Papandreou, who is facing difficulties due the economic crisis in his country as well as social unrest, in his first interview with the Turkish media after being elected prime minister, underlined that when Turkey experienced an economic crisis at the beginning of the decade, Greece showed its trust in and support for Turkey; Greek investments and trade increased and Turkey overcame its difficulties. “Now it is Greece's turn,” he said.
Prior to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Athens, which will start today and is considered the mark of a new era in relations between Ankara and Athens, Papandreou described Erdoğan as “a man who gets results” and added that Erdoğan needs to know that I will be his ally in this endeavor, because every decision that strengthens democracy in Turkey is also a step toward good neighborliness.”
Erdoğan will travel to Athens with 10 Cabinet ministers, and the two countries will have their first meeting of the newly introduced High Level Cooperation Council. During the visit, cooperation agreements will b e signed in many fields.
In his exclusive interview, Papandreou underlined the importance of this new mechanism and said the meeting will be the basis for relations. He asked his ministers to present new ideas for cooperation. However, the two countries need fuel to move ahead.
“Greece and Turkey will never be able to normalize their relations as long as there are threats in the Aegean with regard to the Greek islands, as long as there are occupation forces in Cyprus. We have to put these things behind us once and for all,” he said.
He added that the Aegean can become a sea of peace and vision must be the guide for the actions of both countries. He hinted that military expenditures could be reduced. “A reduction that would enable our two societies to invest in education, health and culture, rather than in weapons. I am talking about the “peace dividend” that will accrue as a result of confidence-building between our two countries and the removal of any kind of threats. This is the driving force behind Greece’s efforts. This is the vision that must guide our actions. The Aegean can become a sea of peace. All we need to do -- “we” being the leaders of our two countries -- is speak plainly amongst ourselves and to our peoples,” he said.
When we compare Turkish investments in Greece to Greek investments in Turkey, we see that the latter is high while the former is almost next to nil. Why do you think there are no considerable Turkish investments in Greece?
It is a fact that Greek investments in Turkey are much larger than Turkish investments in Greece. We would like to see that change. But I don’t think that the volume of investments in a given country has a political dimension -- or at least it shouldn’t have one. These sorts of decisions should be made based on economic criteria. My government has received a clear mandate to carry out radical reforms. The economic crisis has only increased the urgency of this program. When we emerge from this crisis -- and we will do so before long -- Greece will have an economy with a much more robust foundation. That is why I think this is the right time for one to enter the Greek market. So, as a government, we are creating the right investment environment and leaving it to entrepreneurs to evaluate the opportunities that present themselves. Tomorrow’s Greek-Turkish business forum is a good opportunity.
What opportunities and challenges are there for Turkish investors if they want to invest in Greece? Does your government plan to address these issues and ease visa restrictions? For a long time, visa exemptions for daytrips were on the agenda, but so far, there has been no development in this respect. Can we expect any changes in the short run?
Unfortunately, Greece’s reputation for bureaucracy has spread beyond our borders. But this is changing now, and the changes are profound. In Greece, it was difficult to set up a company; it was difficult to get permits to carry out your business. This is all changing. And, as I said, the economic crisis is speeding up these changes. On the issue of visas, I must say that as foreign minister I went to great efforts to relax the visa regime. Unfortunately, however, the Schengen framework sets certain limits. That is why the Greek Foreign Ministry has given express instructions to all of our consulates in Turkey to exhaust the potential provided by the regulation to make it easier for Turkish citizens to visit Greece. And the process really has become much easier. At the same time, we are in close contact with European officials so that we can bring about positive reforms to the Schengen system, and we are also looking at practical ways to facilitate specific groups of citizens.
Under these economic conditions, how much are you planning to spend on military expenditures in the next five years? Turkish State Minister Egemen Bağış suggested that Turkey and Greece might reduce military expenditures simultaneously. Is it possible to reduce the expenditures even before agreeing on some sort of solution to long-standing problems ?
You are a very experienced journalist, so I am sure you remember the period from 1999 to 2004 when I talked about the vision of arms reductions between the two countries -- a reduction that would enable our two societies to invest in education, health and culture, rather than in weapons. I am talking about the “peace dividend” that will accrue as a result of confidence-building between our two countries and the removal of any kind of threats. This is the driving force behind Greece’s efforts. This is the vision that must guide our actions. The Aegean can become a sea of peace. All we need to do -- “we” being the leaders of our two countries -- is speak plainly amongst ourselves and to our peoples. We have to remove the gray areas from our relations and devote ourselves to the common future that awaits us in the European family.
Greece is insisting that there is only one Aegean problem, namely the continental shelf, but Turkey thinks there are several issues. Are you still defending the same idea? Is it true also that prior to the 2004 elections, when Costas Simitis was the prime minister and when you were the foreign minister, the two countries were on the brink of solving the Aegean problems? If that was not the case, do you see any opportunity in that respect now?
We launched the exploratory contacts process for the exact purpose of moving ahead to the delimitation of the continental shelf between the two countries. It is a legal issue that has played -- and continues to play -- a decisive role in Greek-Turkish relations. And it is an issue that can be resolved.
In the past, we drew near to a solution. During my tenure as foreign minister, from 1999 to 2004, I worked closely with my dearly departed friend İsmail Cem and his successors to move toward a solution on this and many other problems in our relations. And we made good progress.
And I am convinced that now, 10 years on, we can achieve a solution. After all, we aren’t starting from scratch. And if we find we can’t resolve the issue within a reasonable timeframe, in my opinion, we should refer this dispute of ours to the International Court [of Justice] in The Hague. We will be neither the first nor the last to make such a move. It is only right for us to put our trust in the international court so that we can find a solution -- just like 160 other countries around the world do.
Until today, one of the unfortunate elements in the history of Turkish-Greek relations was the lack of political will of leaders who wanted a solution at the same time. Do you think conditions are ripe to further engage in the resolution of issues at this time?
We are neighbors in a region of the world that is of great “diplomatic” interest. Our relations haven’t been steady; they have gone through good times and times of tension. And this pattern won’t simply end. But that doesn’t mean that we should simply look on and let things happen. It is my guiding conviction that people create their own destinies. Peoples write their own histories. Greece and Turkey are not enemies doomed to clash eternally. We bear a heavy history between our countries. It is in our hands to turn the page and write a different future. I hear some people raise the example of France and Germany. And I ask you: Cannot Greece and Turkey follow this example? Can’t we take our fortunes into our own hands? My answer is yes. We are welcoming your prime minister with this very thought in mind.
What is your personal impression of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? Do you think he is the kind of man with whom you can do business easily?
Prime Minister Erdoğan is a leader who has left an indelible mark on the Turkish state and on Turkish society. I think he is a man with very clear objectives, an ambitious vision and the pragmatism to realize these objectives. A man who gets results. I believe that he has made the strategic choice to fight for his country’s accession to the European Union, and despite the objective difficulties, he has remained committed to this goal. He needs to know that I will be his ally in this endeavor, because every decision that strengthens democracy in Turkey is also a step toward good neighborliness, a step toward respect for minorities and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a step toward the reunification of Cyprus. We will strive together toward the goal of bringing Turkey into the European family.
Turkey and Greece will convene for the High Level Cooperation Council to inject vigor into relations. What would we expect from this strategic cooperation?
The High Level Cooperation Council marks a substantial upgrading in our cooperation. It is the basis -- the foundation -- on which we can build trust and take our relations to the level where we want them. I asked my ministers to present new ideas for cooperation. This council can be the departure point for a change in the attitude that runs through the public administrations of our two countries. The sectors where we can have mutually beneficial cooperation are inexhaustible. We have to capitalize on this, particularly at a time of crisis and intense international competition. Together, our countries can confront challenges more effectively. But I also want to stress something else. This effort is important and promising, but we need fuel to move ahead. Greece and Turkey will never be able to normalize their relations as long as there are threats in the Aegean with regard to the Greek islands, as long as there are occupation forces in Cyprus. We have to put these things behind us once and for all.
From the deepest part of your heart, can you tell us if you think we have already missed too many opportunities to find a solution to the Cyprus problem? Do you think that Dimitris Christofias and Derviş Eroğlu can succeed in resolving their disagreements?
I don’t want to look to the past. We have to look to the future and let history judge any “lost opportunities.” The Annan plan failed to make the Cypriot people feel secure; this is the most important parameter. That is why it was doomed to failure, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. We have to put an emphasis on the Cypriot “ownership” of the solution. The framework is clear and agreed upon. It has been determined by UN resolutions and the agreements of leaders. The solution must be a Cypriot solution, by the Cypriots and for the Cypriots. And it has to be a European solution. That is, it needs to respect the rules of the European Union, the so-called acquis communautaire, because Cyprus is and will remain a member of the EU, and it has to be able to function effectively within the European framework. Mr. Eroğlu needs to respect this, just as he needs to respect the progress that has been made to date in the negotiations. If he starts to create stumbling blocks and raise obstacles, he will bear the responsibility. In any case, and this is a fact, Turkey’s role remains crucial.
What are your expectations from Turkey regarding the solution of the irregular immigration from Turkey to Greece? This issue is a problem for the EU as well. Are you pushing the EU to assist Turkey to cope with this problem so that a comprehensive repatriation agreement can be reached between the EU and Turkey?
Illegal migration is a challenge that we are facing jointly. It is a European problem and -- above all -- a humanitarian problem. It is certainly not just a matter of containment. Prevention and deterrence are necessary, as is the creation of development prospects in the countries of origin. But we cannot ignore the pressure put on Greece by the 150,000 illegal migrants who cross our borders every year. These people are victims of the modern slave trade. Women and young children will do anything for the dream of a better life. Traffickers must be treated as our common enemies. The paths of the slave traders must be sealed off, and they themselves must be made an example of. The authorities have to stop them, rather than looking the other way. We can’t have [EU border agency] Frontex forces being harassed by Turkish radar while they are looking for traffickers. In the end, if we are to get results, illegal migrants need to be repatriated. Otherwise, the traffickers’ plans work, and they continue. We need an EU-Turkey readmission agreement. But don’t forget that Greece and Turkey already have such an agreement. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t implemented, and this has to change.
Are you planning to benefit from Turkey's experiences in the economic field? If so, how? The earthquake in Turkey was the beginning of a new era in Turkish-Greek relations; do you think that the economic crisis in Greece can be considered another opportunity?
The economic crisis can become an opportunity: an opportunity for us to change many things in Greece, to put through reforms that should have been carried out years ago. This will make Greece stronger and provide greater prosperity for Greek citizens. After all, let's not forget that Greeks live in an open, liberal democracy. Their standard of living and quality of life are among the highest in the world and would be envied by many peoples. Looking back through history, let me say that the earthquakes in 1999 freed up forces in our societies; forces that shattered the stereotypes that existed and created a foundation for Greek-Turkish rapprochement. I won't compare the current situation to that time, but with your economic crisis at the beginning of the last decade. At that time, Greece showed its trust in and support for Turkey, and not in the form of public relations. Greece became the most important and most sincere supporter of Turkey's European perspective. Greek investments and trade increased, and mutually beneficial regional cooperation initiatives were launched. Turkey overcame its difficulties, started the reforms that had to be made and came out of this process stronger. Now it is Greece's turn. I wish the changes could be made in a milder manner for the Greek people, but this is the only path to go down.
After all these years, now Athens will have a mosque despite the opposition of the certain segments of society. What is the meaning of this mosque for the Greek nation?
The construction of a mosque in Athens is an obligation of the Greek state to the Muslims who live in the capital. And there are many who have come from around the world. It was also a personal commitment of mine to meet this real need for religious expression. But I want to correct you on one point. There have been but a few reactions to the creation of a mosque. The great majority of Greek society recognizes that this is the right decision and supports it. Everyone just needs to make sure they don't confuse religion and politics.
Your country was criticized in the Council of Europe's January report for the unsatisfactory treatment of its Muslim Turkish minority. How do you address some of the concerns raised by deputies in the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE], during which you also delivered your address in Strasbourg?
The Greek Muslims in Thrace live in an open, democratic society. They are European citizens with all the rights which that distinction brings. No one is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. Within this framework, dialogue with international and European institutions that deal with the protection of human rights is welcome. For years now, the Greek state has been following a positive discrimination policy aimed at protecting and bolstering the Muslim minority. I myself, as minister of education, took measures to help them have access to university level education. This is the exclusive obligation of the Greek state. And it is also my personal commitment to every Greek citizen to fight for their rights and the respect of their dignity.
Are you supporting Turkey's Balkan initiatives and in what ways could your country contribute to these initiatives?
As you know, Greece is the most active European country in the Balkans, both politically and economically. In 2003, Greek diplomacy mapped out the European perspective of the Balkans in the so-called “Thessaloniki Agenda.” And we have played a leading role in implementing that plan. It is the cornerstone of our policy and a top priority: the creation of a region of peace, security and development in our neighborhood. Turkey can play a very useful role in this agenda.