Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis arrived in Cairo on Monday to take part in the Seventh Tripartite Summit meeting between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.
It is expected to open new doors for cooperation between the three countries on the economic and political fronts, with the aim of securing peace and stability in the Middle East and among the countries of the Mediterranean Basin.
Before he arrived in Egypt, Mitsotakis met with Al-Ahram Weekly in his official residence in Athens and explained that Greece was seeking to develop long-term relations with Egypt based on mutual understanding and transparency together with strong bilateral cultural and historical ties.
Of Greece’s relationship with Turkey, the Greek prime minister said he was concerned about the events unfolding in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean region, pointing to Turkey’s flagrant violation of international law, use of extremist rhetoric and multiple provocations.
Turkey’s recent provocations in the Republic of Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone had been the most dangerous thus far, Mitsotakis said, adding that the Cyprus dispute could only be solved through peaceful means after the exit of occupying forces from the island.
Highlights of his interview with the Weekly follow
What do you think of the cooperation mechanism adopted by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus?
This is a strong mechanism for regional cooperation that is based on respect for international law and peaceful relations with neighbouring countries. The present Tripartite Summit meeting between Greece, Egypt and Cyprus is meant to send messages of cooperation, stability and development through agreements in several fields, including energy, the environment, the economy and culture. Our cooperation mechanism, if adopted by other countries in the region, will help achieve the region’s stability and the prosperity of its peoples.
What are the issues focused on at the summit and what will you discuss with president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi?
The talks with President Al-Sisi will revolve around bilateral relations and causes of mutual concern. It is obvious that we both have the political will to bolster relations between our two countries through transparent and fruitful dialogue so that we can pinpoint our common aims.
We will also have the opportunity to exchange views on regional issues, such as the problems with Turkey, be they on a bilateral level or in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Cyprus dispute and the Exclusive Economic Zone. We will also tackle the conflict in Syria, the Libyan challenges, immigration and the question of refugees.
I have to stress that cooperation between Greece, Egypt and Cyprus is exemplary in terms of constructive dialogue and cooperation. Perhaps other regional countries will follow suit and see it as a model to follow.
How can the European Union and the countries in the south of the Mediterranean bolster cooperation within the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean?
Greece is actively engaged in regional organisations through which we believe we can bolster cooperation with many bodies, improve relations with neighbouring countries, and consequently achieve peace and stability. The Union for the Mediterranean as an organisation serves these purposes. It provides the opportunity for cooperation in many fields, such as supporting human resources, particularly among the youth and implementing programmes of mutual interest, such as those related to climate change, which is a field that shows the ties connecting members of the union.
How are Greece and Egypt cooperating to discover oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea despite Turkey’s provocations and its illegal actions in Cypriot waters?
I am deeply concerned about the events taking place in the Aegean Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Practices that throw doubt on the sovereign rights of Greece and Cyprus are taking place. Turkey is flagrantly violating international law.
In addition to these provocative actions, Turkey is using unpractical and extremist rhetoric. Turkey’s recent actions in the oil and gas field of Block 7 in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus is the most dangerous thus far.
As far as Greek-Egyptian cooperation in prospecting for gas and oil fields in the Mediterranean Sea is concerned, Greek companies have expressed their interest in exploring energy sources in Egypt since day one. The Greek government has supported, and will continue to provide support, for efforts in this field. Greece firmly believes that cooperation with Egypt is for the sake of development on the geopolitical, trade and economic fronts.
Unearthing hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in Egypt in particular, has led to a change in the region’s dynamics and vitality and in the relationship between its countries. This appears more clearly in the fact that Egypt, Greece and Cyprus are closely cooperating in the energy field. The Egyptian initiative to host the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum is also of the utmost importance, and we hope the forum will be the catalyst for more regional cooperation.
What is Greece’s relationship with Turkey in the light of the increasing violations against Greece and Cyprus?
Greece has always been a pillar of stability in a region witnessing serious challenges. Greece is committed to establishing good relationships with its neighbours, including Turkey. Our desire to keep channels of communications open with Turkey, our continuous efforts to resume relations with Ankara, and our determination to protect our sovereign rights when they are endangered are all an integral part of our policy.
Progressing our relationship with Turkey requires it to fully respect international law, particularly the Law of the Sea and the establishment of good relationships with neighbouring countries. Turkey’s illegal operations in the Aegean Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean compromise such relationships and stand in the way of having balanced and fruitful relationships with neighbouring countries.
Provocative actions and statements negatively affect the positive ambiance required to build constructive relations between any two countries. My recent talk with the Turkish president in New York on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly was transparent, with the aim of creating a new and positive agenda. We are waiting for the Turkish side to express the same commitment.
In your opinion, what is the best solution to the Cyprus conflict that will guarantee the country’s unification?
The Cypriot conflict can only be resolved by peaceful means. Negotiations have to resume based on the UN Security Council resolutions on the matter. The UN Resolutions are binding on all parties in respecting the sovereignty of Cyprus and its security.
The occupying forces should withdraw from Cyprus in the shortest time possible within the framework of an agreement that guarantees the unification of the people of Cyprus and establishes the rules of personal and political equality and citizenship, as stated by the UN Resolutions and regardless of who or what Turkey supports.
There are no alternatives to respecting and implementing the UN Resolutions. Greece will never accept the Turkish occupation of Cyprus and the illegal division of the Cypriot people and land.
The Greek financial crisis was a painful experience, but it was overcome by the Greek people’s sacrifices. How do you see the country’s financial future?
In the 7 June elections, the Greek people turned their backs on populism and demanded a moderate government of reform that would implement a different economic policy. This is exactly what we are doing now.
We are implementing a reform policy that aims to increase growth rates and generate more job opportunities with good salaries. We are decreasing taxes for families and corporates, and we are working on quickly resolving disputes on mega-investment projects, such as the Hellinikon Airport Project, in addition to amending regulations to facilitate licensing procedures.
The international community has acknowledged our efforts, which are also reflected in the dramatic decrease of borrowing by Greece. However, on a wider scale, the reforms have also unveiled the revival of the country’s economic environment. It is true that thanks to the people of Greece, the country has closed the chapter of the financial crisis. The people suffered, but we came out of this experience more united and optimistic.
One further problem is the issue of illegal immigration and refugees, especially those coming from the Middle East region. How is Greece facing this challenge?
Over the past few months, large numbers of immigrants and refugees have entered Greece through Turkey via the East Mediterranean Route, the route used the most by immigrants in the Mediterranean. We have intensified land and naval border patrols, and we are urging Turkey to monitor and guard its shores.
Since May, there has been a 241 per cent increase in immigrants to Greece. In September, about 11,000 immigrants entered Greek land. This rapid increase added to the burdens of organisations handling immigrant affairs.
We are trying to speed up the processing of refugees by making legislative changes so that people who have the right to refuge can benefit from it. Illegal immigrants must be returned to their home countries immediately, because each delay takes away the right of those entitled to international protection.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Greek Perspective