as well as the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad into the Ministry’s structure.
I heard a great deal from certain colleagues in this hall and in the Committee about non-reform, about not moving to the future, about a lack of vision, and I did not see any specific proposal submitted.
I heard some general aphorisms. I have been an MP for many years, including a number of years as my party’s parliamentary representative when in the opposition. I know the basically stereotypical aphorisms that the opposition uses when there is a period of general increase in political tension that it wants to intensify further. I did not hear any specific proposals. I found Syriza’s proposals – I must be clear on this – submitted in the institutional opinion of the Ministry, and I used them. So, I am not addressing the question to the main opposition party, but to the other political parties.
If they really have answers to future challenges, why don’t they submit them to us here? If only as thoughts, so we can understand those thoughts and perhaps adopt them.
I also heard a comment, once again, on the length of the legislation. Honestly, ladies and gentlemen, never before have I heard that the progressive stance is the adoption of Presidential Decrees and the non-progressive one is to submit a bill to the Parliament. I have never heard this before.
In contrast, I have often criticised Ministers for choosing the presidential-decree route rather than bringing legislation to the Parliament. Because that is the choice here.
And I want to say, because this was said to me earlier, that I will undergo the trouble, when needed, to introduce amendments to the legislation, rather than choosing – I assume, in the opinion of those who addressed the recommendation to me with innocent motives – a presidential decree over a law. What I want to say is that the latest Presidential Decree, which was of enormous national importance, regarding the closing of bays so that we could proceed to the extension of our territorial waters, and that decree was in the Council of State for four months.
Is this the flexible route you are proposing for the Ministry Statutes? If that is what you are proposing, look at how long it takes to process Presidential Decrees.
I would also like to say that I do not hide it and I have said it frankly: The government sees the reform of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as taking place in three stages, this being the first one. And it is certain that, despite the painstaking procedure inside and outside this hall, it may contain errors, which we will have to look at and rectify together in the future. There is nothing bad in that. What is bad is a pretence to infallibility. Not the government’s perspective, which sees the legislative process as a dialogue and accepts that adjustment is required depending on the circumstances.
This is the Mitsotakis’ government, this is what it has chosen as the legislative process.
As for saving time and space, I will say what I said in the Committee about dealing with a draft bill that codifies legislation: In every law school and every legislative theory in the world, codifications are seen as positive. This is the first time I have heard that codification is negative because it produces long legislation. So, now we have unprecedented legal views against codification.
But I want to say this: a major effort has been made here to keep things brief to the extent feasible. Example: The Translation Service. In the previous legislation, of 2007, the Translation Service legislation ran to 43 pages. Here it has been reduced to 9 pages. Do you actually think that is excessive?
Additionally, with regards to the time and potential for dialogue. The legislation started with a working group that was set up in October 2019, in which all of the Ministry’s leadership participated. At the end of November, there was a first draft. There was internal consultation starting in November 2019, with my office and the offices of the Deputy Ministers, for nearly ten months.
What was it that we did not have time to hear in those ten months? I am not saying we accepted every opinion that was expressed and I will not hide the fact that I thought some of the opinions were completely corporatist and we did not include them. And I will explain later what I mean by that. But what was it that we did not have time to hear?
Ladies and gentlemen, a second-stage reform is being carried out as we are discussing – that of the digital transformation of the Ministry – and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Minister Pierrakakis and the Digital Governance Ministry for our good collaboration on this.
We want the digital transformation to take place on two axes:
An integrated system for digital management of operational procedures, which is completely absent from the Ministry. Ladies and gentlemen, the Ministry is not functioning even as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the 1980s. At the most, like a ministry of the 1960s. And everyone who has served at this Ministry knows this.
A Network for electronic distribution of documents, which is absolutely necessary – a new, secure Network for distribution of classified data. How can we not have that in the 21st century?
A modern digital platform for the collection and management of open sources in the international media and social media.
A system for the financial management of the missions abroad. Do you know that this is still done by hand?
And also, a digital repository. It was asked in this hall what is happening to the vast archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is property of the Greek people, as it constitutes living history. If these archives are not digitised, they will be lost. This is the case and this is what we are trying to do.
It will take time, of course, but the process is starting and there will be a second axis that will be dealing with the digitalisation of all the consular services provided. A while ago, the competent Deputy Minister, Kostas Vlasis, was here, sitting in for me, for which I thank him. The digitalisation of consular services will enable Greeks living abroad to communicate with our Embassies and receive services from our Embassies. And you may have seen, a short while ago, that the initial presentation of the system was made by Prime Minister Mitsotakis himself.
The Diplomatic Academy needs to be completely reorganized as well. Firstly, the Diplomatic Academy does not currently teach diplomats to manage economic diplomacy, which is becoming part of the Ministry.
And to give you an example of the many needs: there needs to be an overall reassessment of the teaching method and process. Right now, the Diplomatic Academy teaches Greek diplomats how Greece sees things. It does not teach them how their interlocutor, anywhere in the world, will approach the Greek stance. And everyone's ideas on this process are welcome as well.
The Missions Abroad also have to be restructured. I was criticised earlier – and I must say I was surprised by this – for the fact that there are more diplomats at home than abroad, as the legislation says. But the legislation does not say anything about that, because this legislation does not regulate the missions abroad.
When that legislation comes, there will be a point in discussing it. But as it came up, allow me to say that, right now, so that you are aware of the numbers, we have 511 diplomats – 170 with the rank of ambassador, 239 councillors, just 93 secretaries, and 9 attaches.
In Portugal, a country of similar size, there are 491 diplomats, 222 of whom are at the central service, and 269 posted abroad. Of Austria’s 426 diplomats, 215 are home, 211 abroad. At our Ministry, we currently have 220 at the Central Service – 43% – and 291 abroad. The ratio is 1 to 1.3. The international standard is from 1.1 to 1.8 – that is the ratio.
When we have this debate, I would ask that we please have a sense of the numbers.
Beyond that, ladies and gentlemen, we will also transform the Export Credit Insurance Organization. The draft law is almost ready and will be introduced to the Parliament. Pardon me, but I will insist on the process of legislation through the Parliament, and not through Presidential Decrees, when I have the option.
I also want to say that, in the current legislation, the Ministry is structured on three main pillars:
1. International relation
2. Economic relations and openne
3. Public Diplomacy – Greeks Abroad
There was debate regarding the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad and public diplomacy. Little was heard, I must say, within the Plenary and the Committee, it was mainly pointed out in various letters that I received: that this downgrades the former General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad.
Pardon me, ladies and gentlemen. Those who have served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs know this, but I will say it for anyone that has not. First of all, diaspora Greeks were outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, outside the structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was an outpost in a kind of limbo, in a building outside the ministry, outside the structure of the Ministry, outside the Ministry’s overall policy.
Do you know how many personnel staffed what some called a major national priority, saying that the Mitsotakis government is downgrading it by making it part of the Ministry? This major national priority, ladies and gentlemen, was staffed by just 25 people, isolated somewhere outside the Ministry.
In 2017, these 25 employees had a budget of €3 million. In 2018, it fell to €2.8 million, €2.2 million in 2019, and €1.5 million in 2020. Those were the budgets, and I have to say that they were unable to absorb event these budgets, with 45% of these ridiculously low budgets left unused.
In fact, I think 67% of the €1.5 million budget for 2019 went unused. And you call this proposed change a downgrade? Compared to what, if we could turn back time, you would have called an upgrade in the past?
As for the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, I think there was an overall stance.
Regarding the reduction of General Secretariats, this was done by decision of the Prime Minister – correctly, in my opinion. The reduction of individual organizational units to 48 from 65, and 67 from 193 departments. The savings there are much, much greater, and, of course, fewer departments under the Minister – 12 instead of 19 – because there was a minister-centred configuration, which does not work in the modern reality.
Even if the most capable person were appointed as Minister, he or she still could not do it all alone. But the creation of structures that handle entities that intercommunicate is the modern trend. The perception created in this hall, on which I also commented in the Committee, is one of hiding your head in the sand: “I have a problem, I create a directorate.” Is that how problems are solved? Then it would be simple. We would have as many directorates as problems, we would have solved all our problems and we would be happy. But this is not the case.
The organizational units must be able to perceive all the factors that bear on the problem they are tasked with responding to, making the relevant recommendations. And today, these factors rarely have to do with just one isolated state. I assume we all have heard of globalization.
A new Coordination Department and a new Strategic and Operational Planning Directorate are also being established. Can we have a Ministry, that is mainly strategic in nature, without a Strategic and Operational Planning Directorate? In other words, can this planning be left to the minister, alternate minister, and deputy ministers alone? Without a designated body that draws up these plans? And that, from that point onwards, disseminates the planning to the Directorates that implement it? In what Management model on the planet can we find the model we are currently using?
Because I will say that the changes at the Ministry are not the product of our personal wisdom. They are, to a great extent, taken from internationally accepted models.
A foreign policy Planning Centre as a think tank. I assume there is no objection to that.
A defence diplomacy office, which I accepted and introduced as an improvement to the legislation, an accurate observation from the Elliniki Lysi party, during the Committee process. Which has already functioned in practice lately, as an excellent liaison – in a time of crisis – between the two Ministries: the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Ministry.
A data protection officer. How can it be possible that we do not already have one?
And I come to the Financial Services Directorate. We are creating a structure that can support the Ministry’s work. In other words, a Directorate General for Financial Services and a Directorate General for Administrative Services, because right now, I have to say, one of the great problems of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that it does not have a separate Financial Services Directorate. And this makes it impossible to manage spending. We have said here, and I think the criticism is well founded, that the Ministry’s budget is a mere €288 million. This is certainly a small budget.
And of course, this debate is carried out when we are discussing the budget – not here. In other words, our using the budget of €288 million that was passed months ago in the budget as an argument against this legislation is a parliamentary contradiction in terms – there is no point in me accepting it.
But do you know what’s worse, ladies and gentlemen? The problem is not just the €288 million, it's that the Ministry is not capable of absorbing the €288 million. Because as a new Minister, precisely because the €288 million was not enough, I asked the General Accounting Office, when 90% had been disbursed, for additional funding that the Ministry was unable to absorb.
So, the point that, if we go to €500 million today, without passing this reform – because the ministry does not have financial services, because Greek diplomats are not taught to manage spending, because the Diplomatic Academy does not teach the subjects it should teach, Mr. Loverdos, on this, because the Ministry is in the 1960s on this matter. You are aware of this.
I sign for spending of €1,000, €900, €500, €400. This is the reality. So, it would be great to increase the budget. But if we do not reform the Ministry, increasing the budget will not get the results we want, as I said earlier with regard to Greeks Abroad. It could not absorb €1.5 million; 67% was left unused.
Evaluation system: There was no evaluation system. How do you evaluate the results of an operating, front-line unit, called an Embassy, ladies and gentlemen? How do you assess the Ambassador’s performance? Tell me! Was there a proposal submitted here that we refused to discuss? It is nice to talk in general about the future, the centuries. In essence, there is no evaluation system. And we are introducing one. There has to be an evaluation system that is measurable, that sets goals.
Age limit: I was accused of lacking the political courage to raise the limit from 65 to 67. At any other Ministry, this would actually be true.
My dear colleagues, how many phone calls have you received asking you to raise the age limit from 65 to 67? How many phone calls? Is it courageous policy to raise it from 65 to 67 or to refuse to raise it from 65 to 67? Is it popular at the Ministry to raise the limit from 65 to 67 or not to raise it? In the end, who has political courage? The one who says ‘yes’ to 67 or the one who says ‘no’ to 67 at this Ministry?
Ladies and gentlemen, the age limit should not be raised to 67 for the time being. Right now, there are diplomats who are 50, 53, 54 years of age who have not led an Embassy. And if we go on like this, they will never get an Embassy. The pyramid at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to be freed up. And there is no other way than for the age limit to remain at 65. And this is very unpopular within the Ministry. I know this, but I am saying it and I am applying it.
Directorate for Training and Development of Human Resources: There was none. At a Ministry where human resources are the main asset. There is nothing else. Foreign policy is shaped by people, implemented by people. There is no significant material resource that improves or reduces their performance. There is no Directorate for Training and Development of Human Resources. Are we in the 1960s? Maybe we should go back to before the war?
Translation Service: I heard the suggestion of it remaining as is. For as long as I have been Minister, two things have given rise to countless complaints: One was the service at Consular Missions, and we are responding with digitalisation, because there is no other way. And this is also true for the Translation Service, where you have to submit a document and wait 15 days for them to translate it, and of course you call the Minister to see if he can do you a favour and speed things up.
And what Translation Service is a state Service? Where is this the case? And why what we are choosing is not the obvious choice? There was a previous piece of legislation, as I said earlier – 42 pages long. It was very complicated, with a number of translators per prefecture, per language. We are choosing a completely free model that guarantees security, that leads to digitalisation, because every document that is translated will have a specific bar code.
Therefore there are details as to the type of document, because this constitutes complete digitisation of all translated documents and the database will know where these documents are and what has been translated by a given qualified translator. And beyond that, the same people doing the translations today, under the conditions they are doing them today and in the time it takes them to do so, plus anyone else qualified, will be able to provide the public with timely services.
I think the reform we are introducing is self-evident and the Corps of Certified Translators is a modern, simple and functional solution that, by the way, will save the Greek state a few million euros, because the state loses money in the way the Translation Service operates.
It was said that there were no hirings. In fact, 21 positions for attaches were announced in 2020, but the competition was cancelled due to the pandemic. That is true. There are 21 positions for 2020-2021 and we hope the pandemic will not stop us from holding those examinations. We very much need these attaches.
Five positions for Legal personnel and 20 positions in the Communications branch have also been announced, and we also look forward to transfers. Because the Ministry needs administrative personnel. We cannot have an army of generals. We need the support of lower ranks.
And because there are people with exceptional potential, who perhaps would like to serve at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and are part of a surplus of personnel in another part of the Public Sector, we are opting for transfers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as one solution for dealing with the problem of understaffing that we are discussing.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think we had an invaluable process, and rightly so, because this really is an important and major piece of legislation. Views were exchanged. It does not stop here. We have time.
But I would like to reiterate that I think it is extremely important – and I will not tire of saying this – that even when the political thermometer rises and there is general tension, we have managed, as a political system, as political parties, to thoroughly discuss issues that concern the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an atmosphere befitting the national nature of this Ministry.
I submitted the changes I committed to making to the legislation as soon as I arrived this morning. They have been submitted to the General Secretariat of the Government and the reason they have been delayed, if they have not been distributed to you, have to do with things coming from other Ministries, due to the fact that this is the end of the month, such as, for example, the amendment on asset declaration that the Justice Minister presented a short while ago.
Beyond that, I thank you very much. If needed, I will take a stance on something that comes up in the debate.
Again, I apologize for my two absences during the debate – one to talk to the Special Envoy for Libya, and the second to talk to Mr. Lavrov this afternoon.
I submit the first series of changes to the draft. I ask that they please be distributed to the MPs. Thank you very much.