Greek minister: EU needs to ‘deepen’ dialogue with Russia

Xydakis: "I am cautiously optimistic that we will find a solution which will not escalate the tension between the EU and Russia." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

Moderate voices about the future of EU-Russia relations should prevail at a summit this week (20-21 October), Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Nikos Xydakis, told

Xydakis spoke with EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

I would like to begin with the summit this week, which will focus on the future of EU-Russia relations in light of the developments in Syria, the static situation in Ukraine, and the impact of the Russian embargo. What is the position of Athens? What do you expect from the summit?

The situation is diverse. I believe that there will be much debate and I hope that more moderate voices will prevail. These voices indicate that reciprocal sanctions harm both parties, with some EU countries having been hardest hit. I think that these moderate voices within the EU and the Council will eventually be heard, as we need to support a deepening of the dialogue with Russia and make an effort get over this impasse and stagnation.

Europe needs Russia as it is a major energy provider, a big trading partner and Russia also needs Europe for many reasons. Europe is also a major energy client of Moscow, and many EU countries maintain historic, diplomatic, and cultural ties with her.

EU-Russia relations are at a turning point. They are also affected by the aggravation in the Middle East and this discrepancy in the handling of the Syrian and Iraqi crisis between the US and Russia. Sometimes, there are convergences and discrepancies between Moscow and Washington [on Syria], but I think it is vital for the EU and the Council for the moderate voices to prevail. These voices are strong enough and sufficient.

So, you are optimistic about this scenario.

I am cautiously optimistic that we will find a solution which will not escalate the tension between the EU and Russia. There is nothing to gain in the medium and long term from a bad relationship.

After the attempted coup, Ankara has adopted a more “aggressive” rhetoric against Greece which many attribute to domestic consumption. Do you personally see a change of Turkey’s stance?

There is a variation in the attitude of Ankara and can be relatively easily explained by the turmoil in the country after the failed coup and the massive purges of the administration. This purge is unprecedented and has quality characteristics. The structure of the administration is changing, and the structure of armed forces as well, the great pillar of Turkey.

On the other hand, Turkey is experiencing a huge fuss at the southern and eastern borders, which has existed for years and now it seems it’s escalating.

It’s concerned about the existence of Kurdish state entities, either de facto created or emerging ones at the border with Iraq and Syria. Turkey is concerned about how to handle the situation there and this leads to some revisionism trends. This stance can be explained, but it does not mean that Athens is not careful or vigilant and on alert. There is turmoil in the Middle East, which causes a chain reaction.

Alexis Tsipras recently told that the debt issue was not a matter of optimism but an agreement that was signed in July. Recently, the US and the IMF spoke in favor of specific measures for the Greek debt relief, but on the other hand, Berlin insists that there will be no discussion of the issue before the German elections. What do you see? Can the debt issue move on?

Yes, there are some ways with which it will move on.

Before the German elections?

Look, Greece needs some good news which will reflect the real picture as well as show the willingness of EU partners and lenders to say that the Greek economy actually goes on the right track and stabilises.

Greece’s economy has made fundamental progress. However, it should exit the fragility zone and this is a matter of actions and messages.

A message would be to include the Greek bonds in the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing programme, which in absolute numbers may not be something huge, but is a very good message for the markets and investors and the Greek citizens to overcome uncertainty. Because uncertainty hurts the Greek economy, and this what the government is trying to do, to help the country get over it.

Yes, but the German government intensifies this uncertainty.

I think there are ways to find a middle solution and give breath to the Greek economy. Quantitative easing could be in orbit after the second assessment [of the bailout]. As the Greek prime minister said, the second assessment should close quickly, and Greece is ready to close it, we are very close.

We should also start the discussion about the primary surpluses after 2018, which have a direct impact on the budget and fiscal health. They have to be realistic and realisable and help the Greek economy have attainable goals. We have achieved a lot, we tame deficits, we tamed deflation so much that we actually have deflationary trends in Greece and this causes disinvestment.

The monstrous pressure on the budget should stop in order for the economy to grow. The Greek economy is ready to take the growth leap.

I am a bit sceptical, because in November 2012, the then-government had reached primary surpluses, but the debt discussion never took place. I fear that this time Greece will successfully finish the second evaluation of the bailout and won’t get any specific measures designed to tackle the debt. Is there a credibility issue with the EU?

Over the next three or four months, we will see some steps on it and I hope these steps will enable the Greek economy and society to take a breath. We can push, but not blackmail. But the pressure is toward every direction, and it will be part of the prime minister’s meetings. Alexis Tsipras is coming tonight and will meet, in the next days, leaders of the EU member states, as well as the leadership of the EU.

We should have a pragmatic approach of the third program.

Regarding the Cyprus issue, everyone is talking about a visible progress which is practically not seen.

Yes, sometimes in these negotiations developments can happen that cannot be announced. I hope these developments are in the right direction, and hopefully, secure the conditions set by the Greek Cypriot and the Greek side. It seems that the negotiations have progressed more than any time before.

On the issue of guarantees, Athens has said that there should be no guarantors, and hence it is unacceptable to have occupation troops. It is an essential parameter.

The main opposition New Democracy party has launched an attack against the Syriza-led government at all levels.  You are accused of questioning the press freedom and the independence of justice. There are also voices from the business community suggesting that on issues such as the debt talks the Greek parties should have a common position. What is your view?

On some major issues that are very special will determine the developments, there should be a minimum consensus.

On big national issues in the south east Mediterranean with Turkey, the relations with our Balkan neighbors, the refugee crisis, the debt and the future of the bailout program, there should be minimum consensus or creative silent tolerance. The government should also update the opposition on the situation.

If the opposition chooses the confrontational way, which in my opinion contains too many personal attacks with heavy wording, this will not serve the country.

And I can take the risk and predict that when one unilaterally shouts, there is damage on him too. A constant and high-intensity strategy cannot last for too long. It will collapse and have vice-versa effects.

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