Greece Says Will Do ‘Whatever It Takes’ to Protect Sovereignty

Photo: Bloomberg 

Greece Says Will Do ‘Whatever It Takes’ to Protect Sovereignty

-Athens would talk to Turkey on bilateral issues, minister says

-Government will not discuss sovereignty of Aegean Sea islands

While Greece is willing to enter into discussions with Turkey on a range of bilateral issues, the government in Athens says it will do whatever it takes to protect its sovereignty.

Relations between Greece and its eastern neighbor have been tense in recent months after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a maritime agreement in November with Libya. That prompted Turkey to claim maritime rights in some zones Athens says are Greek under international law.

“If the only difference we have is on the proclamation of an exclusive economic zone, then we are ready to negotiate and sit at the table with Turkey and discuss the issue,” Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs Miltiades Varvitsiotis said in an interview in Athens. Greece is also willing to discuss bilateral issues such as the economy, tourism, Covid-19 and migratory flows, he said.

“But if the issue is to contest Greek sovereignty over islands in the Aegean sea, then the response is no,” the minister added. “We’re not discussing our sovereignty, we’re not giving away Greek soil and we will do whatever it takes to defend it.”

READ: Turkey Set to Expand Exploration in Contested Mediterranean

Tensions are also rising on a possible move to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. Erdogan has long pushed for the conversion, rebuffing criticism from the U.S. and Greece. The site — included on Unesco’s World Heritage List — carries a special significance for Greeks, who see it as one of the most important Christian monuments and a legacy of an Orthodox tradition dating back to the Byzantine Empire.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Thursday the disagreement around Hagia Sophia “is not a Greek-Turkish issue — it’s a universal issue,” adding that Greece will wait for Turkey’s decision.

READ: Turkish Prosecutor Says Cabinet May Make Hagia Sophia Mosque


Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. / Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Brexit Talks

In the interview, Varvitsiotis also spoke about other EU matters such as the Brexit talks. While the bloc wants a deal with the U.K. on future ties, discussions aren’t moving ahead and there’s little room for the U.K. to extend the Dec. 31 deadline, he said.

The U.K. appears to want to use the current talks to roll back past agreements such as protected designation of origin status for products, he said. “This won’t be accepted,” Varvitsiotis said.

All EU countries “stand by the negotiating team of Michel Barnier and will stand by the side of Ireland — with no exception,” he said.

Asked about EU-U.S. relations, Varvitsiotis said “the Atlantic gap is widening,” calling the U.S. “very much engaged in its own issues.”

Pandemic Playbook

The Greek government wants to use its presidency of the Council of Europe to forge an agreement on guidelines for future pandemics, after the country was widely credited with successfully managing the coronavirus outbreak, Varvitsiotis said.

“We want to leave for future generations a document that will be part of a common legal legacy that shows how to react to a pandemic,” and that highlights “the importance of human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

Parliament ratified — and Greeks widely complied with — measures such as a total lockdown during the worst period of the crisis, though that still violated some fundamental rights, Varvitsiotis said. Guidance should also be drawn from the experience of countries that had to manage challenges like organizing elections and combating fake news reports, he said, noting that the crisis also allowed certain governments to enhance their powers.

“We’re moving in the right direction to have a declaration agreed to in Athens on Nov. 4,” the minister said. That will allow citizens across Europe to “protest when extreme measures are imposed.”

The Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, comprises 47 members including all 27 European Union states, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the U.K. The Greek presidency, which started in May, runs through November.


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