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Hellenic Republic Ministry of National Defence

Interview of the Minister of National Defence, Mr. Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, to SKAI Radio Station with the journalist, Aris Portosalte

Interview of the Minister of National Defence,  Mr. Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, to SKAI Radio Station with the journalist, Aris Portosalte
Interview of the Minister of National Defence, Mr. Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, to SKAI Radio Station with the journalist, Aris Portosalte

A. PORTOSALTE: I was just talking about the floating barriers in the Aegean Sea. What do you say? Should we start from there?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: The floating barriers! From what I understand, this question was launched today.

It involves a procurement through a tender procedure of the Ministry of National Defence, within the framework however of the management of the Immigration issue. The fact that this initiative has been undertaken by the national coordinator on the Immigration issue, the Deputy Minister of National Defence Mr. Alkiviadis Stefanis, does not imply the involvement of the Ministry of National Defence.

Normally, this whole procedure should be initiated by the Ministry of Immigration Policy. However, since the Ministry of Immigration Policy has been very recently formed and is not in a position to set this in motion, the Ministry of National Defence did so through the national coordinator.

A. PORTOSALTE: Ok, let’s not stick on this now…

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Now, what do the floating barriers mean: Obviously, they consist in a way of means of halting the flow. It remains to be seen whether it will work.

In any case, however, just like the natural barriers had some effect in Evros with regard to the halting of the flows. The incoming flows in the land borders of Evros have been reduced, as soon as natural barriers were placed at border crossings. We consider that there might be a relatively similar impact and effect as a result of these floating means. It remains to be seen in practice.

We are trying to seek solutions to reduce in a way the flows, given that this situation cannot continue, and to deal seriously with the ones that are already in the territory.

A. PORTOSALTE: On a point of order please, I would like to understand and close the issue at this stage. Mr. Stefanis still retains power with regard to the organization of hotspots and everything that involves the closed ones, etc?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Of course! He was first of all responsible for the security at borders, the border surveillance, as national coordinator. Therefore (and within this framework) I would say that the procedure for the acquisition of floating barriers through the national coordinator’s actions is proper.

Apart from that, we will see the effect, the deterrent effect that this measure will have, when it is put into practice. However, it will be a natural barrier. If it works out, just like the ones in Evros, I believe that it will have some effect.

A. PORTOSALTE: Was the Ministry of Immigration Policy aware of this procurement? Of the fact that these barriers will be placed?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: About fifteen days ago, this procurement went through the Parliament’s Committee on Armament Programs and Contracts, because, typically at least, it took place within the framework of the subprogram run by the Ministry of National Defence.

Clearly, there is understanding and coordination. However, in order to clarify the powers as well, the Deputy Minister of National Defence is the national coordinator, in charge for border security. The acquisition of floating borders falls under the competence of the national coordinator. Apart from that, all this takes place of course in a general consultation with the Ministry of Immigration Policy. This problem is complex and needs to be handled in a multi-level and multidimensional way.

A. PORTOSALTE: Yes, but the hotspots, these overcrowded ones, are being organized by Mr. Stefanis. In other words, he keeps on how these will be constructed.

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: All these actions in connection with the establishment of structures pass of course through the national coordinator’s administrative effort.

A. PORTOSALTE: There is a partnership, a strategic relationship between Greece and France. Before analyzing it, I’ve been listening for days representatives – either from the main or the minor opposition – who are not pleased with the statements of support received by the country, Greece, both from the US actor and the EU actor. Should we remind them, should we check whether any further defence support would render the country into a protectorate? In other words, we leave the country’s Defence in the hands of the United States or France or Germany or other powerful countries? Is there any such issue?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Of course no such thing happens. Greece moves at various levels, in order to ensure conditions for stability and peace in the region, given that it is acknowledged by everybody (but also it wishes to have this role itself) as a security provider in the region.

In this context and with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and secondarily the Ministry of National Defence due to the very active defence diplomacy developed as a result of the nature of threats and Security challenges, playing a prominent role, there is some time now that an intensive diplomatic activity is being developed in all directions abroad.

What do we seek? We seek to activate the country’s main allies and strengthen and reinforce some specific strategic relationships that ensure synergy amongst other things in the field of Defence and Security.

A. PORTOSALTE: I imagine that the French Armed Forces are not undertaking the country’s defence…

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Obviously not. However, the strengthening of our strategic relationship with France will also have an impact on the field of defence.

For some time now, the French marine presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is being gradually increased. In the beginning, a submarine and a frigate were sent to Block 7 of Cyprus EEZ when for the first time, from autumn onwards, Turkish research vessels entered that area, always accompanied by warships. For the purpose of course – let us not forget that – of being present and promoting Turkey’s power in the wider region.

Now, with the Prime Minister’s visit and his contacts with President Macron, but also for quite some time that the axis between France and Greece is being developed through both Leaders, this defence cooperation begins to crystallize under more specific terms.

Clearly, a negotiation on the acquisition of weapon systems on the part of Greece, mainly of two new-type frigates, is ongoing; it consists of an entirely original vessel, technologically state-of-the-art, which could upgrade to a large extent our country’s potential for presence not only in the Aegean Sea, but also the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. I have said in many cases that this negotiation is lengthy, since lots of things need to be agreed upon.

However, within the framework of the strategic relationship between Greece and France that does not cover only the field of Defence, but many other fields as well, this will take place under favorable terms for both sides.

A. PORTOSALTE: Let’s stick on that a bit, since you led the conversation to these two frigates. I have read, if I get it right from what the Prime Minister has said, that it will consist of a government-to-government acquisition and the terms of this procurement will also be discussed, if the country – Greece – will benefit.

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Precisely! In other words, the parties are not the Greek Government and a French ship-building company, but the Hellenic and the French governments. The French ship-building company will also be involved, since they are supplied to France as well; they are not intended just for us.

It is merely provided for that two frigates will be built for us. Consequently, companies from the Greek Defence Industry will also get involved in the manufacturing and this was a provision that has been set on our part since the beginning and will be respected with the positive consequences that this entails. Apart from that, as I told you earlier, all this forms part of a strategic relationship with France. I remind you that we also worked hard with the United States to implement the mutual defence agreement that forms part of our bilateral strategic relationship, but of course we are interested in France as well, just like America. The front men to be our allies, as regards France, especially in the field of the European Union!

President Macron is one of the few, if not the only one, who takes such a clear side in favor of the Greek rights and condemning respectively Turkey’s conduct. I believe that this is absolutely necessary in view of this major diplomatic effort that is being made. So much for rather other countries, because another kind of effort is being made in the country for upgrading, reinforcing the capabilities of the Armed Forces.

A. PORTOSALTE: If I am not mistaken, you are expecting your counterpart from France on February 24th, right?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Yes, exactly. The Minister of Defence of France! That was the subject of the agreement and discussion yesterday between both Leaders; that the contacts between appropriate Ministers should now be more frequent and intensive.

A. PORTOSALTE: And a red phone, which you will be able to pick up in case of a risk or a threat from an external actor and be able to communicate with her, is also included in the package?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: In international diplomacy, the communication channels of such type and at a higher level, not between technical task forces, should always remain open. Therefore, the communication channel with the French Ministry of Defence is open.

Besides, so many issues emerge from our cooperation; either technical issues with various ongoing agreements or issues regarding moves and diplomacy at international level; naturally, this communication should remain open.

A. PORTOSALTE: The upgrading of Mirage comes under the same category? Under this web of Greek- French defence cooperation?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: As regards the Mirage, what is at issue here is not upgrading, but entering once again into a new agreement for the support of these aircrafts in terms of spare parts. For reasons that I honestly do not understand, the previous agreement had already expired as of 2012. Given that the Air Force on one hand and the main French companies that have been supplying these aircrafts with spare parts could not get along and since these aircrafts are necessary due to their specific features, to make a long story short, particularly in the Aegean Sea, there had to be sometime again unimpeded flow of spare parts, so that these aircrafts would be available for the Air Force.

We agreed upon in October in Paris and the relevant agreement was adopted by the Parliament in the beginning of December. Now, the implementing agreements are beginning to take effect, so that the main supplying companies would begin to send spare parts. What does that mean? That slowly more and more aircrafts will be available for the Air Force, so that we would reach the higher desirable number of those that would be actually in a position to fly.

Many aircrafts fly, but we need even more aircrafts in air, with their wings and their weapons covering the Aegean Sea, as I also said at the Parliament.

A. PORTOSALTE: Is there a hotline with your counterpart from Turkey? In other words, can you pick up the phone and say to him “hey, what is going on here? How far did we go with this?” or not?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Certainly! Besides I also attended the meeting between the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Erdogan in NATO, along with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and our counterparts, and we agreed that the Ministers of Defence should consult each other. Therefore, there is a hotline.

A. PORTOSALTE: Have you spoken so far?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Yes we have. Actually we have spoken once or twice, not recently, but the channel of communication is open and should remain open. After the recent great earthquake in Eastern Turkey, the leaders – Mr. Mitsotakis and Mr. Erdogan – communicated with one another. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs also talked to each other. I thought it was not necessary for me to open again this channel of communication, since the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have spoken, but we are available.

Besides, in cooperation with the Civil Protection Secretariat, there was a transport aircraft standby with members from the Special Disasters Unit (EMAK) ready to go there, if required. Our assistance was not requested; therefore we remain in a way “standby”, in order to help if required.

A. PORTOSALTE: Perhaps Mr. Erdogan wanted to look whether he is self-sufficient and he had organized it that way…

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: In my opinion, it was right to state that we are available to help.

A. PORTOSALTE: And from what I understand from the extent of violations, we are still training the new members of the Turkish Air Force…

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Rightly or wrongly, this has become a routine in the Aegean Sea. The only thing I have to say – in order to see the glass half-full as well and not only half-empty – is that in any violation attempt, there is an immediate response of the Air Force. For every violation, there is an interception.

Apart from that, as I said at the Press Conference the day before yesterday during the visit of my Cypriot counterpart, there is a false impression of this matter, given that Greek and Turkish aircrafts often engage in some virtual air battles above the Aegean Sea. Within the framework of this air battle that includes many and rapid maneuverings, a Turkish aircraft may enter in and exit from the Greek air space many times. At the end of the day, an aircraft may have performed tenths of violations as a result of an air battle that lasts just a few minutes. This sum may cause the impression that there are lots of violations; that the Aegean Sea is like a sieve. However, this may be due to just one aircraft that was engaged in an air battle with a Greek aircraft. We need to stop thinking about absolute numbers; we should see more than just that.

In this frame of mine, we would see that violations may be a lot in numbers, but apart from that the real picture looks quite different. And I am saying this, because we need to stay calm and sober; Let us not make a bid deal out of nothing. We should realize things as they turn out, because they have their own significance.

A. PORTOSALTE: So, Minister, we spoke earlier of the strategic agreement between Greece and France. A corporate strategic relationship. Now, there is another relationship that lasts many years; our relationship with the USA and yet this relationship is also reflected through a defence agreement prepared by the previous Government. This defence agreement was drawn up by the former Prime Minister. By the SYRIZA government, which currently states “I should not vote in favor of this agreement” and on the other day, he stated some things to Nikos Chatzinikolaou in his recent interview.

There you are, Mr. Panagiotopoulos, here is the answer…

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: I would say that Turkey adopts this attitude. It is not predictable. It says something to them and then it buys missiles from the Russians. However, as a result of this acquisition, Turkey is being expelled from the F-35 joint manufacturing scheme. Therefore, Turkey’s unpredictability did not lead it to a better position as regards the relationship with allies. And then you will say, “and yet they put up with this”. And who told you that Turkey’s position today is better? They possibly tolerate Turkey due to other geostrategic parameters, but there is no doubt – whether it has to do with the United States of America or the European Union or France or others – that it does not consist of a reliable partner.

On the contrary, that sense that the reliable partner in the region and the actual security provider and guarantor of security and stability in the region is Greece is starting to take shape. We saw this in the recent visit to the United States of America. Our Prime Minister put forward the national arguments to President Trump, the members of the American administration, the Senate and the Congress in an excellent I would say and absolutely successful way.

He was heard by everyone and he took credit not only as a Prime Minister, but also for our country that is the eminently reliable partner in the region. Let us not confuse predictability with consistency. In this case, we are required to be consistent and we are indeed. And I believe that it is always proper to fulfill your obligations, but also your rights, as emanate from a strategic, coalition relationship. As I said earlier, these relationships are two-pillar ones.

A. PORTOSALTE: The Leader of the Main Opposition Party says that we got nothing…

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: But how is this possible? First of all, there were statements of support. Secondly, our reliability was recognized. Thirdly, our strategic relationship was strengthened and we have the freedom to request whatever is considered appropriate, so that our country would be protected against any threat. There will be other visits as well to the US capital. Of course, contacts and talks will continue at a Military Leadership and Ministry of National Defence level, so that we would also examine each individual term, but in any case – and you should have that in mind – the relationship between Greece and the USA has never been so good, in such a good level before.

A. PORTOSALTE: One last question and given that I am out of time, but also because I have said it and I have to ask you now straight out. Does the Greek Government plan to privatize the Hellenic Aerospace Industry or the Hellenic Vehicle Industry (ELVO), in other words, our Defence Industry, because there has been a lot of talk about the fact that we need a lot of things and we do need a lot of things? Is the Government able to dare this?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: I will take this from the start. Our main argument is that a country like Greece, which has powerful Armed Forces, has to ensure that these Armed Forces that are active and present will be supported by a competitive extravert Defence Industry.

Apart from that, we have to see how we are going to achieve this. We have some elements of Defence Industry, such as the Hellenic Aerospace Industry or the Hellenic Vehicle Industry, the Hellenic Defence Systems, etc.; there are not so many Greek state defence industries whose operation we are trying to upgrade. As regards the Hellenic Aerospace Industry, this effort goes through the F-16 upgrade programme.

A. PORTOSALTE: If administration is entrusted to a private management, does this cause a problem for the Country’s defence?

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Everything’s on and there are some tender procedures that will take place in the immediate future regarding some defence industries controlled by the State.

At this stage, what we are doing for the Hellenic Aerospace Industry is to give it a dowry consisting of a project of 1.5 billion dollars, being the F-16 upgrading. If they carry out this project, then they will be soon in a position to claim other similar projects as well for the upgrading of various aircrafts from various countries, various Air Forces and in this way, to become an extrovert, globally competitive industry and not an industry that is drooling – if you allow me to use this expression – over one client, the Greek State, meaning the Air Force, with all the restrictions that this policy, this prospect entails.

In this way, we wish that the Hellenic Aerospace Industry follows the standards of other foreign competitive industries. I have been to Israel recently. For your information, the respective Israeli industry has a turnover of 3.6 billion per year, with over 16 other projects waiting around. The Hellenic Aerospace Industry has a turnover of 47 million. As you can imagine, comparison is chaotic, but it is very competitive and in this way, they maintain a domestic defence industry that also meets their own needs amongst other things.

A. PORTOSALTE: So, you should dare this Minister!

N. PANAGIOTOPOULOS: This is the way forward. Apart from that, all other details may be settled along the line. However, we have laid the foundations for the Hellenic Airspace Industry to look into the future. It is thrown into the deep end and it is requested to swim. This is what we ask of it.