Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos was interviewed by Vocal Europe on Monday during his visit to Brussels, where he participated in the EU Foreign Affairs Council session and in the EU Foreign Affairs Council.
During the interview Katrougalos discussed a wide range of topical issues including the Prespes agreement with FYROM, Greece’s bilateral ties and strained relationships with countries like Albania and Turkey as well as the current immigration crisis and its challenges for the region.
The full interview transcript:
JOURNALIST: Let me start with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Many claim that the Prespes Agreement, which aims to solve the name issue with FYROM, is affecting the stability of the Greek Government. Recently, the coalition party ANEL has stated that “the term Macedonia is Greek” and its leader and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos are opposing the Agreement. Do you think that the Greek Parliament will approve the Prespes Agreement? Or will it create further tension and polarization within the society as well as the Government leading to early elections?
KATROUGALOS: Greece wants to be a factor of stability, in the Balkans and the whole area of the Eastern Mediterranean and we have tried to act in this way in order to resolve a dispute of many decades with our neighbors in the north. We consider the Prespes agreement as mutually beneficial for the two countries, one that will help also create a “momentum” for resolving other disputes in the area.
So, we are confident that, being such a good agreement, we are not going to have problems to pass it with a good majority, over-passing also the number of seats we have in Parliament. It is true that our minor partner in the government has a different standing on that, but despite this fact I don’t have any doubt that we are going to have the necessary majority in Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Foreign Minister, let’s remain in Balkans. Let’s now briefly talk about the recent tensions between Albania and Greece over the death of the 35-year-old ethnic Greek man who was shot by police in southern Albania. Over the years, the problems between Tirana and Athens are mostly revolved around the fact that Tirana neither protects nor safeguards properly the rights of the Greek ethnic minority in Albania. Would you, as the Government of Greece, consider using the Albanian accession process to the EU as a way to safeguard the rights of the Greek minority in Albania? Or in other words, would you ask for the implementation of the sanctions to Tirana if they do not comply with the Copenhagen criteria in respect with the Greek minority?
KATROUGALOS: We are for the European perspectives of all the Balkan countries, Albania of course included. We have started this process in the Salonika Summit some years ago and we remain strategically focused on that. But, of course, in order for any country to be admitted to the European Union, it must respect the European “aquis”, especially regarding human rights, especially rights of minorities and the Copenhagen criteria.
So, Albania is not a different case regarding that. We insist, of course, for the respect of the rights of the Greek minority there, as an issue that concerns Greek compatriots of ours, but also some other principles which concern the perspectives of Albania, as any other Balkan or any other State that wants to be admitted to the European Union.
I consider that the last very sad incident is not going to be a factor that would affect, in the long run, our bilateral relations provided, of course, that Albania would continue the common efforts with us to improve these relations and protect the rights of our minority there.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Foreign Minister, at the end of October there was a new spat with Turkey over the Greek territorial waters in Aegean Sea after the former Greek Foreign minister announced plans for their expansion. Erdogan administration responded that an expansion of the Greek territorial waters will be a cause of war. Prime Minister Tsipras replied that “Greece neither threatens nor accepts threats” and last week Prime Minister Tsipras said that he accepted the invitation from President Erdogan to visit Turkey and discuss this very sensitive matter. Are you hopeful about the meeting? Do you think that there will be a peaceful way to resolve this problem?
KATROUGALOS: The foundation of our foreign policy is the respect of international law and, regarding the issue of territorial waters, we have an international treaty which -it is true- Turkey has not yet ratified, but it binds it because it has become customary law – most of its provisions.
Anyway, we look forward to the meeting of our Prime Minister with President Erdogan, not because we want to discuss rights that are related to our sovereignty, which of course are not put into negotiations -such as the extension of our territorial waters- but exactly because we want to explore the possibility of having a peaceful understanding and a peaceful solution to bilateral problems. I am optimistic that the two leaders are going to have a very positive dialogue and promote this issue.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Foreign Minister, relatedly, apart from all the other incoming refugees there are many Turkish asylum seekers in your country as well. Majority of these individuals allegedly fled Turkey due to the recent political situation. According to several field work conducted in Greece, many of these asylum seekers are neither allowed to be employed nor establish work although the say they are thankful to the hospitality of Greek people and Greek authorities. What are you going to do with these people who really do not like to stay in Greece, but would like to move forward to a number of countries in Western and/or Northern Europe where they have friends and relatives?
KATROUGALOS: As I said before, the foundation of our policy at all levels is the respect of international law, and the international law deriving from the Geneva treaties commits us to obligations regarding refugees. Also humanitarian law, common decency obliges to treat all, not just the asylum applicants but all migrants, in a humane way.
Of course we cannot equate asylum seekers with economic migrants, but they all deserve a decent examination of their case. We have tried -although we in Greece have been in a perfect storm, a combination of economic and refugees crises- to be open to these people that are seeking a better future in our land. But you are absolutely right, the big majority of them does not want to stay in Greece, exactly because we are still having economic problems. We are recovering but we are still not at the level of prosperous countries like Germany or the Nordic countries.
We think that for this reason, migration must be treated as a European issue, not a national one. We seek a solution to this problem that would not put the burden of the admission of immigrants solely onto the first-entry countries like Italy, Spain or Greece.
A holistic solution to the problem that comprises also a change in the Dublin treaty, which regulates how asylum seekers are treated in the European Union, but also protection of borders and, even more importantly, how we are going to help people in neighbouring countries of the European Union, to keep their citizens there. Precisely this external dimension of migration may become the most important in the future.
JOURNALIST: Last but not least. On 5th of November, the USA re-imposed sanctions against Iran. However, Washington gave a waiver to eight countries in order to allow them to import oil from Tehran. Apparently, Greece is one of the eight countries. Also, Athens has suspended the purchase in the recent weeks, but according to some reliable sources that we reached, your Government is evaluating prospects for resuming some imports. My question to you, is your Government considering resuming trade with Iran? In that regard, do you think that the European Union should reinstate the sanctions against Teheran?
KATROUGALOS: As I mentioned, we respect international law, we respect also multilateralism and international treaties. Moreover, we are a member of the European Union and we are going to follow the options of the European Union regarding all these issues you have mentioned. So, I can tell you that we are against trade war, we are for open commerce, we are for the respect of all treaties, especially the treaties that the European Union has contributed in their drafting. We are not going to differentiate ourselves from the European consensus in all these fields.
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