Europe

Nikos Dendias and Péter Szijjártó break down the EU’s pending issues

EU foreign Affairs Ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss some of the most pressing issues the bloc is facing right now. Top of the agenda was potential sanctions on Russia for its detention of opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. Other hot topics included efforts to de-escalate tensions with Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean, COVID-19 vaccines and new trans-Atlantic relations in light of the newly elected Biden administration. Euronews reporters, Sandor Zsiros and Efi Koutsokosta, took the Global Conversation to Hungarian Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, and Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, to get their insight on these pressing issues.

Possible EU sanctions on Russia

Despite the calls from some EU member states, including the Baltic states and Poland, EU Foreign Ministers decided to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Russian officials over the detention of Alexei Navalny. Do you agree with this approach? How should Europe treat Russia at this stage?

Nikos Dendias, The Foreign Minister of Greece:

“Well, we have agreed with the position of the huge majority of member states as expressed by Josep Borrell, that is that we should give a chance to Russia to reconsider. And after 30 days, we”re going to discuss the issue again. That’s where we are.

Péter Szijjártó, y**ou were in Moscow last Friday, did you demand the release of Alexei Navalny?**

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

“We had very important bilateral issues on the agenda. I had to negotiate about purchasing vaccines from Russia, since our national regulator has approved the emergency use authorisation for the vaccine produced by the Russians. On the other hand, I had to secure the gas supply for the country for the future, given the fact that our long-term gas purchase agreement is going to expire during Autumn. So we had very important bilateral issues on the agenda and my negotiations were only about bilateral issues”.

Many people in Brussels say that Germany should simply stop the so-called Nord Stream Two projects because of the issue with Alexei Navalny. Do you think this is a realistic scenario?

“Well, I think we should leave this issue to Germany to discuss and decide. What I know for sure is that diversification, when it comes to Europe’s gas supply, be it diversification of routes or diversification of sources, is important. Gas still plays a very important role in the energy supply of the entire continent.”

New Trans-Atlantic relations

Joe Biden taking office signals a new era in Hungarian-American relations. Hungary was one of the few countries that openly supported former US President, Donald Trump. Prime Minister Orbán has said that he has no Plan B. Does the Hungarian government now have one?

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

“It’s absolutely not an exaggeration to say that between 2016 and 2020, we had the best ever political relationship between the two countries, and that was mostly due to the very good personal relationship between the former president of the United States and the Prime Minister of Hungary. What we hope now for is that the standards of this political relationship will remain as high as it used to be in the recent four years.”

You personally criticised Joe Biden and his son. You called for the clarification of alleged corruption issues in Ukraine. Do you regret this?

“I think when you quote things, you have to be punctual because what happened was the following: I didn’t criticise anybody because it’s not my job to discuss the quality of the candidates for the presidency of any other country. Now, President Biden criticised Hungary and was calling Hungary an autocratic country, which I think shows a kind of lack of respect and a lack of trust towards a country. This happened in the election campaign, so it might be explained by the fact that in election campaigns, things are being said, which are not said afterwards. But obviously, we have called for more respect towards Hungary in this regard. We are pretty sure that if the new President would like to deal with Central Europe, then we are ready to cooperate with him.”

We’ve heard repeatedly from many officials and EU leaders that they want to coordinate foreign policy with the new US administration. What does this mean for you?

Nikos Dendias, The Foreign Minister of Greece:

“Well, let us be frank. It is very important that the European Union, the United States are on the same page. After all, we believe in the same rules and the same principles. So it is very important that we come closer together and whatever differences exist, we try to resolve those problems and move forward together. There’s a deep understanding between the United States and the European Union. And I have to say, this is something on which we can build upon”.

_There has been a change in the United States’ administration. The Turkish President, _**Recep Tayyip**Erdogan, has just lost a very good friend in the White House. Do you think the new administration will be more favourable to Greece?

“Well, we’re not looking for favours from the new American administration. And speaking about the friendship between President Trump and President Erdogan, I have to say that Greece has no problems at all with Secretary Pompeo, right the opposite. So Secretary Pompeo had a huge understanding of the problems, the region and whatever he has tried to do, I think was received very positively from the Greek side. And the new Biden administration consists of people that have deep knowledge of the Balkans, a deep knowledge of southeastern Europe, and they know what is the situation on the ground. So we are looking very much forward to working with them, not because, again, I’m repeating myself, we are expecting favours from them, but because working with people that know the region, know the area would be extremely helpful in resolving the existing differences”.

COVID-19 vaccination rollout

Péter Szijjártó, you are in charge of purchasing COVID-19 vaccines from outside of the EU for the Hungarian government. You have criticised Brussels’ common vaccine strategy very harshly. This is not a secret. But would Hungary be better off without the common vaccines strategy and to compete with Germany, France or other countries?

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

“What I see is the following: the producer, that has been prioritised by the European Union very heavily, is delivering more vaccines to the US, to the UK and to Israel compared to the EU member states. This is a fact and I think it needs at least to be explained to a certain extent. Expectations were hyped up and now we see that the deliveries are much slower and they contain much fewer vaccines than they were supposed to. Still, some European institutions and bureaucrats continue to attack countries that are looking for different or alternative sources in this regard. For us, vaccines are not a political question. For us, vaccines are not a matter of ideology. They’re a matter of life, of the people we have to save. That’s why we negotiated with the Russians, or we agreed with the Russians, because our national regulator has approved the emergency use authorisation, has given the emergency use authorisation for the Russian vaccine in Hungary.”

Who will be liable for the use of the Russian vaccine?

“Look, our national regulator has looked into the vaccine, physically and virtually. They have received samples, they have paid visits to the places where these vaccines are being produced, they have studied the documentation and they have given their approval. Look, I understand that everybody would like to speak about philosophical questions, but since the national regulator has given the approval based on the documentation, I guess, including the possible side effects as well, myself as a politician could do nothing else than make the agreement with the Russians. So scientific questions should be left for those who are trained for that”.

Troubles in the Eastern Mediterranean

Possible sanctions for Turkey over its illegal activities in the Eastern Mediterranean still remain on hold despite the political decision by the EU council in December. The German Foreign Minister also clearly said that this new positive atmosphere created by Turkey shouldn’t be burdened by new sanctions. Do you think that this atmosphere justifies taking sanctions off the table?

Nikos Dendias, The Foreign Minister of Greece:

“Well, if you allow me to say, sanctions were not on the table to be taken off the table. Of course, Heiko Maas said exactly what you said, but sanctions were not discussed. They were not on the agenda. What we were discussing was current affairs, as you very rightly said, was the description of the huge change in the Turkish policy, from gunboat diplomacy to some sort of effort to persuade everybody that Turkey is becoming a normal interlocutor and is going to discuss with us on the basis of international law. Well, let us wait and see what the Turks are going to do”.

Do you think there’s a risk that Turkey might take what it wants with this new positive attitude towards the EU and then finally go back to what it was before?

“Well, let us hope that President Erdogan and my friend, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, will see clearly where is the interest of the Turkish society. I’m one of the people who believe that the true interest of the Turkish society and of Turkey itself is good relations with the European Union and maybe who knows, sometime in the future to become members of the European Union. But that means closer relations and full subscription to the European acquis. But please allow me to remind you, that the European acquis consists also, of course, of the International Convention of the Law of the Sea. So Turkey has eventually to subscribe to that”.

Exploratory talks resumed for the first time in five years. What do you really expect from this?

“Well, I have to agree with everybody saying this is an important step. But if you allow me to say it’s not a big step. Exploratory talks are not negotiations. They are talks at an ambassadorial level, which try to define the terms of references in order to have real negotiations. So that was the first meeting after five years. By the way, let us be frank, Turkey stopped the meetings back in 2016, not Greece as Turkey claims, But of course, that’s OK. Let’s go beyond that. The important issue is that they have resumed. Now, this was the first meeting. I understand that this was just a “meet again meeting”. We’ll see where we go from there”.

What are the red lines in this process?

“Well, let us not define an argument by red lines and let’s try to see the positive side of things. Well, Turkey has decided, after all, that gunboat diplomacy leads to nothing and they return to an effort to achieve an understanding with Greece, with Cyprus, with the European Union. I hold this as something extremely important and hope that we can build upon it.”

Last week Greece extended its territorial waters towards the west and the Ionian sea and it’s planning to do so in the east as well. Will this still go ahead despite warnings from Turkey that they’ll use military action?

“Well, I have to say that this was announced by Prime Minister Mitsotakis back in August 2020. Extending the territorial waters of the country is its own right. Not a right that it has to negotiate with anybody else. So this is a sovereign right of Greece and Greece will exercise that whenever the Greek government thinks it’s an appropriate time. And also apart from that, it is not going to negotiate on that basis with Turkey or for that matter with anybody else”.

The differences between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean has a lot to do with the exploration of natural resources. Greece has made many agreements with several players in the region, including Israel and Egypt. Does this mean that Greece can move on this without Turkey?

“But we don’t want to exclude Turkey from anything. This is just absolutely wrong, or rather, exactly the opposite. We want to involve Turkey in everything. But under this set of rules, the rules of international law, Greece would love to have a cordial, mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey. I think that’s a way forward for Greece. That’s a way forward for Turkey. That’s the way forward for everybody”.

The EU Budget

Last December the European Union finally approved the next seven-year budget and there is a new clause that goes with it called the rule of law mechanism. Do you think Hungary will get less European funds because of this?

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

“No, I mean, why should we? We have no problem with conditions of rule of law and we have no problem with conditions of democracy because we are a democracy and the rule of law applies in Hungary very clearly”.

Why did Hungary initially veto it then?

“Because of our experience. What happened since we have been in office is that we are under attack based on political and ideological issues. But they are called the rule of law, but have nothing to do with rule of law issues. We are under attack because of what we think about migration, we are under attack because of what we think about family, we are under attack because of what we think about patriotism. It has nothing to do with the rule of law. We are under attack continuously because of political reasons because what we are doing is simply undigestible for the international liberal mainstream, because you represent the patriotic approach, a Christian Democratic approach. And in the meantime, we are successful.”

25 member states supported this mechanism, are they all part of this liberal mainstream?”

“You know, I never commented on positions of other countries because I think it is well about mutual respect. I respect their position. I respect that they look at this issue from a different angle. They have not been under attack for the last 11 years. And I understand that they have a different approach to that. I never commented on that. And I think they have the right to do so, as we do have the right to exercise a veto in this regard because exercising a veto in this issue and in other issues is being secured or being laid down as a foundation in the treaty of the European Union. So, I mean, challenging the right of ours to discuss, challenging the right of ours to go into a debate is very anti-democratic, I think.”



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