The left hand of Greek diplomacy

Exclusive interview: Mass immigration has given Europe an identity crisis and left the European Union seeking answers to questions that aren’t even being posed, Greek Foreign Minister Nikolaos Kotzias tells Global Sources Magazine special correspondent Markus Bernath. Although Greece’s economy remains in dire straits, Kotzias is trying to inject some energy into its foreign policy and counter Europe’s drift back to nationalism.

 IN a cabinet of disenchanted leftists pressured by lenders, Greek Foreign Minister Nikolaos Kotzias looks like the steady left hand on the tiller. “Foreign politics used to be pretty much at the rear of the left’s preoccupations. Now it’s the most popular,” Kotzias cheerfully commented in an interview for Global Sources Magazine at his office in Athens.

The 65-year old professor, once a central committee member of the Greek communist party KKE, had just repaired relations Austria after a row over the refugee crisis had dragged on for months. In February, Kotzias actually recalled the Greek ambassador in Vienna, a highly unusual action in EU member states, but characteristic of the minister’s pugnacious attitude.

“The former governments adapted themselves to – or went along with – our country’s unflattering name and weak position in the international system,” says Kotzias, who himself styles his leftist foreign policy as “energetic and multidimensional.” When Austria teamed up with the Balkan states and closed its borders to refugees flowing out from Greece, Kotzias denounced it as displaying “mentalities and extra-institutional initiatives with their roots in the 19th century.”

Migrant crisis: the equivalent of 'cultural war'. [Getty Images]
Europe’s migrant crisis: The equivalent of a ‘cultural war’. [Getty Images]
Around 56,000 refugees remain stuck in Greece and 8,350 migrants stranded on the islands are subject to the EU-Turkish agreement on forced return. The political climate within the EU may have become less tense since the deal was struck with Turkey, but the Greek foreign minister remains very concerned. He says the refugee crisis has “renationalised” Europe and that unilateral actions by member states like Austria and its central and east European neighbours  mean “fragmentation” of the union.

The resurgence of nationalist and chauvinist voices hurt “an old leftist like me”, Kotzias said. He was himself involved in negotiating a number of European treaties and enlargement procedures during the 1990s early 2000s. He had joined the foreign ministry after he quit the KKE in 1989 and he left the diplomatic service in 2008 as an ambassador.

Now, Kotzias is certain the EU is struck in its identity crisis. “This  deepened with the financial crisis and got even deeper with the refugee crisis,” he said.  The arrival of  a million mostly Muslim asylum seekers amounts to a “cultural war”, he believes, with Europe unable to answer fundamental questions – What is Europe about? Who is a European? On refugees, do we give them shelter, integrate them, lock them out?

Kotzias: No debate about the idea of Europe. [Kathimerini]
Kotzias: No debate about the idea of Europe. [Kathimerini]
In the absence of a collective European Union answer for these questions, unilateral national policies evolved with the refugee crisis, said Kotzias, a foreign minister drawing on his analytical skills as professor of political theory and international relations at Athens’ Pireaus University. Ever since the enlargement of the EU by eastern European countries and the two island states of Malta and Cyprus in 2004, there has been no new debate on the principles of the EU, he said. Nether is he at all happy with the way weekly meetings of the EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg or Brussels are conducted.

“No debate about the idea of Europe,” he complains. “I only took part in discussions about writing bailout programs, organizing sanctions, building up embargoes. About the use of negative – often necessary, but nevertheless negative – diplomacy. This is not the way to build the future.”

Kotzias  rejected suggestions that he has been too soft on Russia and its intervention in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. Comments he made about sanctions against Russia had been distorted by European media in the first weeks of his tenure in February 2015, he said. Be that as it may, President Vladimir Putin is still due to visit Athens on May 28, his first trip to an EU state since he grabbed Crimea from Ukraine.

Russia's Putin will visit Athens in late May.
Russia’s Putin will visit Athens in late May.

Greek relations with Turkey also have a hint of ambivalence. Kotzias has been meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Cavusoglu on a fast track – seven times in the past three months. He said the EU refugee deal with Turkey has been key in containing the refugee crisis, but only a peace solution in Syria and Libya could end the flow of migrants. However, unknown factors still lurk in the Turkish equation.

“Turkey is a big, very important country and we maintain very good relations with it,” Kotzias said. “But this country is a bit nervous. And when a big country is nervous, you have to be careful about how to deal with it.”

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