Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier travelled to Greece on Thursday (29 October). One of the goals of his trip was to restore the intimacy of the time before the euro crisis to bilateral relations. In this context, Steinmeier encouraged his partners to resolutely continue along the path of modernisation. Another issue under discussion was solidarity in Europe in dealing with the influxes of refugees.
Clearing up the misunderstandings of the past years
“Our continent is inconceivable without Greece” – this was the clear message conveyed by Steinmeier on the day of his visit to Athens in the Greek newspaper “Ta Nea”. He went on to say that, together with his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotzias, he intended “to clear up the misunderstandings of the past years and to build on the excellent relations of the past decades”. To this end he also held talks with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Minister for Migration Giannis Mouzalas on Thursday. During in‑depth talks he agreed with his Greek counterpart to revitalise the relations between their two countries.
With this in mind the German-Greek Partnership, launched in 2010, is to be placed on a new footing and the German-Greek Youth Office to be swiftly established. The declaration of intent for this was signed by Family Affairs Minister Manuela Schwesig and the Greek Ambassador Zografos in September 2014. Since then Foreign Minister Steinmeier has been actively calling for its establishment. The Foreign Ministers also agreed on closer cooperation in education and research as well as new knowledge transfer tools in fields including energy and health.
Universities as a breeding ground for the German-Greek friendship
The University of Piraeus, where Foreign Minister Steinmeier accepted an honorary doctorate, is proof of the fact the universities are an important breeding ground for the German-Greek friendship. In his acceptance speech, Steinmeier paid tribute to Greece’s valuable experiences and insights with regard to cultural and religious pluralism in the region: “Greece not only forms an external border of the European Union; it is also an EU Member State with many connections and extensive experience of dealing with the countries in the fragile neighbouring Middle East region.” This also has the potential to inject valuable momentum into issues such as the current religious tensions on the Temple Mount, Steinmeier continued.
Another link between the two countries will be forged by the “documenta 14” art exhibition in 2017, when it will open a site in Athens in addition to its traditional location in Kassel. Foreign Minister Steinmeier warmly welcomed this initiative, the idea of documenta director Adam Szymczyk. “Learning culturally from each other is also the foundation for political understanding. For this reason, the Federal Foreign Office will provide financial support to documenta,” Steinmeier promised the Mayor of Athens.
A return to growth and prosperity
The trust between Germany and Greece has recently been damaged by numerous exaggerated reports in connection with the financial crisis. Steinmeier said that this financial crisis had not yet been overcome. However, he added that the agreement between the euro area countries and the Greek Government had defined the reform efforts needed to return to growth and prosperity. “We have great respect for what the people in Greece have achieved and the burdens they have had to bear and are still bearing,” Steinmeier said. He explained that his own experiences of reform in connection with the Agenda 2010 programme meant that he was aware of the political challenges involved. He conceded that costs and burdens were immediately evident, whereas successes became visible only later. However, Steinmeier declared that he had no doubt that the path of reform would be continued, adding that it was not only in Europe’s, but also and above all in Greece’s interests.
Support for Greece in the refugee crisis
Many people in Greece are still feeling the effects of the financial crisis. Now they are facing additional major challenges as a result of the waves of refugees. Foreign Minister Kotzias believes that Greece and Germany are under particularly great pressure to respond. He said that his country was the first port of call in the European Union for most refugees and that many of these refugees then went on to find refuge in Germany. The German Foreign Minister stressed: “We will strongly support Greece in coping with this huge challenge.” At the same time he emphasised that this was a challenge facing the whole of Europe, and that nothing would be achieved by EU Member States arguing with one another. He said that instead it was important to agree on European procedures and standards as well as on a list of safe countries of origin. He went on to say that the EU countries depended not only on one another, but also on Europe’s neighbours, particularly Turkey. He explained that at the EU‑Africa Summit in Malta in November it would also be crucial to agree on a common approach with the African states. However, Steinmeier emphasised: “It is not about isolation, but about giving young people reasons to remain in their home countries.”
Yet in the long term, resolving the refugee problem will necessarily involve finding a political solution to the Syria conflict. Steinmeier commented as follows:
There will be no end to the refugee crisis if we do not succeed in defusing the conflicts which compel people to flee their homes and livelihoods to embark on perilous journeys.
It was for this reason that the German Foreign Minister was obliged to curtail what was originally intended to be a two‑day visit at short notice to attend the Syria talks in Vienna on Friday morning. This was the first opportunity to bring all relevant players together around one table.