Greek Ambassador Grigorios Vassiloconstandakis: Bulgarian Presidency is going to Add Specific Value in the European Union’s Way Forward
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with His Excellency,Mr. Grigorios Vassiloconstandakis, Ambassador of Greece to the Republic of Bulgaria.
CAREER / PROFESSIONAL ROUTE:
Mr. Vassiloconstandakis before assuming the duties of the Ambassador of the Hellenic Republic to Bulgaria, has served in Istanbul, Turkey, as Consul at the General Consulate of Greece (1992-1996); in Paris, France, as Political Affairs Counsellor at the Embassy (1996-2000); in the International Secretariat of NATO in Brussels, Belgium, responsible for the countries of Southeastern Europe (2002-2005). Furthermore, he has been the first Head of the Liaison Office of his country in Pristina (2000) and Consul General in Cairo, Egypt (2008-2010). Between 2013-2016 he served as Ambassador of Greece to Romania. He has also served in various positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens. He speaks fluently English, French and Italian and he is married and the father of a 27-year-old son.
1. What do you expect from the Bulgarian EU Presidency?
Allow me to start by stressing that Greece is particularly happy that Bulgaria is assuming the rotating Presidency of the European Council as of the 1st of January 2018. In my country we are confident that your efforts will pay off and Bulgarian Presidency is going to add specific value in the European Union’s way forward. Let me also comment that despite the latest provisions about the new role of the Presidency -following the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for a rather “conventional” dimension to its conduct, - still holding the Presidency offers the presiding country a considerable attraction of interest. It brings the focus to the specific geographic area of the hosting country and therefore the gravity of the European perspectives will be transferred to our neighborhood. This, by definition, enhances our expectations which, hopefully, the Bulgarian Presidency will turn into reality in such thematics like: social cohesion, migration, economic crisis, increase of working opportunities for the youth, security and fight against terrorism, common policies in defense, Brexit. Let me also remind you that Greek Premier Tsipras publicly confirmed to his Bulgarian counterpart Borisov that “in Greece we see the Bulgarian Presidency as our Presidency”, at the same time describing it as a Balkan Presidency and expressing the willingness of our country to cooperate very closely with Bulgaria for its successful conduct.
2. What do you believe should be the key areas of focus during the Presidency? Integration of Western Balkans, Cyber security? Or something else...?
Greece is supportive to the priorities of the Presidency, with special interest attributed, of course, to the Western Balkans European perspectives. Indeed, it is high time to revive interest for this region and make it clear that Europe’s security “passes through the Balkans”. Nevertheless, due to a certain stagnation of reform policies over the last years, the Western Balkan countries have fallen behind as to the conformity with and the implementation of principles and values common to the European family, where, no doubt, they belong.
Enhancing regional co-operation in the Balkans is the substance of the numerous initiatives Greece has undertaken over the last two years. Allow me to refer myself, for instance, to the launching, by the Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr.Kotzias, of regular meetings of the Ministers of Foreign and Home Affairs of Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, as well as of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, last year in Thessaloniki. Or to remind the recent quadrilateral meeting between the Prime Ministers of the three EU member states in the region (Greece, Bulgaria and Romania) and the President of Serbia, in Varna. Neither is it to be forgotten that it was Greece which launched the Thessaloniki Agenda, back in 2003, for the sake of the stabilization of the region, through the enlargement process. Thus, we remain firm supporters of the EU enlargement policy, particularly for the Western Balkans. Of course, the well known requirements for the pavement of their European perspectives still stand and have to be fulfilled before any progress. But the challenge is there: we help, they reform!
We also consider other priorities of the Bulgarian presidency highly important. Migration and management of the unprecedented migration flows to Europe seem, for instance, to be one of the biggest challenges of our era. Dealing with it through responsibility and genuine -not “flexible”, I precise- solidarity and in full conformity with existing decisions by previous European Councils, shows us the way. It is not to be forgotten that our Union, our European family is also based on these two principles: Responsibility and Solidarity.
Furthermore, we support the continuation of the Cohesion Policy after 2020, as well as of the Common Agricultural Policy, standing by Bulgaria in both of these items.
Another key point of the Bulgarian presidency, which is of significant regional importance is undoubtedly the effort of rendering more “visible” the Danube and Black Sea regions, including by their connectivity infrastructure. An agreement signed recently to this end, by Greece and Bulgaria, in the form of a “Memorandum of Co-operation for the construction of a rail link between Greek and Bulgarian ports (Thessaloniki, Kavala, Alexandroupolis, Burgas, Varna, Ruse)”, displays the importance we place on the matter. This agreement adds considerable economic, commercial and geopolitical value, as it links the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea and the Danube through the opening of new trade routes and by extending the trans-European transport network.
3. Do you think Bulgaria is ready to join Schengen and what would be the consequences of such an action in your opinion?
As I said before, we consider that security challenges, especially for Greece and Bulgaria –both committed to safeguarding the EU external borders-, could only be confronted through close co-operation. Setting up of all necessary mechanisms for exchange of information and dealing with related security threats is more than an obvious task, with the accession of Bulgaria into the Schengen area being, in our view, the other pillar of consolidating a strong device against all these threats. This is why we support Bulgaria’s accession into the Schengen area considering at the same time that your country has fulfilled all required criteria.
4. How do you find life in Bulgaria? For example, do you feel safe from terrorist threats?
Life in Bulgaria runs smoothly and one feels safe and secure in your country. At the same time, Bulgaria has a number of choices to offer to its guests, like mountain and sea resorts, thermal spas and sports, which one can enjoy all year round! Also Bulgaria has very interesting wine routes, as well as local and traditional cuisine. Last but not least, the capital Sofia offers a great deal of choices for cultural activities and social life, not to mention the warmth and spontaneous kindness of the Bulgarian people, which, in my view, is the biggest asset of Bulgaria itself. Indeed, I consider myself particularly happy serving my country’s interests in this beautiful and particularly friendly country.
5. How do you feel about the relations of your country with Bulgaria? And is there anything specific you would like to be achieved in means of cooperation during the Bulgarian EU Presidency?
Our bilateral relations are simply excellent. There is also a strong strategic dimension in them in the sense of each country being multiplier of the other’s presence and voice in the region and furthermore as well. Practical co-operation between Greece and Bulgaria in every field of possible bilateral sector is highly developed and still expanding. Economy, trade, transports, tourism, energy, culture and, of course, trans-boundary cooperation are the milestones and pillars of getting us closer.
But we also co-operate regionally and in the EU. We often come up with common positions. For instance, as I said before Greece supports Bulgaria’s accession into the Schengen area. We have also launched an extended police co-operation, among others, through joint patrols in Greek sea resorts during summer and in Bulgarian ski resorts during winter. Last year, along with Turkey, we inaugurated the trilateral Contact Point of anti-crime co-operation on the Bulgaria-Turkey border. On top of all that we may place our joint aspirations in the energy sector, with the construction of the IGB natural gaz interconnector being at first priority for both of us.
In light of the above, the words by our Prime Minister about the Bulgarian Presidency “being also our Presidency”, that I mentioned before, sound very natural and real, providing at the same time, I guess, the best answer in your question about Greece’s specific expectations from the Bulgarian Presidency: in this we are standing side by side for the benefit of Europe, of our region and of our countries!
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