Greece is a key country for a number of the major political challenges facing Europe, such as the refugee crisis, financial markets, Europe’s relations with Turkey and the Cyprus question. All of these issues were on the agenda of Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s trip to Thessaloniki and Athens on 4 and 5 December. Together with his Greek counterpart Kotzias, he signed a joint statement pledging to continue to develop the German-Greek friendship and to intensify cooperation against this turbulent backdrop. Germany stands firmly by Greece’s side in the European spirit of solidarity in the face of the current crises.
The societies of Germany and Greece are united by so many things. The many people of Greek origin in Germany and the large numbers of German tourists in Greece offer firm foundations for the two countries’ friendship.
However, memories of the atrocities of the Nazi period are an important element of German-Greek relations and the history of both countries. Foreign Minister Steinmeier therefore started his visit to Thessaloniki by opening the Divided Memories 1940 - 1950 exhibition. In his speech, he acknowledged Germany’s responsibility for the terrors of the Holocaust and emphasised the following:
It is particularly because our countries are connected with each other by a tragic past that we have to work for a common future for Germany and Greece – one that will never again allow alienation or even enmity between our peoples to rise up.
In view of recent political developments in Europe and the world, Steinmeier added that “a Europe in which a conscious approach to memory is part of the political culture is better equipped to deal with the turbulence of our age”. In his speech, Steinmeier’s counterpart Kotzias said that the past should not be a prison, but rather a school for the people of the present.
The German Foreign Minister then visited the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, which named him an honorary member. Steinmeier said that the gesture of admitting a German Foreign Minister to the community, more than 50,000 of whose members had been murdered by the Nazis, was a “miracle of reconciliation”. “We will take hold of your outstretched hands, with great joy and also with great humility – and rest assured that we shall not let go!” he declared.
A key country for Europe
Following this moving visit, the Foreign Minister then flew on to the Greek capital in the afternoon. Many challenging topics were on the agenda of his political talks in Athens. Greece has an important role to play in the refugee crisis on account of its geographical location alone. Most of the refugees attempting to get to Europe set foot on European soil for the first time when they reach the Greek islands. Germany is supporting Greece at a number of levels in this regard – with humanitarian assistance in the region, and by taking in refugees and working to achieve a pan-European solution.
Dialogue on Cyprus and Turkey
Steinmeier’s talks with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias also touched on Cyprus and Turkey, two of Greece’s immediate neighbours that are of immense importance for the European continent. Following his talks, the German Foreign Minister was cautiously optimistic as regards the Cyprus question – negotiations to achieve a reunification of the divided island are currently in progress – adding that the chief negotiators had already come a long way and that, as the saying went, the home stretch was always the toughest. However, if both sides were genuinely interested in achieving a solution, then the remaining open questions should not pose an obstacle, Steinmeier said. He stated that an agreement would be an important signal for the stabilisation of Europe and an example of the fact that it was possible to solve protracted conflicts through negotiation.
With respect to Turkey, Steinmeier expressed his bewilderment concerning “public wrangling over the Treaty of Lausanne”, which defines the country’s borders with Greece. “Everyone knows what it would mean if we in Europe were to start calling borders into question”, Steinmeier said, adding that this was certainly not going to help bring about urgently needed stability.
Developing the German-Greek friendship
There was good news in the area of bilateral relations between Greece and Germany. On Sunday evening, the two Foreign Minister signed a joint statement on continuing to develop the countries’ relations. Steinmeier said that it was an “agenda for the future of German-Greek relations” and thanked his friend and colleague Kotzia for his initiative. An Action Plan consisting of four pillars was agreed upon:
I. Political cooperation
II. Economic and technical cooperation
III. Scientific, cultural and educational cooperation
IV. Cooperation at a societal level
The plan is considered to be a dynamic document in which specific measures are supplemented and expanded in all four areas on an ongoing basis. While the German-Greek friendship was subjected to a certain amount of tension during the financial crisis, the plan sets out a positive agenda for future German-Greek relations.
The German Foreign Minister’s last stop on Monday then took him, together with his Greek counterpart Kotzias, to what is perhaps the most fertile terrain of the German-Greek friendship. The German School in Athens is currently being converted into a German-Greek international school where over 1000 school children of 19 nationalities will be given the opportunity to take the German International Abitur school-leaving certificate. The pupils welcomed the two Foreign Ministers with a parody they had created on German and Greek clichés. After that, Steinmeier and Kotzias took questions from the pupils, particularly on the economic situation and regarding displacement and migration.
From the horrors of the past to the challenges of the present, Steinmeier’s programme comprised a range of difficult topics. The German delegation was therefore all the more grateful for the cordiality and the constructive, forward-looking atmosphere that they enjoyed throughout their visit.