Yesterday, the Egyptian ambassador informed me and my colleague the Foreign Minister on a severe humanitarian issue: One and a half million Egyptian citizens live in Libya right now. These people are targeted by the Qaddafi forces because they believe they are behind the uprising. Some 400 to 500 thousand of Egyptians are desperately trying to flee Libya and around 100,000 of them have already crossed the border to Tunisia, gathering at the coast of the neighboring country hoping to be transported back to Egypt. So, Egypt is asking for our help. Egypt has already asked countries like France and Turkey to help so we will contribute with military and civilian boas if necessary in this kind of operation. I want you to consider the (huge) size of this operation.
An analysis of the situation in the Arab and Islamic world
What we have here in reality is a change on the map. Existing stereotypes on the Arab and Islamic world are changing. Naïve analyses that are being reproduced easily for decades are now placed up against the current realities. We have a political change, a change that is currently dominated by the demand for democracy, for participation, for a change in living conditions. People in these countries want a state ruled by justice, they want their human rights. These are living societies that may not have the quality and depth of a Western civic society, but they are demographically very alive and kicking, with a very low average age. We, in contrast, are an aged European society with a high average age and cannot comprehend what it means to have a vibrating young society with an average age of 22-23 years.
There is a question involving intergenerational public participation, civic participation, a demand for the redistribution of wealth -wealth which is connected to the security of the supply of Europe, to oil and natural gas, to networks, to the overall diplomacy of the natural resources. It seems that political Islam, radical Islam, the fearful fundamentalism, give way to political and institutional demands. This does not mean that we should rush to draw conclusions.
Societies are complex. Individual and collective identities are extremely complex. Religious demands are not on top of the priorities list now, since hey have given way to political, institutional and social demands, but we might see them re-emerging soon. But we, following the values that govern our policies, cannot but welcome the demands for Democracy, for participation, for freedom, for respect of human rights.
Naturally, the big question is whether these internal changes will eventually change the regional and international balance of powers, whether we will have a shift of the foreign policy doctrine of those countries.
The first decision taken by the military council that is now running Egypt as a collective presidency was that Cairo would honor the agreements it has signed and respect all its international commitments. The message is that there will be no change in the international status of the country, which affects everything; it affects Suez, it affects the Middle East question, it affects the security of Israel.
On the other hand, we understand the feeling of loneliness in Israel, its concerns for major safety issues. The crossing of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea is clearly raising a question. On the other hand, there are rules of the international law governing the operation of the Canal, and the Egyptian government believes that it has respected them and it could not violate them.
It is obvious that we are concerned with what happens there; obviously we are concerned with the position of Syria. We were hurt by Syria’s decision a few months ago to recognize FYROM with its so-called constitutional name. Traditionally, we have good relations with the Arab world. But having traditionally active and good relations with the Arab world, we have also fostered an autonomous strategic relationship with Israel. This is an element that shows our credibility with everybody.
These issues concern the entire international community. I said yesterday that in response to the debate in NATO a few months ago for the anti-missile shield and in response to the concerns of Turkey, we handled the issue of Iran and of Syria in particular in such a way that we ultimately reached a consensus. But everybody in the EU and NATO knows what the main regional concern is. In this regard, we are watching very carefully the moves of all the countries in the region, and certainly the moves made by Turkey in this particular case.
On the situation in Libya
The situation is still in progress and is very different in each case: it is different in Tunisia, different in Egypt, different in Oman, different in Bahrain, different in Libya. In Libya we have a situation which has characteristics of an open civil war. This issue was addressed for the first time last Thursday and Friday, amid a deluge of information from the media particularly, at the Informal Meeting of EU Defence Ministers in Budapest, with the participation of NATO’s Secretary General and the High Representative for the EU. Mr. Rasmussen informed us on the topics he would raise at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC), at the level of Permanent Representatives, in the afternoon of last Friday in Brussels. There was a wise approach at the NAC last Friday and again yesterday when the NAC reassembled.
What’s the fact? The fact is that we are all wiser after the experience of Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. The fact is that everything starts with the UN Security Council and concludes with the UN Security Council. The fact is that we can not go beyond the framework of the mandate of Resolution 1970 of the Security Council. Of course, NATO military authorities have been mandated by the Council to draw up plans which have theoretical value, because these projects have a long incubation period. For example, any plan for the notorious no flying zone needs at least 14 days, so it makes sense to have some theoretical planning, to plan on paper. Besides, you are all aware from the international media of the open discussion held in the U.S. and the reservations expressed by the Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Joint Staffs in the Congress.
Our principle is that we’ll do what the Security Council says and what the International Law dictates. We are present. We are an EU member and participate in the mainstream of the EU. We want the EU to be present. This is a European problem. These areas of the Mediterranean are the immediate neighbors of Europe; it is an area of great interest for Europe, although it is not easy to hear an emancipated and clear European voice.
We also want to be in NATO’s mainstream of NATO because we want to protect our interests in our region. Right now, a Greek frigate sails the international waters off Libya. A second frigate is in Crete, ready to switch to the first. And there is also a support vessel, a supply vessel.
About the strategic importance of Crete and the Souda Bay facility
Everyone realizes the island of Crete’s strategic importance. Through the island, we facilitated important evacuation expeditions. China is thanking us, Germany is thanking us, the United States is thanking us and the Egyptians are asking for our help. Greece is also aware of the fact that when we are referring to Crete, we are primarily referring to the Souda Bay facility. I would like to say that in Allied military planning, Sicily and Crete are the key locations in this region. So, what is going on in Souda Bay? Souda bay is a Greek military base, which offers an accommodation to the United States. The facility is always under the constant and direct command of a Greek officer. This is the case for the famous Pier 14 too. So Greece is aware of the activity there either because the U.S. needs proper clearances or, in emergency situations, to notify us at the earliest possible convenience. Therefore, the Greek Government is aware and does monitor every aircraft, vessel of personnel movement in Souda Bay.
In order to be practical, I must tell you that if an operation is about to take place [in North Africa] no military planner has reason to organize such a mission out of Crete. Such operations stem from aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships of the US Navy. So Greece is not about to be faced with similar dilemmas and issues. But certainly, Greece will facilitate the German transport airplanes and their crews and the safety teams in Souda Bay. And certainly, Greece will facilitate the reinforcement or replacement of US Marines that man vessels of the 6th Fleet. All those things fall within the UN Security Council decision parameters. In any case, the activity in Souda Bay is normal and within the occasional movements that are always being observed, always under the strict guidelines of the 1990 Agreement, which is the basis for Souda Bay facility’s operational status.
Beyond that, Greece is trying to contribute towards decisions at an EU and NATO level that are mature, proper, calm and are based on the experience of the past 15 years. On the other hand, Greece presently has a geographical advantage, an advantage that it wishes to be a real one and not a disfavorable one. Both the EU and NATO understand Greece’s strategic position. We should view that as a positive development because at a period of financial trouble and a period of constraint in the county’s fiscal sovereignty, it is very important to promote Greece’s predominance and importance in crucial EU and Alliance security and defense issues.
On marine areas
I am in constant contact with the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. The Hellenic Ministry of Defense’s concerns are conveyed to the Foreign Ministry and the Greek government as a whole. Israel’s strategic problem and the issues that come with it concern us a lot, in part due to the very good relationship that has been built [between Greece and Israel] and due to the relationship between Israel and the Republic of Cyprus now. However, during the MoD’s briefing at the Parliamentary Standing Committee next week, we can discuss in detail and in depth about this topic. We will do that in order to both examine how the agreements that have been signed –such as the agreement between the Republic of Cyprus and Israel- have been formulated and to explain, one more time, according to the Law of the Sea, the relationship between marine areas and, in this case, the relationship between the Continental Shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
On security issues in the Middle East
What I’d like to say here is that the Gulf countries face a corresponding security concern. It is not just Israel. It is moderate Islamic countries that have a security problem, Arabic countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where I was 10 days ago. That was precisely what I talked about with the crown prince who is running the country. Greece’s relationship with the UAE is also strategic, not [just] commercial. The issues of Hellenic Shipyards S.A. or the Hellenic Vehicle Industry S.A. are not my only concern when I talk with the UAE [officials]. They too seek a strategic partnership with Greece. They too seek security guarantees, precisely because there are many people around the world who talk about the Turkish model being implemented in several countries, such as Egypt.
What I mean to say is that if this model is being implemented it does not automatically mean that the first country that has lived with it in decades will see its role. Its role could decrease too. I would also like to remind you that when making distinctions based on religious identity in this situation, things are much more complicated. For example, in the Kingdom of Bahrain those who protest are Shiites. In Lebanon nothing has changed –the assignee Prime Minister is Shiite- and therefore we must add many more criteria into the mix, many more parameters in the analysis that we make, that you made earlier, and I totally agree with you.