Maximos Mansion, 14 May 2010
Greek Prime Minister George A. Papandreou Interview on "CNN ΤÜRK" with Mehmet Ali Birand
Mehmet Ali Birand: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much. I know you are busy, but you spared your time for us. It’s so wonderful. Now, could you tell us: What is the significance of this visit? I mean, is it a routine visit? Is it a turning point? How can you label it? How can you describe it for us?
George A. Papandreou: First of all, let me thank you, Mr. Ali Birand, my friend, Ali. We have had many interviews together, and I am very glad to see you and be able to, through you, communicate to the Turkish people and send a message of friendship again. And, of course, as you know, over the years I have worked very hard, as foreign minister but also in opposition in Greece, to strengthen our relations and move forward, something which I think can be very productive between Greece and Turkey.
So it has been ten years since I first became foreign minister, and we basically had this change in our relations and our policy, with, first of all, Turkey becoming a candidate for the European Union but also through diplomacy, which actually began before the earthquakes. Then the earthquakes became part of this earthquake diplomacy while there was moreover a policy with Ismail Cem to work on issues which were non-controversial but mutually acceptable and mutually beneficial for our two countries.
So today, ten years down the line, I think what is important – and this is what I suggested to Prime Minister Erdogan when I invited him –is to take stock. Let us evaluate, I said. How far have we come in ten years?
And we must be very open and honest about what we have achieved as indeed we have achieved many positive things. Yet, there are also things where we are behind and which we need to move forward on, to solve and deal with, so that we can really strengthen and put strong foundations in a new relationship.
So yes, I would hope that this becomes a cornerstone, this visit by Prime Minister Erdogan, for a procedure which will bring us to a very different relationship, certainly based on the experience we had over the last ten years as well as courage to move forward.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Now, there was some criticism for you inviting a Turkish prime minister. And there was some criticism in Turkey as well, saying ‘why would you go there?’ But do you consider this a kind of a friendly gesture on the Turkish side, to come with ten ministers? I haven’t seen that before.
George A. Papandreou: It is certainly a gesture of good will on behalf of the Turkish Prime Minister and the Turkish government. And the fact that so many ministers are coming along is a gesture which we appreciate. We are thus reciprocating by having close contacts and there will be bilateral meetings in each different sector. It’s not just about the economy; it’s not just foreign affairs. There will be other areas, such as environment, agriculture, communications, transportation, and energy, these meetings will regard; there are many areas which are very important and where we can cooperate.
So I think this shows the will of both sides to move forward in a more dynamic manner.
And I would also add that this is very important at a time when a globalising economy means we should work together in dealing with issues such as growth, economic cooperation and in solving issues such as, for example, environmental questions. The Mediterranean is very vital to us all, so I think this is also an area where we can work together.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Exactly. That’s what I was going to ask about. What are you expecting, clearly, concretely, from this visit? Is there any concrete outcome that you are expecting?
George A. Papandreou: There will be concrete outcomes. There will be, I believe, agreements in a number of areas where it will become apparent we have moved forward.
And we are looking into four general chapters of cooperation.
One is our bilateral relations, including difficult issues which we often have to deal with;
Second, the issue of regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Middle East and other areas, such as the Black Sea, for example;
Third: cooperation within the context of the European Union, as Turkey is a candidate and Greece is a member. We have established close cooperation and we realise this is an important process also which will help our bilateral relations in many ways;
Finally, we will be looking at some of the global issues, such as the issue of the environment, where, again, Greece and Turkey can cooperate.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Now, about major things, i.e. the Aegean. Are we going to stop the overflights, dogfights, tension on the Aegean? I mean are we going to have a concrete result and stop this fight over the Aegean skies?
George A. Papandreou: We would like to have – and this has always been our goal –peaceful relations based on international law and respect for each other’s rights, territorial integrity, as well as to deal with issues, such as, for example, the issue which we do recognise as an issue, that is the question of the delimitation of the continental shelf.
Again, if this is an issue, we can go to the Hague. This is our proposal.
We have only recently given a new start to the so-called ‘exploratory talks’ between Greece and Turkey. And I believe there is the will to move forward and hopefully we will reach a final settlement.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Are you progressing on that, or is it at zero?
George A. Papandreou: There has been a first meeting, a recent meeting, and it was held in a positive spirit from both sides. I would like to think that this procedure, which we launched many years ago and which had in some ways stalled, can reach a settlement on the issue of the continental shelf and, in that way, deal with this tension that we have had in the Aegean.
Let me add that, for example, when I go to the islands of the Aegean, which I visit very often, particularly the ones that are very close to Turkey, I often talk to the islanders about their relations with Turkey and the Turks. They very much want not only peace and quiet and respect, but they also say that they are mainly concerned about bringing more Turks to the islands, bringing more tourists to the islands and having possibly a new visa regime which would make it easier for people to come on day trips.
This is one area which I will discuss with Prime Minister Erdogan. I will take the initiative, within the European Union, although there is the Schengen area and I am aware of certain difficulties, to try to convince my EU counterparts about the need to open up for more tourist cooperation and therefore simplify procedures, making them less bureaucratic, so that people can make day trips. This concerns both the Turks that are vacationing in the Aegean on the Turkish side, but also the non-Turks visiting from other countries. This offers scope for a very close economic cooperation which will benefit both sides.
And that’s why I think we need to look to where our interests are, where the future is, rather than look at the past problems. We must go beyond that point.
Mehmet Ali Birand: So can we say that you will be trying to have a free visa on daily trips on the islands for the coming summer period? That’s one of the prospectively concrete outcomes.
George A. Papandreou: That’s right. That is one. I will try to get it done within the European Union. May I remind you, and maybe you do remember, that we did, on a pilot basis, try this one summer.
Then of course there was a change in government. In any case, and for that reason, it was discontinued.
What we will have to show the EU is that we intend to make sure it is tourists that are coming and we don’t have simply illegal migration into the European region. And therefore we have to be able to get the necessary guarantees in place, in cooperation with the tourist operators, so that they guarantee for their part and we guarantee as a country, that there will be tourists coming in and not illegal migrants.
If we can do that, I think we can convince the European Union to open up, to make the procedure more specific but also much more simple, and possibly have a visa waiver for day trips.
I think this will be very positive, both for Turkish tourism and the Greek tourist industry, as well as for our bilateral relations.
Mehmet Ali Birand: It’s quite simple. I have a boat, and I want to go and eat on the islands, but I can’t. I have money; I want to spend that.
You are putting it in terms of daily trips or two-day trips, but it must be organised so that the European Union will not…
George A. Papandreou: The basic thing is to organise the scheme well, so that it is carefully controlled. I would suggest we begin with day trips and see how this goes. But we must convince the rest of the Schengen area.
Mehmet Ali Birand: When you come to the issue of flights over the Aegean, are you going to have a decision or possibly reach an agreement so that Turkey might give a programme of the flights? I mean is there anything concrete that we should expect from this visit?
George A. Papandreou: Well, I don’t want to raise expectations. Certainly these are issues we do discuss, and over the years we have had exchanges on this issue.
I think that there are simple solutions as long as we respect international law, and we can actually go about this in a way which would lower tensions and create a much better ambiance between our two countries.
Now, there are other big issues: Cyprus…
Mehmet Ali Birand: I will come to that. But now here…
George A. Papandreou: But I certainly believe that, as far as the tension over the Aegean and the issue of the continental shelf are concerned, these are issues we should be able to deal with like good neighbours, in a spirit of good neighbourly relations.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Very interesting. I mean the Den Haag formula was discussed. But now I feel that you are ready to go, along with Turkey, to the Hague for that.
George A. Papandreou: Yes, this has always been my position. It has been the position of successive governments I have been involved in over the years, starting with my father’s…
Mehmet Ali Birand: So if the Turks would agree, you are ready to go to…
George A. Papandreou: Yes, absolutely, and this is something which will be raised in the exploratory talks.
Mehmet Ali Birand: And do you believe that these overflights over the Aegean should be stopped or should be put into a lesser framework?
George A. Papandreou: Absolutely. I think the very simple and fundamental thing to do is to respect the fact that we have the international FIR rules, that is rules the ICAO has set about where the flight zones are. And if we respect these, a major part of the problem will be solved.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Are you going to ask the Turkish side to do that?
George A. Papandreou: Well, we have been doing so over the years, and I think this of course has to be a question of political will on the Turkish side. I would hope, though again, I don’t want to raise expectations too high, that we will have results on Friday or maybe today or tomorrow, but that we will also hopefully be able to create those conditions that would allow us to see this from a different perspective and see the mutual benefit of moving forward.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Can we expect something? That, maybe, at least talks should start between Turkey and Greece to reduce defence budgets and defence expenditures?
George A. Papandreou: Well, this is now another issue which I think is very important. I talked about the so-called peace dividend many years ago. And as a matter of fact, when I did become leader of PASOK in 2004 I gave my first speech, my first major speech, up north in Alexandroupolis, a city close to the borders with Turkey, where I said that “If I get elected in government, I will move forward with a view to the peace dividend.”
This is the goal now. This is, if you like, the destination that we should have in mind as regards our relations and a peaceful cooperation.
It means, however, that we do also have the will to put a framework in place and deal with those issues that have dogged us over so many years and led to such tensions.
So I do think that, yes, this is where we need to head to. But we also need to make the necessary steps so that people feel secure indeed.
Moreover, I think one of the positive things that has happened over the last ten years, and which I had discussed with the late Ismail Cem who became a good friend of mine, was also the fact that we broke away from some of the old myths, we did away with some of the fears that stood between the two countries and we started to realise what is positive about our cooperation.
I have, time and again, stressed the fact that there is fear. In Greece there is a sense of fear. We have our means of defence, of course, but with thousands of islands on our side and a large army on the other side, many people in the islands say ‘Well, what happens if, just like we had the invasion in Cyprus, we see an invasion on an island, a Greek island, a small Greek island?’
And that’s why we feel we need to have strong defences.
Do you know what Ismail Cem told me? He said, well, you are fearful, but when I talk to the Turkish armed forces they are fearful too because they say Turkey is encircled by an Orthodox arrow, if you like, ranging from Armenia all the way to Greece and then down to Cyprus.
Well, this I think a myth which we have to get past and beyond. We can move on without this. We have to insist on the fact that we have so much in common and strengthen this feeling, for the sake of today and the future, and that it is therefore much more beneficial to work together and move beyond such fears.
In addition, the economic benefit of being able to invest in our schools, hospitals and social welfare instead would be very great.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Now, you have seen the Turkish prime ministers’ gallery, all of them, from Demirel to Ecevit, from Tansu Çiller to Özal. You got to work with them, in your capacity as prime minister as well as foreign minister. What’s the difference? Where do you place Erdogan amongst them now, for instance? Why do you think that Erdogan can deliver and why couldn’t the rest deliver? And how do you expect Erdogan to deliver?
George A. Papandreou: Well, I witnessed firsthand, of course, the efforts that my father made. As you know, it was a period of very strong tension between Turkey and Greece over the issue, yet again, of the continental shelf and research being done at the seabed of the Aegean.
However, at the same time, or rather a little while later, just months later, the two sides were able to launch a very important process. Unluckily, there were political reasons, both in Greece and in Turkey, so that this close cooperation and personal relationship was discontinued.
What I see with Prime Minister Erdogan is a genuine desire to move forward and not to carry, as I said earlier, much of the mythology of the past about what Greek-Turkish relations supposedly are. We are now looking more at what they could be and what they should be for the benefit of our two peoples and respective countries.
So I think that these genuine efforts are very much important.
I would add to that that I have noticed also that (Prime Minister Erdogan) he has been courageous in many foreign policy issues. That courage is what is needed in politics, from both sides, so as to be able to say ‘let’s move forward’.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Since we are talking about Turkish politics, next time you go to Turkey, you might not be able to see your old friend Deniz Baykal. What was your reaction when you heard what is happening in Turkey?
George A. Papandreou: Well, obviously it is not for me to get involved in the internal affairs of Turkish politics. Deniz Baykal has been a very well-respected politician and a strong voice in Turkish politics. I had the opportunity to work with him over the years, not only as foreign minister but also, more recently, as president of the Socialist International when we had quite a bit of contact. We therefore always had a rapport; we discussed Greek-Turkish relations, Turkey’s relation with the European Union, and of course have talks within the context of a wider progressive movement.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Well, do you believe that his leaving the scene will affect the social democratic movement. How do you see his demise?
George A. Papandreou: Well, I don’t want to make a personal judgement. I think that we, as a family of social democrats around the world, are looking for alternative solutions to a very major crisis that the world has faced. And I would not just call it a simple crisis, but an economic crisis where we saw the Wall Street crash and the ‘god’ that used to be the market, which used to solve everything, turn out to no longer be a god, which also revealed that the fact we had turned the market into a power was wrong. Perhaps we did make a god out of the market and that was certainly wrong.
We have to see to it, so that the markets work for the people, just like states and governments should work for the people. This is my firm belief.
At the same time we are also looking at a need, the need for global governance now. We are looking at the fact that even the crisis we had here in Greece is not simply a Greek crisis. Markets reacted with great fear, and sometimes speculation, when dealing with Greece. Even though at the time we had taken measures, we were faced with a reaction which was irrational, an irrational fear, alongside speculation about the Greek case.
So this is where we need regulation, where we need more transparency. I would add we need to look at governance in other areas, too, such as the environment and global warming.
These are major issues where I think our movement, the progressive movement, the social democratic movement has much to say. We have been saying this for many years as we cannot simply expect other ‘forces’ to solve everything. We as politicians, we as people involved in politics, must democratically assume our share of responsibility about where the globe is heading.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Well, an interview with the Greek Prime Minister cannot be complete without touching on Cyprus. Is Greece going to be much more involved in Cyprus finding a solution, like through the quadripartite conference, or are you going to leave it up to the communities to solve the problem?
George A. Papandreou: Well, first of all the idea of the four-partite conference has been discussed many times, and I have talked with Prime Minister Erdogan about this. We have always had a very clear problem there. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus. The so-called Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognised by the rest of the world and therefore we get into this issue of status.
That is why this makes it quite difficult, but it does not mean that it cannot be helped.
But I want to be very clear at this point. Our experience, the Greek experience in Cyprus, indicates we need to leave Cyprus to its own means.
We paid for this in a very dear way. We made a very fatal, I would say, mistake in 1974, when a Greek junta then – it was a dictatorship, of course; that was not the will of the Greek people – tried to overthrow Makarios. This was something which was very negative for the relationship, first of all between Greeks and Greek Cypriots, let alone for Turkish Cypriots.
Then of course there was also the invasion of the Turkish army on the other side.
We have made a decision, and this is an absolute decision. We must respect the will of the Cypriot people.
I think that if this is the decision on the Turkish side, if we let the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots decide on their own what they want, we can find, within the confines of Europe how they can have security and their rights respected, regardless of whether they are Greek Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot.
And we do not need armies. We do not need invasions. We do not need coups. We need respect. And I think this is the main message I would bring.
Let us see Cyprus as a model, as it could be a model, of cooperation between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, as well as between our two cultures.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Last, the Greek crisis made, I think, Turkey’s approach to the European Union a little bit more difficult. Now people are saying ‘hey, we have enough problems. Another enlargement? No. Turkey, for God’s sake? No, it’s too big,’ and all that. Do you believe that Turkey will be much more in difficulty in the coming years? Because you were there at the beginning and now times have changed. Do you see this get more difficult?
George A. Papandreou: Well, first of all I have been, I still am, and I will always be a strong proponent of the possibility of Turkey becoming a full EU member for many reasons.
I believe this could be positive not only for Greek-Turkish relations but also for Europe and for Turkey.
Whatever, however, the outcome may be, Turkey is and must be, I think, a very close EU partner, as you want it to be and as it is even now.
As the world changes, as Europe is changing also, the fact that Europe took some time to react to the crisis that we had in Greece, to react to the markets, was logical because Europe is a confident system. But at the same time, it made quite a quick decision for what we have by European standards.
Mehmet Ali Birand: So, seeing what happens and in your experience, don’t you think that it could be more effective for Turkey to play a mediator in foreign policy and economics and stay a little bit outside of the confines of EU bureaucracy? What do you say, after seeing all that?
George A. Papandreou: Well, first of all, I have always been in favour of the prospect of Turkey becoming a member fulfilling the relevant prerequisites, of course.
Yet, I would suggest that the prerequisites are not against Turkey; I would say they are in favour of very positive developments for Turkey. To me, for example, not having an occupation in Cyprus, not having problems with respect to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey, these are things which in fact would elevate Turkey’s status in the world and not diminish it. Furthermore, this would also create a much better atmosphere here.
But it is not only the issues which are close, let’s say, to our concerns. I think that Europe is a changing animal, a changing institution. Even though it may have been somewhat slow to react to the crisis at hand, in the end it did react, in a very strong way, to the markets, by putting on the table a huge amount, a 750-billion package, with both the IMF and of course the European Central Bank intervening in the markets.
That shows the strength that Europe has; it shows what we can achieve by working together, and that is very important.
I thus think that both given the current partnership that Turkey is developing with Europe, but also its becoming a member in the future, are positive paths for Turkey to pursue.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Who do you feel is more responsible for this crisis? Is it the politicians, the public opinion, the international community, speculators? Who is it?
George A. Papandreou: I think there are two aspects at play here. One is of course the fact that we have to put our own home in order.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Is it going to be easy? Because the Greek public, they are not used to it. We are.
George A. Papandreou: We have gone through similar crises and we know what they are like. I think that today the Greek people are determined that Greece come out of this crisis and that it be a stronger country.
In fact, I think this crisis is seen, not only by me but by the Greek people, as an opportunity to proceed with the necessary changes we failed to make in the past, not only in our economy but also in our political system, so that we at long last deal with issues, such as clientelistic politics (‘rousfeti’ which you know is a word you and we have in common and which means graft). These are issues which we are determined to change, and once changed they will also make our economy competitive, a strong economy again.
But what happened was a crisis, a world crisis, which generated great fear in the markets and moreover allowed for speculation, which was the other aspect we had very little control over. So, we had a combination of factors.
We then took measures, but given the climate that was it seemed basically like a stampede of animals, as there was fear when they saw what was happening. And then, when we calmed people down with the measures we took, while there were speculators making noises on the edges, so to make them afraid again and start a new stampede.
So this is where the European Union did come in and said, “Stop. We want to give Greece peace to make the changes.” And for our part, we are determined; we will make the changes in Greece.
Mehmet Ali Birand: You are sure of that?
George A. Papandreou: We are surely determined. We are determined. And the Greek people are determined.
Mehmet Ali Birand: Inshallah, Mr. Prime Minister. You are going to succeed, I am sure. And thank you for the interview.
George A. Papandreou: Thank you very much. Thank you for again interviewing me, and I very much cherish this longstanding personal relationship.