GIG: The pandemic has had a marked effect on Greece’s place in the EU and the world, transforming it from a black sheep to a position of thought leader and example setter. How do you see Greece’s place in the world going forward?
Dendias: Right from the beginning of the pandemic, a bit more than a year ago, the Greek government followed a decisive and well-designed policy which bore fruit. The Greek public observed the general lockdown in a very disciplined way.
In addition, we changed the way in which citizens interact with public and private organisations in vital sectors such as health, banking, utilities, interaction with the state, and even shopping. Many time-consuming procedures were digitised and taken online. We followed the same approach in organising our national vaccination programme. Everything is arranged online in a few easy steps with zero friction or complaints.
As a result, Greece can be considered a success story worldwide. One thing is clear: By embracing technology, Greece has rapidly made leaps into the future.
GIG: An escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean has been offset by the deepening of diplomatic cooperation between Greece and a number of its regional partners, ranging from Israel and Egypt across to Cyprus and the UAE. What is the strategy?
Dendias: Our strategy is not a response to the escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, caused by Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and its efforts to build a sphere of influence in the region, that try to simulate, albeit unsuccessfully, 19th century power politics.
Greece is trying to establish frameworks of friendship and cooperation that in turn will help bring peace and stability to the region.
Our fundamental principle is the respect for international law, including the law of the sea. In order to build cooperation, there is a need to build it on a set of shared values. We have repeatedly underlined that we want to enhance both our bilateral relations with the countries of the region, as well as multilateral cooperation, on the basis of these values.
The deepening of relations with the countries you mentioned, as well as others such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is based on common concerns, but also common principles. This is the foundation of the Philia Forum. As you may be aware, “Philia” stands for friendship in Greek. And this is our goal. We do not build alliances against anybody. Nor are we attempting to exclude anyone, provided they share the same basic principles.
Our goal is to promote cooperation in a wide range of fields, including economy, energy, tourism, culture, and even civil protection in a geographical area spanning from Europe to the Gulf.
Greece could act as a bridge in this endeavour, on the one hand between the Balkans and the rest of Europe and, on the other, between the Middle East and the Gulf.
GIG: On the energy front, targets have been set for a final investment decision to be made with respect to the EastMed pipeline by 2022. What importance do you attribute to this project from an economic and geopolitical perspective?
Dendias: The EastMed gas-pipeline is a sound project. Its technical feasibility and financial viability have been proven by international independent studies by specialist companies, co-funded by the EU. It would provide an alternative source of natural gas for Europe, namely from the Eastern Mediterranean, through an alternative, safe and secure route.
It would be the most cost-effective way to transfer Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.
Geopolitically, it would form a strategic bridge between the region and Europe.
GIG: The Greek Parliament recently ratified the foundation treaty of the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF). What are your expectations in this respect, particularly in view of the new U.S. administration? What role do you attribute to Greece at a regional level?
Dendias: The EMGF is a new regional organisation bringing together like-minded, International law-abiding and peace-loving countries from across the region. The U.S.’ participation, as an observer, has been a very positive development.
Greece is a pivotal transit state when it comes to natural gas transported from the Eastern Mediterranean to continental Europe, be it Italy or the Balkans, or both, in several possible complementary ways.
GIG: Ties between Greece and the U.S. reached a historical apex in 2020. What are your expectations under the new Biden Administration?
Dendias: Let me start by stressing that I have had an excellent cooperation with the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with whom we took bilateral relations to unprecedented new heights.
Our expectation now is to build on this solid foundation and take it many steps further. I had a very cordial conversation with the new U.S. Secretary Tony Blinken, whom I met recently.
In this context, we had the opportunity to discuss how we can take our excellent bilateral relationship further and I expressed the hope that we will be able to conclude and sign the revised Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) as soon as possible, ideally by the end of the summer. However, we also seek to develop our strategic partnership in many other areas, including trade, the economy, migration and security/police cooperation.
Furthermore, besides our bilateral ties, we believe that the U.S. has a crucial role to play in promoting peace and stability in the wider region. In this respect we are advocating for a stronger and more visible U.S. presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, not just militarily, but also politically. Moreover, we will continue to contribute substantially in the further integration of the Western Balkans in the Euro-Atlantic Institutions, a goal shared both by Greece and the U.S.
GIG: The conclusion of the seven-year negotiation for the China-EU Investment deal has set the stage for new economic opportunities between China and its European partners. In what way would the ratification of this agreement change the bilateral relationship between Greece and China? What are your main concerns and what are your hopes?
Dendias: The conclusion of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is an opportunity for the EU and Greece to balance investment flows and secure the position of our economic operators in China. Furthermore, the CAI includes commitments about establishing a fair and transparent trade environment.
Greece has always been a proponent of a well-balanced investment agreement establishing a stable economic environment.
In the maritime transport services, the CAI has incorporated the EU-China Maritime Agreement, which is positive for the Greek shipping industry as it binds the current level of liberalisation in investment in maritime agencies and auxiliary services.
GIG: 2021 marks the initiation of the Greece-China Year of Culture and Tourism. Can you tell us about this initiative? How can this contribute to forging closer ties and mutual understanding between both countries?
Dendias: Within the framework of the Year of Culture and Tourism between the Hellenic Republic and the People’s Republic of China, the two countries seek to deepen their traditional friendly relations, confirm the strong ties between their peoples, as well as broaden and deepen their cooperation in the field of tourism.
In particular, the two countries will exchange best practices and know-how in the fields of tourism statistics, destination management, and promotion and quality services certification. They will also cooperate to organise trips, with a special focus on cultural heritage and special interest tourism.
The two countries will also organise tourism events to further bridge state, regional/provincial and local authorities, as well as their respective travel and tourism associations.
GIG: The coronavirus pandemic has brought about changes at a global level with its effects permeating the geopolitical map. How do you see this evolving in the area in the coming years, in light of changing roles and influences spanning from the change of the guard in the U.S. to escalating tensions with Turkey across to the deepening of ties between China and Europe? Is there scope for increased multilateralism?
Dendias: My answer to this question would be both yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that the recent pandemic has clearly shown, once again, that countries, small, medium, or large can no longer address global challenges on their own. Issues such as climate change, or more recently as we discovered, global pandemics, are global challenges that require global solutions. Therefore, multilateralism is not just the preferred solution. It is the only solution.
Greece has been a strong advocate of multilateral cooperation and in the case of the European Union, integration. We remain convinced that unless we pool our resources and energy together, we will not be able to face and successfully address the challenges of today and tomorrow. In this respect, reverting to old ways of addressing international politics, as some still believe they can do today, is no longer feasible. The age of empires is over. And so is the age of exclusive spheres of influence.
However, I would like to stress that the growth of multilateralism does not necessarily also mean the end of bilateral relations. Since I assumed my functions more than a year and a half ago, I have put particular emphasis on building bilateral ties between Greece and its allies and partners, because I believe that this is an essential pillar of any country’s foreign policy.
As a matter of fact, I thought that bilateral ties with Greece’s EU partners were quite neglected. Many people believe that since we meet so often in Brussels there is no need for bilateral meetings. But it is not the same thing. I have therefore invested in strengthening our ties with our EU partners.
In parallel, we have reached out to our immediate neighbourhood, both in Southeast Europe, but also in the Middle East and the Gulf. Furthermore, my objective is to enhance the existing strong ties with traditional allies, such as the UK and the U.S., but also reach out to countries that are having an increased footprint in global affairs, such as China, India, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Australia.
Last, but not least, we want to build relations with other parts of the world that were not seen traditionally as a Greek foreign policy priority. I refer specifically to the French-speaking parts of Africa, which constitute a political choice for Greece, since we want to invest more in our relations with the French-speaking world in general.
Overall, we see challenges ahead. But we also see opportunities. And our perspective is to build on what unites us, not on what divides us – always on the basis of fundamental principles, starting with the respect for international law.