Ev. Venizelos: Mr. Chairman, thank you so much for your very warm presentation of my ministerial itinerary. Thank you also for your invitation. President of the Assembly, Mr. Chairman, dear parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
I’m really happy to welcome you here in Athens in my capacities as Minister for Defense and member of the Hellenic Parliament. As you may know, in the Greek parliamentary system a Minister can also be an MP and it is very common that members of the Government are also Members of the Parliament; this helps them to be stronger attached to their parliamentary responsibility and feel accountable to the electorate, under a constant control by the civil society.
I’m glad that the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO and namely the Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group decided to organize this seminar here in Greece. This meeting happens to coincide with the current developments in the broader region that force us to see things differently. We are witnessing history at its making, we are experiencing a unique momentum that changes for ever the map in the Middle East and North Africa.
I must admit that these developments we had neither predicted nor examined during our discussions last November in Lisbon’s NATO Summit, which resulted to some very important decisions; decisions that reshape the Alliance itself, its Strategic Concept, the Command Structure of NATO’s forces, the anti-missile shield, practically everything…
We did not know that a few months later we would face that kind of challenges and changes in a very sensitive area that lies beyond the geographical area described in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, but neighbors the European continent and is attached to NATO’s southern borders that are of a special interest for Greece.
These are changes of the domestic political picture that make us see societies of the Arab world which we were unaware of their existence and now we have to look at them with new eyes and ignore many old stereotypes that had shaped the western way of thinking when it comes to the situation in the Arab world.
It seems that political circumstance, the democratic deficit, the disrespect of human rights, the demographic composition and stratification of these societies with a remarkable low average age of their peoples, creates an explosive and radical cocktail, a mixture of people that demand for change of the political landscape and the conditions of governance.
There are peoples, societies, who want to express themselves and I believe it is obvious that the social and political character of the demands prevail in relation to a more religious or traditional approach, which of course should not be underestimated: people’s identity, social identities exist and are always complex and compound.
It is more than clear that the demands are political and institutional; they are demands for free expression and democratic participation, for the respect of the rule of law and this leads to new political and social associations. And the question is if all that can lead us somewhere in a smooth, peaceful and controlled way and if this new status quo will affect the international and regional balance of power.
It may be true that in our understanding, in the established western way of thinking, the demand for stability –therefore for peace and security- prevails, but it is obvious that these societies prioritize things differently: they want Democracy, they demand participation for all and for the young generation, because this asphyxia, this exclusion from the developments cannot simply be tolerated by any society.
So, we are facing living societies in the Middle East, in North Africa and in the Arab world in general, which we must see as partners and I believe we must rethink our previous conceptions on radical Islam with no rush to reach conclusions.
Additionally, we must re-examine the analysis that made us articulate our Lisbon package of decisions; these decisions are still fresh, are being implemented, and we have to further discuss about them in the coming months, mainly in the two Defense Ministers Councils that are schedules for March and June 2011.
Because, according the Lisbon Summit, Defense Minister together with the Secretary General have now the obligation to implement on a military level the new strategic concept. And we must take critical decisions on the new structure of command and the new structure of forces, meaning NATO’s new unified military structure.
We must also elaborate the decisions on the antimissile defense and of course we must evaluate the NATO-run operations. Already, one of these operations –among the oldest ones- is Active Endeavor, which is being tested because it could have to face new challenges and new missions, since the very meaning of asymmetric threat is acquiring a whole new essence.
It is not enough to talk about terrorism, it is not enough to talk about environmental change, it is not enough to talk about security of supply. Now we must also talk about a new political situation in a very broad area that is extremely and directly interesting defense-wise for us.
Now that we, as NATO, are called to administer a crisis, we must implement the new concepts for the prediction and the political and operational managing of crises. And of course this is what we always do within the framework of the resolutions of the UN Security Council.
We do this obviously by taking advantage of the valuable historical experience that the West has accumulated from the cases of Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. So, we are wiser now and this probably explains the extremely cautious and wise approach by the NATO Council of the permanent representatives last Friday in Brussels.
On Thursday and Friday last week, as events were unfolding in North Africa, the EU Defense Ministers under the Hungarian Presidency met in Budapest in the presence of the NATO’s Secretary General, who briefed us on his intention to introduce the question to the NATO Council in a way that embodies all the reservations imposed by political wisdom in such circumstances.
On this occasion, I wish to inform you that Greece successfully organized her own evacuation operation in Libya. Geography gives us the advantage of proximity and the Suda base in Crete is at the disposal of many other countries, like Germany and the US of course.
Greece has already offered its goodwill services for the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya and in Budapest I repeated Greece’s constant availability to contribute in such humanitarian operations. We are currently present in the area with a frigate that sails in international waters near the Libyan coast and all the Greek navy is naturally in high alert following the events, always within the context of the recent UN Security Council resolution and always within the context of the well-balanced and careful last Friday’s approach of the North Atlantic Council.
I am sure you realize that the situation is extremely important to us, because Greece is the gateway for a great part of these populations towards the European Union space. The policy imposed by the “Dublin II” Regulation is a very big problem for us, because the migration flows burst into Greece. Eighty per cent of all illegal immigrants that enter the EU come through Greece, so the problem we are dealing with is actually European, which explains the FRONTEX presence in our country, since our borders are also EU borders guarded both by police and the military.
Here the roles of the police and the military are put in test. The policing of the borders has been discussed several times in the context of our cooperation with FRONTEX, but always, when it comes issues that touch the very heart of security and defense of the country, we have in mind the problem of the military security and guarding of the borders. These are borders of the EU and they are also borders of NATO after all.
Allow me also to say that as we are going through a period of long economic and fiscal crisis, we are obliged to implement a severe long-term financial planning. This requires us to rationalize our actions in all areas, certainly in the area of defense policy as well.
Compared to 2009, the Greek Defense Ministry budget has been cut by 25% and compared with 2010 it has been cut by 20%. So, we have to deal with our procurement programs in a much more rational and rigorous manner and we cannot easily succumb to pressure by our partners who are also pushing us to implement a tight fiscal and macroeconomic policy.
This is a contradiction, especially within the European Union, which of course we have to manage based firstly and primarily on the real operational needs of the Greek Armed Forces, based on our national priorities and of course on the priorities of NATO and of the European Union.
Greece participates in the mainstream of the NATO and European policies. We believe in the need for cooperation between two organizations, in the need for cooperation among the 28 NATO members and the 27 EU members –always safeguarding the status of the CyprusRepublic as a full European Union member.
Greece also believes deeply in the need of rapprochement with Turkey. We believe that both countries are able to shape, here in southern wing of NATO, an environment of peace, friendship, cooperation and stability, test driven always by the International Law and in particular by the International Law of the Sea.
Here at the southern wing of NATO, we want to apply what applies in other areas of the Alliance. This includes the command structure and all practices. NATO’s good practices and the EU member’s good practices can be applied here without exceptions, without any special rules which are not justified under any circumstances.
We are fully aware of or responsibilities as an old member of NATO –we count 60 years of continuous participation in the alliance. We are also fully aware of our responsibilities as an old EU member and as a member of the Euro zone.
The difficulties we are facing are temporary. Greece that forced to borrow from its partners and is currently under the supervision of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is still one of the 30 strongest economies in the world; it is still a country holding a leading position, usually on the 22nd or 23rd, in the United Nations social development index.
This is a country that despite its high public debt, it has a very limited and controlled private debt; this is a country with a strong banking system that is not exposed to risks comparable to those of the Irish banking system for example; so this is a country that can overcome the problems.
And of course our geographical location makes us extremely responsible and prudent, because we know how important it is to be the outpost of the West, to be the outpost of NATO and the European Union in this region of the world, close to the Middle East, very close to North Africa and close to the Gulf countries.
So we always attach too much importance in the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul initiative and generally in all the processes that give the Alliance its political character, the one that must prevail, because the solutions are always political, they are always democratic solutions. The solutions are always controlled by our citizens to whom we are accountable and to whom we must give a sense of security. Because security is a valuable commodity, equally valuable to democracy and the rule of law. That triptych "Security-Democracy-Rule of Law" is what we must preserve as the most valuable treasure we have.
With these thoughts, I once again thank you for your presence in Greece; I welcome you and wish you a pleasant stay. I am also wishing each and every one of you as MPs in your countries to have the best possible careers, to continue be honored by the voters who support you by sending you over and over again on the benches of your Parliaments, and subsequently to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Alliance.
Thank you very much.
Coordinator: Thank you Mr. Minister for your very comprehensive remarks. Now, I give the floor for questions. While my friends prepare themselves for the questions, may I say that we are facing new challenges and threats around the Mediterranean Sea now. I agree that the NATO and EU countries should cooperate more and have more dialogue, so if there are any issues or problems among themselves they should resolved them peacefully. There should be cohesion among the NATO and European countries vis-à-vis all new emerging threats. What role should NATO and the EU actually play in this new environment for the Middle East? We don’t know to which direction this crisis will continue. So I think there should be some kind of measures to be taken by EU and NATO to help these countries go to a smooth transition towards a more democratic and transparent regime. So could you make a comment on that?
E. Venizelos: Thank you for your question. First of all, the developments are midway. The situation has not been stabilized in any country and it differs from country to country: It is one thing to monitor a civil war going on, a development in Libya which is impressive, exponential and breaking.
And it is another to monitor a situation that appears to be stabilized in Egypt, a large country, a key country regarding developments in the Middle East, regarding the Middle-Eastern issue itself, regarding supply safety for the entire world and therefore the EU and regarding the safety of the Suez Canal and for all the developments in this part of the world.
Certainly, things now in Tunisia are more stable, despite Libya’s immigration flows to Egypt and Tunisia. I’m not even mentioning everything that goes on in the North Africa and Middle Eastern arc. Each country has its own peculiarities.
I think that NATO and the EU have realized that they must let peoples and societies themselves take the initiative. The so-called “citizen society” may be weak and unorganized, according to western perceptions –those countries cannot be judged based on westerns notions and perceptions-, but certainly the initiative is for the citizens of each country to take and therefore there must be some cautiousness and a guarded approach.
On the other hand, we cannot remain detached from the use of force, we cannot remain detached from uncontrolled violence. Hence, the UN Security Council calling for the activation of the ICC in the case of Libya and the case of Colonel Qaddafi is very important.
And on the other hand there is no doubt that a very important field of institutional and developmental know-how on behalf of the EU and NATO is opening up in all those regions.
I would say that we must wait until the situation stabilizes and manage the present crisis in Libya –which is a crisis with military and humanitarian aspects. We must watch how Libyan society expresses itself.
Down the road, all existing institutions will be used, without reminding [people in] those regions –if you permit me to say- the historical past which oftentimes turns peoples and societies hostile towards the West.
We must not forget the colonial past. We must not forget that choices were made –especially during the interwar years- that often created an artificial map of the Arab world.
All that remains in the collective memories [of people] and we, in Greece, realize that fact because traditionally we have had a very good relationship with the Arab world, a trusted relationship.
On the other hand, we do understand Israel’s security problem and concerns. Lately, we have built an autonomous partnership between the two countries and the two governments.
So if I may focus my answer a little bit more, I think that Greece –precisely because of its geographical proximity and its privileged historical ties- can act as a very trusted EU and NATO partner when those two major entities decide to address those peoples and those societies.
We may be having this seminar with a focus on Europe but the European continent’s security issues have been problems mixed and Euro-Atlantic for over a century.
This is how the situation evolves and how it has evolved since World War I. So it is obvious that we cannot ignore, under no circumstances, the choices and assessments by the United States. And it is also obvious that the US must seriously take into consideration the assessments by their European allies. Historically, this has been the logic which NATO has been based upon and we must remind and respect that logic.
Coordinator: Thank you very much. I have three more questions
Question (Portugese delegate): Thank you Mr. Chairman and thank you Minister for this position and presentation that was really very impressive. I would like to ask two questions. The first one is about the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The Minister said that Greece is a solid and loyal member of NATO. He also said that nowadays we have some problems in Europe related to budgets. We believe that Europe should be more involved in these questions related to the Mediterranean. So the question is about the ESDP. Do you think that the situation in the region might cause some kind of problems in Europe? Do you think there must be another way to face these problems in the Mediterranean by the ESDP? And I say that because I know the problems we are facing in the European economy. The second question is about the threats and challenges. In this meeting of the special group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East of NATO, a solid and very important alliance, we are discussing issues that are in the political agenda this moment in this area of the world. Se we are dealing with many situations, for example one of these is piracy. Do you see as possible in these revolutions that affect so many countries any kind of movements or threats that could affect the security situation in the Mediterranean? Thank you very much.
E. Venizelos: Thank you so much for that question. As you know, the Lisbon reform Treaty shapes a new institutional framework for the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) within the EU. But this new institutional framework has not been fully utilized.
The EU has not showcased its political potential, yet. As a political entity the EU is far smaller relative to its financial size. And as a military entity the EU is way smaller because it is under NATO’s historic supremacy. NATO has been the key pillar for the region’s security and defense policy for over 60 years.
Unfortunately, the Mediterranean dialogue, under all its institutional forms and shapes, has not been fruitful. Within NATO and the EU so far, the Mediterranean dialogue has assumed more rhetorical and goodwill characteristics than substantially political ones.
A few months ago, towards the end of the Spanish EU Presidency and during the Palmas de Majorca informal EU defense ministers session, we have had the chance to meet with countries that participate in the Mediterranean dialogue, with countries that, coincidentally, participate in NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue as well. Those meetings took place with in the presence of NATO’s Secretary General, although the session was an EU session.
I then got the impression that no significant steps were taken, despite the fact that we all understand the Mediterranean to be an extremely sensitive area in which culture co-exists with energy, monotheistic religions co-exist with all contemporary major conflicts. So it is an area that’s extremely sensitive and we see now how it is becoming even more sensitive.
I do not feel that the EU has or is about to take important initiatives in this area soon. Perhaps present developments in many countries of our region will push us towards that direction. For the HellenicRepublic, this would have been a greatly welcomed development.
In the introduction of your second question you mentioned the piracy problem. You do know how interesting this struggle is for Greece, due to the size of its merchant marine fleet, the size of the Greek-owned merchant marine fleet. Greece participates in both major operations in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Greece participates in NATO’s OCEAN SHIELD and in conjunction with ACTIVE ENDEAVOR, that is the SNMG, a Hellenic Navy frigate takes part in this rotation.
Our country also participates in EU’s ATALANTA and we, de facto, think, as I mentioned during my speech earlier, that such operations are linked to the mandate that ACTIVE ENDEVOR has in the Mediterranean Sea.
I am certain that other initiatives which could be taken in this field will be discussed shortly, in the framework of the Euro-Atlantic council as well. And I say that because when we refer to complex political and military crisis management and when we are before a new map, it is obvious that we want to maintain conditions of stability in this region and take initiatives that will primarily be political ones.
When we talk about political initiatives we must always bear in mind that there are costs involved. This fact contradicts the need to limit our defense budgets both at a national and an Alliance level.
In reality, we must re-align our priorities and I am sure we will do that. That’s what Greece has been doing. Despite its fiscal crisis, for example, it never occurred us to limit the participation of Greek Armed Forces in missions abroad, either under the auspices of NATO or the auspices of the EU and the CSDP.
Question (Romanian Delegate): Thank you so much Mr. President. Minister, congratulations for your presentation. Allow me to congratulate you as well because you bear a very famous name, the name of the founding father of modern Greece, the former PM Venizelos. I wish you the same success he had. Minister, you mentioned that Greece is a gateway to the EU. That’s true. We now see that from North Africa and the Middle East a big flow of immigrants is trying to enter the European area, the European space. Greece plays a very important role in securing the EU area. As you know, Bulgaria and Romania became members of the EU in 2007 and now they are struggling to become members of the Schengen area. I’m sure that you are completely aware about the discussions on this situation, as you know there are still some countries opposing to the accession of these two countries at the end of this month as it was scheduled in their treaties of accession to the EU before 2007. Romania spent hundreds of millions of euro to secure its external borders north and east and in the Black Sea in order to better secure the European space. As Greece is like an island within the Schengen area because it doesn’t have any terrestrial link with any other EU country, don’t you think that it is a common interest –in the interest of the EU and the Schengen countries- that Romania and Bulgaria should become members as scheduled at the end of this month and not be postponed in order to face the flows of illegal immigrants that are about to enter the European space? This question to you Mr. Minister is important because it is important to express the solidarity among the EU countries. Once again, I’m saying that the two countries did their best in order to secure their external borders. Thank you very much Mr. Minister. Lots of success in your career.
E. Venizelos: Thank you for referring to my last name. I am sure this is a coincidence, I am not a descendant of the contemporary Greek state’s founding father, Eleftherios Venizelos and so I do not enjoy the privileges of a political family tradition. But I am glad that my name brings to mind this great European political man, one of Europe’s fathers, one of the peace-makers of the period following World War I.
As you know, Greece has been a major and very active advocate for Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
When I first got involved, as a member of previous Greek administrations, in the efforts to help Bulgaria and Romania join [the Euro-Atlantic institutions], we have had meetings on various issues in order to facilitate negotiations. Finally, we are happy to share NATO’s and the EU’s table with our neighboring countries from South-Eastern Europe.
Full accession of all our region’s countries in Euro-Atlantic institutions is Greece’s priority, as outlined in the so-called Agenda 2014. When I say “all the region’s countries” I include FYROM too, provided a mutually acceptable solution in the name issue is reached.
Greece has tried hard to cover that distance. Besides, Greece is the key advocate for Turkey’s European perspective and this very fact is very important in terms of the two countries coming together and in relation to our own country’s international-political credibility.
Therefore, Greece is very happy for Romania being in the EU and NATO and Greece wants this integration to be full, so it wants accession to Schengen to be part of this integration. Unfortunately however, accession to Schengen alone does not solve the problem of border policing. It alone does not solve the problem of illegal immigration. It alone does not resolve the problem of European borders, which I mentioned before, both in policing and military terms.
Greece is part of Schengen. But it does have a great problem in immigration flows reception. That’s why Greece asks of Turkey to fully accept its agreement with the EU. And that is why Greece, too, realizes that the EU itself must offer assistance to countries that receive very large immigration flows along their borders, along Turkey’s eastern border for example.
I use this example in my reply to Romania’s question because in the Thrace region of Greece, a common, triangular problem of illegal immigrants reception is being faced by Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria which it too is a NATO and EU member-state and a Schengel candidate.
Having been given this opportunity, I would like to remind you that Greece has signed a bilateral agreement for air-policing of Bulgaria. Greece has also formed, along with Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, an international battle group, an international brigade, HELBROC, as part of CSPD.
Therefore, Greece’s position on that is totally amicable and totally positive. On the other side, we cannot be optimistic that a positive development, such as Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession into Schengen would resolve the problem of illegal immigration either from the sea or from our land borders. This is an existing and mutual European problem which we are compelled to face in the most active and smart way.
Question (Israeli delegate): Thank you very much Mr. Minister for your briefing. I would like to ask two questions. Last week two Iranian warships crossed the Suez Canal making their way to Syria. News media in Israel this morning are saying that this is the first stage in building naval base offered by Syria to Iran on the Mediterranean coast. What should be in your opinion the Greek or NATO policy towards the creation of naval base of Iran in the Mediterranean? The second question now. You mentioned the surprise –and I think we are all surprised- about the developments in the Arab world. You also mentioned the need to recognize the ambitions for democratization and participation of the people in the future. But it seems that the world is chasing after these processes without making an effort to see how to deal with the next stage. If we applaud these processes of the people who succeeded in their revolutions, these popular uprisings, should we have the same attitude for other countries that are on the same path or have the same needs? It seems to me that for many years the only relevant problem in the Middle East was the problem between Israel and the Palestinians and now it is time to understand other problems in the area.
E. Venizelos: I would like to start from your second question. My basic line of though is that a democratic country that respects human rights and a society that feels free, that expresses itself, that evolves, are a country and a society that understand their international obligations, that respect International Law, that can contribute to maintaining peace and stability in a region, looking for peaceful solutions and total settlements.
During my speech I wondered whether the changes in the internal politics of many Middle Eastern and North Africans countries will lead to a shift in the regional and international balance of power. Whether we will have an alternate foreign policy and whether we will witness a repositioning of countries and regional powers on the map.
This might take place. We could for example –the most characteristic and strong example- to see changes in Egypt’s foreign policy. That’s a crucial link for many issues. This is the least bit likely to happen but I cannot exclude the possibility altogether. For the time being however, It would be early to proceed to such assessments .
So we must stress the need to enforce democratic solutions by thinking that those democratic solutions will lead to democratically legitimate governments, to transparency and, therefore, to more positive developments at a regional and international level.
This could positively affect the Middle East problem. I do realize Israel’s concern, its strategic problem, its solitude and its security problem which is a day-to-day situation.
We respect that a lot. On the other hand, we must contribute to diffusing crises, to managing crises politically and to giving peoples a chance to express themselves with such an expectation in their minds. But we must no jump to conclusions.
Your first question was about Iran and the country’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Greece’s position regarding those issues is always part of the mainstream [thinking] of the Alliance and the EU. We have had a discussion, a detailed discussion, on the occasion of Turkish sensitivities and reservations, in the framework of missile defense on how to characterize countries such as Iran and Syria. We reached to solutions that were unanimously accepted.
As far as Syria is concerned specifically, I would like to say that Greece is putting a lot of attention to the West’s relations with Syria. Greece has traditionally had a relationship that wishes to cultivate. We have reasons to be disappointed due to an unforeseen diplomatic development that took place a few months ago: an unexpected decision by the Syrian government, vis a vis a topic of special interest for Greece that has saddened us a lot.
We are aware how crucial Turkey’s role is vis a vis Syria, but if you want me to provide you with a formal answer the answer is that Greece, regarding those issues, accepts and participates in the NATO’s and European’s policy mainstream.
Question (Jordanian delegate): In Arabic
E. Venizelos: NATO, as I previously said repeatedly, has formulated a very careful, balanced and wise position during the North Atlantic Council’s meeting. Our basic position -one that has been included in Lisbon’s decisions- that we must respect the principles of the UN Charter, that the operations that NATO is a part of, as well as unilateral national initiatives, must be within the scope of decisions of the UN Security Council and must use those decisions as the basis for their legitimization.
The discussion on Iraq and Afghanistan is a major one. We would like to think that both countries -certainly Iraq has advanced more towards that end- will find their path. We’d like to think that both countries will acquire the sovereignty of their political situation and their fate. In Afghanistan, this is not easily done. Greece participates in this effort with a military presence in Afghanistan, for political reasons, for reasons of political commitment.
Of course Greece did not take part in [the campaign of the war in] Iraq. I don’t think it would be constructive to repeat previously known positions.
I previously said that we must manage this new challenge in the Middle East, in North Africa and the Gulf bearing in mind the lessons of issues management in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. I believe we are wiser now. And I believe, first and foremost, that the US and the EU are wiser.
Question (delegate from Morocco): Thank you Minister. On behalf of the countries in the region…:
E. Venizelos: The answer is that, without doubt, we want for all those processes to continue. We don’t want to see the course of good relations, consultations and cooperation be affected by what’s been taking place. We want to wish peoples and societies to have the best possible development for their own benefit and for the benefit of peace and stability in the wider region. This is Greece’s region too. Our country’s sharing it historically, culturally and politically in the international realm. Hence, through this mutual anxiety for security, stability and peace I believe we will discover a [common] field for discussion and cooperation which will not be halted but, on the contrary, will be accelerated, through those developments, for the better.
Thank you very much
Coordinator: Thank you very much for your participation and your contribution to our seminar. I think it was a very fruitful discussion. Thank you very much
 This could happen. It could, for example -if I may use the most characteristic and strong example- to have some changes in Egypt's foreign policy, something that is a crucial link for many things. I consider this minimally possible but I cannot exclude it. For now, hopever, it would be hasty to make such assessments.