Dimitris Kourkoulas joined the European Commission in 1981. He has worked on EEC-Cypriot and EEC-Turkish relations, and has served as Head of the European Commission Representations in Lebanon, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2010 he returned to Brussels as the Director responsible for the EU’s enlargement strategy.
He spoke to EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
You have a long career with the European Commission and were recently appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece, obviously in view of the forthcoming Greek EU Presidency in the first half of 2014. What can you tell us about the Greek Presidency at this early stage?
We are indeed already preparing ourselves for the Greek EU Presidency. At that time Greece will be much closer to the exit of the crisis than today. We believe that the decisions that were taken last December about the Greek debt have put our country on the right track for exiting the crisis.
Of course, we are very much aware that the next months and years will be very difficult for our population. But we already see the fruits of the efforts and the sacrifices, we see that we are going to have a primary surplus in our budget very soon this year, after many years. We are going to have still recession this year, minus 4 to minus 5%, but we hope that 2014 will be the year of positive growth, after six years of consecutive recession. Our exports are going quite well. We have re-gained almost all the competitiveness we had lost in the last years, in terms of how competitive is our economy.
But of course the big problem is unemployment, which has become really explosive and will not disappear in one day. The privatisation program is going according to the plan. We think this will also boost growth, because it will attract new investments. And more in general, the structural reform program is starting giving positive results.
We know that as Council Presidency we have to speak on behalf of the whole of the European Union and not on behalf of Greece, but we believe that this problem of growth and economic governance, and how to make the euro more able to resist in such deep crisis, will still be top of the agenda. This will also be the semester of the European parliament elections and the appointment of new political leaders in the European institutions.
Also apart from the legislative program that has been agreed [with the Presidency trio], Ireland Lithuania and Greece, we will put more emphasis to the political request of citizens of Europe for measures to promote growth and job creation, especially for the young people.
You mentioned the privatisation program. One big problem seems to be the privatization of the Greek gas companies DEPA and DESFA, which apparently Russia is trying to acquire…
This is not a problem. This is an ongoing procedure. We expect the procedure to be finalized by April-May I think. This is a very important piece of privatisation. And it is a transparent procedure. Regarding the bidders, they are competing on a level playing field and whoever makes the best offer and will get it.
Does Greece experience pressure from Washington - and other capitals - not to sell to Russia?
It is normal that any country is trying to promote its own interest. This is normal in the competitive globalised economy. But this will not be a political decision; it will be an economic decision. But apart from this very important privatisation deal, there are other pieces which include tourist investments, meaning real estate for tourist development, etc. We are expecting this year, if everything goes according to the first signals, is that we are going to have a record year of tourism, which remains a very dynamic sector.
On energy, I would like to mention that we expect this summer the decision of the [Shah Deniz] consortium in Azerbaijan about the gas pipeline, either TAP or Nabucco-West.
Your preference is obviously TAP, the Trans-Adriatic pieline, it’s major route is across Greece…
It’s Greece, Albania and Italy. And we are continuing our exploration activities in different parts of our sea…
Is it true that Greece is sitting on huge gas reserves?
It is too early to say if it is true or not, but the first signs are rather encouraging. However it is too early to quantify. But this is something which could give tangible results later. Now the big challenge for the society, for the economy, is how to stop this galloping unemployment and how to return to growth rates after six years of consecutive recession.
Coming back to the Presidency priorities, there is a fine line between changes introduced to improve the EMU and the need of treaty change. How do you plan to deal with that?
As far as the Presidency is concerned, we believe that at that moment some of the decision concerning might have been already taken, for example on the banking union, but on other parts of the whole package that is needed, perhaps after the European elections, we might need a revision of the treaties. But the debate on this and on the democratic legitimisation I’m sure will take place also during our presidency.
Can you elaborate how do you see this debate on treaty change?
I think the refection has already started, but it will continue to intensify as we approach the European elections. And I’m sure that European political parties and national parties will present some kind of platforms. But the real procedure I think will start after the elections. But in the meantime it will be very important to see what the orientation of the different political groups, of the different countries is. Amending the treaties is not an easy decision, as we have seen during previous experiences. But if you want to move ahead with economic governance, and make the euro solid, then some changes in my view cannot bypass the amendment of the treaty. Because there is a very important aspect: the democratic legitimacy of such decisions.
It will be a political presidency?
It will be, yes, a political presidency. We already had four presidencies in the past, quite successful. We take it very seriously and we want to organise it both politically and in terms of logistics in the best possible way. We will not be spending a lot of money, as we are in an austerity period. In the area of foreign policy and external relations this will also be the period where issues such as trade agreements with big economic partners, like the United States, will be on the agenda. And of course the process of enlargement will continue.
How big this priority will be for Greece?
It depends on the progress of the countries. We have always been positive about enlargement, especially the enlargement with the Western Balkans.
We remember the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, followed by the Western Balkans Summit, which was a milestone in the enlargement process by giving the accession perspective to those countries. Do you foresee another such milestone?
The decisions have been taken on the EU part and I think the Greek Presidency at that time has contributed in a very positive way to this important decision. Now we are more in a routine mood, we know what each country has to do in order to advance in its European perspective, and we are going to support this. But there is nothing revolutionary one can do.
You have been the EU ambassador to Bulgaria in its most important pre-accession years. You are probably the best placed to say if the decision to take on board Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 was wise?
I still think it was a successful policy, because it stabilised Central and Eastern Europe. Enlargement was not only about Bulgaria and Romania, it was also, in 2004, for the Central and Eastern European countries. It helped to overcome the artificial divisions of the Cold War. Of course, the transition can never be very smooth. But I think that not only for Greece, but for the European Union, this was a successful policy. And nobody can say that the crisis that the European Union is facing today is provoked by enlargement.
It’s obvious if one goes to the border regions between Greece and Bulgaria, on both sides, how much those areas have developed...
There is no comparison. And also the opening of new border crossing points. Of course, there are also some negative aspects. For example my compatriots are sometimes complaining that many Greek companies have moved to Bulgaria. But on the other side Greek exports have boomed and now Bulgaria is an important market for us. Greek investments have also flourished. There is never a black or white picture. I think that politically and geopolitically enlargement has been very positive. And nations such as Greece and Bulgaria are on a very stable track, which is history wasn’t the case.
Are there any important issue we didn’t touch upon?
Illegal immigration is an important issue not only for Greece, but for the whole of Europe. We believe there is still more room for European action and more solidarity. This is not a problem one country can face alone. We are going to promote initiatives that go into the direction of more European solidarity and more European policies in facing the problem of illegal immigration