Greece's Foreign Minister on Trump, Germany and the Future of Europe
Nikos Kotzias, the foreign minister of Greece since 2015, visited Washington, DC this week to meet with leading Trump administration foreign policy officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster. He emphasizes that he comes from a different political perspective from the Trump administration but that he respects the outcome of the election and hopes to work smoothly with the administration. His remarks about Germany, Turkey, Russia, the refugee crisis and the conflict in Syria are also noteworthy for their clear stands. With the European Union at a crossroads about its future, Kotzias’s remarks about the need for a clear plan of action are particularly timely.
He took time out from his schedule to arrange an interview at the Greek embassy in Washington, DC with National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn. Kotzias made it clear at the outset that he is an ardent admirer of the National Interest, which he has read for several decades. In particular he singled out its essays focusing on the future of the West, which began appearing in the 1990s.
Jacob Heilbrunn: Does the West have a future?
Nikolaos Kotzias: The West can have a positive future only if we use our capacities in a smart way. Second, it must work hard enough to form new identities, and third, it has to find the best possible solution and implement it. If the West does not work on a new program or any alternative scenarios and does not have the ability to implement the scenario we choose, then there is no future. I think that there is a future for the West only under these three conditions.
JH: The refugee crisis has hit Greece very hard.
NK: Yes Greece was hit very hard. And the refugees were hit hard too.
After January of 2015, I had warned that we would have substantial problems with the refugees and economic migration because the UN and the EU were reducing the money earmarked for the camps in Southern Lebanon. And nobody was listening to me. The European press was carrying out a campaign against me. I was describing a problem and they closed their eyes, chose not to recognize it, and they blamed the messenger instead of focusing on the real problem.
JH: Do you think that Chancellor Merkel exacerbated the problem? Made it worse?
NK: I think Angela Merkel was at the time focusing more on the financial crisis in Europe and the Ukraine problem and failed to see the refugee problem.
JH: What is happening in Europe with the rise of these anti-immigrant movements? What is your assessment?
NK: The anti-European or the anti-Euro movements have existed before the anti-immigrant movements. For example, the AFD in Germany did not start with a campaign against refugees; but with a campaign against the European Union and the euro. In France, the anti-immigrant movement did not begin with the refugees; they do not have so many refugees.
In the EU, we have a deficit of leadership. There is not enough democratic discussion on what type of Europe we want for the twenty-first century. The EU has some useful tools, but not all of them are useful for the future. There are many young people going to school and hearing that the EU can sanction nations, then they hear it can impose an embargo on nations, then they hear that Greece is facing austerity. When you see the whole picture, the EU is not so attractive, if only reduced to these instruments. This is why we need to discuss the vision of the EU, to focus on our values and democracy. The populist movements are on the rise because this discussion never took place.
The second issue pertains to the multiple crises in the union: Brexit, eurozone crisis, refugee problems. I believe that there are individual crises, but they all stem from a leadership crisis in the EU. If we tried to create a system based on rules and European values, things would be much better.
Third, the European leadership needs to realize that there are losers in the globalization process. The political forces need to focus more on the problems of the workers, on the concerns of the middle class. The members of the middle class are scared they will lose their jobs and need reassurance and answers. The problem is that politicians are not answering the people’s questions. The longer we delay the answers to the people, the more they will turn to populists or far right groups. We also underestimated the future. We thought the U.S. would decline and that the twenty-first century would be a European century. America is not in decline. Southeast Asia is also rising. Europe is not as important as the Europeans thought it would be, and its leadership is not happy. There is also too much bureaucracy and not enough investment in people, in the Second Machine Age and in the future.
JH: Another problem you have is relations with Russia. What is your stance on the future of sanctions toward Russia?
NK: We are taking a decision on sanctions, but that is the easy game. The hard game is to take one essential decision: Does Russia belong in the European security architecture, or is the European security architecture shaped against Russia? Also, is Russia like the Soviet Union? If not, then we need to look at the Helsinki Treaty and rethink things over. We need to look in the long term about how to engage with Russia and ask them to decide if they want to be part of the European security architecture. If so, they need to respect the rule of law. I hope America will ask Russia this as well, but at the end of the day, Russians need to answer that question. My view is that there can be compromise if there is discussion.