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Interview Conducted by Manfred Ertel, 10 July 10, 2015, Der Spiegel
In a SPIEGEL interview, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias discusses the recent referendum and explains why he believes the power of hope might help revive Greece’s fortunes.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kotzias, Will Greece still be in the euro zone next month?
Nikos Kotzias: Europe rests on two pillars: firstly, the rules enshrined in its laws and secondly, a culture of compromise. This is why it’s managed to survive every crisis of the last 70 years. I am confident it will continue to function. Otherwise Greece will be in trouble and so will Europe.
SPIEGEL: Any compromise that might still be reached is likely to be worse for the Greeks than the proposal that was on the table before the referendum. Do you think your government simply went too far?
Kotzias: I don’t think so. Europe is still able to make satisfactory compromises. Europe’s criticisms and the headlines are only the public face of the negotiations — they are there to ratchet up the pressure. They don’t need to be taken seriously.
SPIEGEL: A few days ago, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos instructed Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to do everything in his power to avoid a Grexit.
Kotzias: Knowing what was said in private talks behind closed doors is apparently a skill only journalists possess. I am a close friend of both President Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Tsipras, and I know that they are on excellent terms. Such an order was never issued. It’s not the president’s style, nor is Tsipras aiming for a Grexit.
SPIEGEL: Your erstwhile colleague, ex-Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, promised the Greeks he would come up with a solution within 48 hours in the event of a “no” vote. But then he resigned.
Kotzias: It must first be stressed that Varoufakis was the only economist in the Euro Group. He’s an impressive character with a lot of expertise and his resignation after the referendum was a considered move….
SPIEGEL: But he didn’t keep his promise.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias: “We have our opinions and sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.”
Kotzias: A solution is in the works. Varoufakis, like myself, is not a career politician. We have our opinions and sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.
SPIEGEL: But the stakes at the moment are very high. Did the referendum perhaps give people unreasonable expectations?
Kotzias: No, the government gave the people their self-respect back. All I can say is, you can’t jump-start an economy if people cannot withstand pressure. If they’re depressed, frustrated, pessimistic and lacking prospects, then the country will just collapse. That has nothing to do with finances and capital flow. The referendum gave Greece its pride, its hopes and its dreams back.
SPIEGEL: When did you become aware that the referendum would take place?
Kotzias: We decided to hold it on Friday, two weeks ago.
SPIEGEL: How did it affect your relationship with your European colleagues? Many of them will have seen this decision as a breach of trust.
Kotzias: I’d rather not dramatize the situation. Europe doesn’t need drama queens, this isn’t a Shakesperean tragedy. We need to challenge stereotypes and boost understanding. Many of my European colleagues understand my position and what I’m trying to do. Others don’t.
SPIEGEL: And do those colleagues also understand that amid the crisis, your government turned to Moscow?
Kotzias: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are also going to Moscow. But whatever Greece does inevitably raises eyebrows. When our counterparts in France and Italy do the same thing, they’re being smart. But when Tsipras or I go to Russia, we’re demonized.
SPIEGEL: Aren’t you being very simplistic?
Kotzias: Five months ago, when I warned that the Mediterranean refugee crisis was worsening, Greece was accused of allowing Jihadists into Europe. Our words were twisted. It’s the same with our ties to Russia. We’re being forced into a corner.
SPIEGEL: But Athens is clearly cozying up with Putin.
Kotzias: Given our difficult economic situation, we’re trying to make the most of our historic ties to countries such as Russia and China. Any country would do the same. Only a few days ago, Germany announced that Russia would build a new Nord Stream pipeline to Germany under the Baltic Sea and no one said a word. I think that’s terrible. We’re the bad guys because we’re supposedly backing Russia and we’re anti-European. In actual fact, we agreed to all the EU sanctions and upheld them.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about Germany at the moment?
Kotzias: My wife is German, my daughter was born in Hessen and I studied in Gießen. I have great respect for the German tradition, the culture and the people. But right now I do not have much respect for Germany’s policies toward Greece. I am not in any way anti-German, but I am wary of clichés — and these tend to abound when a country acts like it knows better, as Germany does. But Greece, meanwhile, thinks it always deserves to have a say.
SPIEGEL: What’s your opinion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s role in the current crisis? Is the task of finding a solution now up to her and Tsipras?
Kotzias: Angela Merkel is a very calm politician, and one who knows how to leverage the time factor probably better than anyone else in Europe. This is a quite a talent and she shouldn’t be underestimated. She deserves respect. But the fact that she is using this approach with us is another matter.
SPIEGEL: Isn’t the problem partly that Tsipras raised the public’s expectations and made too many promises before his election?
Kotzias: It’s not only a matter of expectations. It’s about giving people a perspective. For the last seven years, we’ve been mired in the worst crisis since World War II. They only comparable crisis was in North Korea in the late 1990, when gross domestic product fell by 21 percent. Ours has fallen by 27 percent. As the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch said, the principle of hope is very powerful. Especially when it comes to navigating out of a crisis.
SPIEGEL: Tsipras didn’t just want to change Greece, he wanted to change Europe.
Kotzias: On the contrary. Europe’s biggest problem is that it raised everyone’s expectations beyond what it can ever deliver. As a pro-European, my biggest concern is that Europe will be reduced to sanctions, penalties and memoranda. All these things belong to the instruments of power, but if they’re all that’s left of Europe, then there’s no future for a European Union.
SPIEGEL: Has Alexis Tsipras changed since becoming prime minister? Has he matured?
Kotzias: As Czech political scientist Karl Deutsch might have said: He is capable of learning. This character trait has become more pronounced. If he survives this crisis, he will go down in Greek history.
SPIEGEL: Will your government be able to survive the current crisis without new elections?
Kotzias: It will have to. If this government doesn’t survive the crisis, I’m not sure what will happen to my country. That’s why we need a satisfactory outcome that doesn’t require new elections. I am optimistic we can reach agreement at the EU summit this weekend. Perhaps Germans should read Ernst Bloch’s book “The Principle of Hope.”