Interview: Egypt and Greece share a common vision for the eastern Mediterranean: Greek deputy foreign minister

Eman Youssef, Thursday 24 Jun 2021

Konstantinos Vlasis, the Greek deputy minister of foreign affairs, talks about Egypt and Greece's historical relations and Greek Diaspora

Konstantinos Vlasis
Konstantinos Vlasis, the Greek deputy minister of foreign affairs during the interview. Al-Ahram

According to Konstantinos Vlasis, the Greek deputy minister of foreign affairs for Greek Diaspora, Egypt and Greece share a common vision for the eastern Mediterranean region. The recent agreement on the partial delimitation of their exclusive economic zones, as well as our common views on the future of the state of Libya and the Cyprus issue, constitute some representative examples of their enhanced cooperation and synergies. Egypt and Greece are strong allies in “hard”, as well as in “soft” policy areas.

Ahram Online: Can you tell us about your career before becoming the deputy foreign minister for Greek Diaspora?

Konstantinos Vlasis: I was elected as an MP representing the prefecture of Arcadia in the parliamentary elections of January and September 2015 and I was re-elected in 2019. During my parliamentary terms, I have served as an alternate secretary of the New Democracy Parliamentary Group.

On 9 July 2019, I was appointed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as the deputy minister of foreign affairs responsible for the Greek Diaspora. In 2020, I was also elected as professor of medicine at the School of Medicine of the University of Athens.

AO: Egypt and Greece have great cooperation in many fields. How can they further boost cooperation?

KV: Our countries share a common vision for eastern Mediterranean region; a shared vision of peaceful co-existence, cooperation, and stability, which has been repeatedly confirmed by our countries’ leaders and ministers on several occasions during the last years.

The recent visit of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Egypt reaffirmed the converging positions of our countries on a number of regional issues. The recent agreement on the partial delimitation of our exclusive economic zones, as well as our common views on the future of the state of Libya and the Cyprus issue, constitute some representative examples of our enhanced cooperation and synergies, and how we look at the world in the same way.

We also work closely in trilateral formats with other countries of our region, such as the Republic of Cyprus, for instance. These expanded partnerships contribute further to maintaining excellent relations between our countries and ensure that our neighbourhood remains a safe and stable area.

AO: What are the outcomes of the trilateral cooperation between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus in various fields? How can this cooperation benefit from the NOSTOS initiative? Are there any upcoming meetings regarding this initiative?

KV: In the field of diaspora, we have focused on promoting a positive agenda which will bring our diaspora, especially the youth, closer, through people-to-people contacts. There is no doubt that the NOSTOS programme has been the most successful deliverable of this cooperation, and we are proud of it.

In April, the three countries agreed in Cyprus to organise another trilateral Youth Initiative. This summer, 15 young people from Greek, Egyptian, and Cypriot Diasporas will visit the three countries and will get to know each other to build a strong people-to-people relationship and to raise their awareness about the challenges our countries are facing. I always say that young people are the future of our communities, and we should focus on building bridges of communication and contact among them.

AO: What are your priorities and roles now concerning your position as the deputy foreign minister for Greek Diaspora?

KV: Given the fact that the Greek Diaspora consists of three major categories, which are diversified in terms of quantity and special characteristics, since the beginning of our administration, we were called to draw and implement a diaspora policy targeting all three groups: A) national minorities and historic communities. B) groups of expatriates of second, third, or even fourth generations; and C) Greeks belonging to the last decade’s brain drain phenomenon.

However, despite the differences, the Greek diaspora demands thorough study and implementation of effective policies which will succeed in strengthening the bonds between Greeks abroad and Greece. This is a great responsibility for me and my team.

Furthermore, creating opportunities for those who wish to return to their homeland and bringing them closer to their roots constitute separate challenges. This is actually my vision and my inspiration.

AO: Despite of the Coronavirus pandemic, the government succeeded in facing many challenges, how do you evaluate the pandemic’s management, how hard was the effect of the pandemic on the economy, tourism, and health system?

KV: Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented crisis for our generation. In Greece, since its outbreak in March 2020, we managed to take immediate and targeted measures to contain the virus. This effort was collective, as the authorities worked side by side with the Greek population; their response to the measures should be highly recognised.

Our health system, as well as our economy, faced a serious challenge that we have managed to tackle, given the conditions. Since December 2020 we have been also implementing the vaccination operation named ‘Eleftheria’, which means ‘Freedom’, and we are very satisfied that more than 3 million people have been fully vaccinated at the moment. I should admit that we drew strength from the difficulties that now lie behind us, as we walk these last steps that separate us from freedom with discipline, looking forward to the end of the pandemic.

AO: There is strong cooperation between the Egyptian Ministry of Immigration and Greece, what are their future projects?

KV: Last June, we had the opportunity to meet with Egyptian Minister of Immigration Nabila Makram and Photis Photiou, our Cypriot counterpart, in Cyprus and discuss our future joint projects.

As I have already mentioned, another round of the NOSTOS programme is about to kick-off with a joint visit by five young people from each country to Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt. It is a matter of common interest for our countries to have strong advocates and future opinion-makers on our side. I strongly believe that this solid synergy will grow and expand in many other fields of cooperation.

Our countries are strong allies in “hard”, as well as in “soft” policy areas. However, I would like to touch upon another project which I am currently processing with my counterparts from Egypt and Cyprus and for which I am really happy. In collaboration with the Hellenic and the Cypriot Communities in Egypt, we are going to organise a special event dedicated to the 200 years from the outbreak of the 1821 Greek Revolution.

As this year we are celebrating our bicentennial anniversary, we are particularly satisfied to see Egypt hosting this celebration honouring Greece. This initiative enhances further our historical and cultural bonds.

AO: How can Greeks abroad contribute actively in the promotion of Greek interest on various levels?

Over the course of our history, Greeks abroad have always rushed to defend and promote Greece’s interests by every possible means. Especially when it comes to foreign policy issues and national issues. Our diaspora has exerted serious efforts, at every possible level, to defend their homeland’s rightful positions.

Furthermore, pushing the national economy is also in the core of Greek interests. The Hellenic government, despite the pandemic crisis, has set a comprehensive and ambitious agenda to facilitate foreign direct investments in the country and boost exports. Simplified procedures, less red tape, a stable fiscal framework for foreign investments, as well as the implementation of policies that favour entrepreneurship in the field of research and innovation are the main pillars of our policy.

Brain drain has almost stopped. Young people who have studied abroad, professionals, and entrepreneurs are willing to return and try a new beginning. We provide a lower taxation policy in order to make their business ideas grow. In this context, the Greek diaspora can play a decisive role. Greeks abroad have become a part of a global network through their dynamic presence in their host countries. They are our ambassadors, and they can play an important role in promoting a new image for Greece: a dynamic confident country which is a pillar of peace and stability in the wider region of the eastern Mediterranean.

AO: What are the recent steps taken so that Greeks abroad can vote?

KV: We consider Greeks abroad as a vital part of our nation and we want them to be politically aware and actively involved in the voting procedure. Their vote is equal to any other vote cast in Greece. For this reason, bill 4648/2019 passed with an overwhelming majority after a long parliamentary debate.

Subsequently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior, put a special online registration platform (Online Electoral Registry for Greeks Abroad) into operation, through which citizens are able to fill out their application and upload the necessary documentation in order to register as voters abroad. The next national elections will be the first in which Greeks abroad will participate, this is a success.

I am absolutely confident that sooner or later there will be an improved version of the respective legislation in order to further facilitate the electoral procedure.

AO: Egypt and Greece have unique and historical relations, how can the Greek community in Egypt play a role in further cooperation between the two countries? How many Greeks are in Egypt?

KV: In your previous question, I referred to historic Greek communities abroad. The Greek community in Egypt, was one of these large and very active communities. However, it began to decline in size in the early 1950s and nowadays, only a few thousand Greeks remain in the country. The largest communities are those in Cairo and Alexandria, followed by the Greek populations of Ismailiya, Port Said, and Kafr Al-Zayiat.

An important number of Greek associations and clubs, as well as schools and cultural centres, are still in place. A further major focus of Greek interest is the Patriarchate of Alexandria, with spiritual activities extending across the entire African continent.

The Patriarchate’s relations with the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Egyptian state are excellent. Besides, Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, a major Greek-Orthodox pilgrimage dating back to the 6th century, is also an important focus of Greece’s interest. Religious and cultural institutions are bridges of friendship between our nations. Their initiatives and projects always pushed forward our bilateral relations and cultivated trust between our peoples.

AO: How do you see the important role of the Greek culture centre in Cairo in promoting the Greek language and cultural activities?

KV: Today, approximately 2000 Greeks reside in Cairo. The Hellenic Association of the city was founded in 1904 and the main body of its activities is the Hellenic Culture Centre, which is known for its important charitable, social, and cultural work. The Greek Hospital in Cairo and the six community churches, as well as the Achillopoulios Primary School and the Ambetios High School are part of a significant hive of Greek culture and philanthropy.

I usually say that Greek language is the thread which connects modern Greeks with their brilliant ancestors, we work hard for this thread not to be interrupted. We want Greek people to continue to grow in Egypt and, specifically, in Cairo. And I am glad to see that Egypt spares no efforts to provide Greeks with all the necessary tools in order for them to develop and continue their traditions and culture. Respect between our historic civilisations is a matter of honour, and I would like to thank the Egyptian government for its efforts and stance.

AO: What is your opinion on the importance of the digital platform for learning Greek language?

KV: Given the fact that the Greek language is a powerful tool that contributes to the maintenance of Greek identity among the youngest members of our diaspora, we want to breathe new life into its learning abroad. There is a wide network of Greek schools all over the world and we put all our efforts to support their significant work.

During the pandemic, we decided to take advantage of the huge potential technology offers today and to set up a new digital platform called ‘Staellinika’, which means ‘In Greek’, with the kind contribution of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the SNF Centre For Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

This platform aims to make the Greek language more accessible and easier to learn by young Greeks who live abroad, and they have no other points of reference in their daily routine. We are really glad to see that every month thousands of eager learners make use of the platform’s potential.

AO: What are your future plans, initiatives, and activities concerning the Greek Diaspora?

KV: As far as my duties are concerned, I have set three targets. To preserve and promote the Greek language and culture, to further digitise the services provided by our consulates abroad and to strengthen the bonds between Greeks abroad and the motherland. I am also looking forward to working closely with other Diasporas with which we have already developed a strong partnership, like Egyptians and the Cypriots. I remain absolutely focused on fostering our projects and bringing our peoples closer.

AO: What are the steps taken for having a celebration day of the Greek Diaspora?

KV: 2021 is a milestone year for Greece. We celebrate 200 years of the outbreak of the Greek War for Independence, to the success of which, the Greek Diaspora contributed with all its forces.

On the occasion of this historic year, we have decided to establish the celebration of Diaspora Day. At this stage, we have asked from all communities and organisations to contribute with their ideas on the type of celebration and the most proper date to be celebrated. We have received several proposals so far, which means, once again, Greeks can boast about having creative ideas.

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