Leonidas Hrisantopulos comes from a family with history in Greek diplomacy. He was born in Athens in 1946. He has been an ambassador of Greece to Armenia, Poland and Canada. Before that, in the late 70s, he was a member of the permanent Greek delegation to the European Economic Committee and a part of the negotiating team for Greek membership in the European Union. He has been a Director in the Committee for European Questions with the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Director of the Committee for Shengen-related questions, Counsel in Istanbul, an Advisor in the Greek Embassy in Beijing. From 2006 to 2012 he was the Secretary General of the Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation.
Interview by Julia Vladimirova; Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
Mr. Hrisantopulos, you have been one of the negotiators for the membership of Greece in the European Union and have worked for the future of your country in this Union. Today you have a completely different position and you believe that the EU has failed and your country does not belong there. Why?
Greece joined the European Union for three reasons. The first one was to guarantee democracy in a country that had just been liberated from a seven-year-long dictatorship. The second reason was to get some kind of protection from Turkey, which invaded Cyprus in 1974 and at the same time some conflict points arose about some Greek islands allegedly belonging to Turkey. The third reason was to achieve economic growth for Greece. At that time, these were important reasons. The European Economic Community (EEC), together with the European Union, were fighting the Greek dictatorship. We had a financial protocol with the European Economic Community in the frame of our agreement for association, however, it was frozen for the duration of the dictaroship and Greece has received no funds from the EEC. It also helped release many political prisoners. After 1981 when we joined the Economic Community, it was much easier to prevent the recognition of the so-called state of North Cyprus, which was unilaterally proclaimed by Denktash in 1982. As a member state, Greece was allowed to implement the EEC judicial system in order to force Turkey to cancel the law which deprived all Greek citizens of their right to inheritance. In the sphere of economic development, however, we made reforms in the agricultural sector causing the reduction of labour in the farms, which reduced the production of olive oil. We also destroyed our steel industry, although at the time of the EEC, we had an over-supply of steel. Only tourism was left as a main source of income. Of course, there were Greek goverments abusing the European funds. But when did I begin to change into an euro-sceptic? It happened in 2004 when I participated in a meeting of the Council for Common Questions after a long period of absence. I was shocked by the way in which it took place. The Ministers simply read their positions on the agenda and left the hall to attend to bilateral meetings without hearing the position of their colleagues. And the final decisions were, after all, made by the bureaucrats. In the 80s, the Foreign Affairs Ministers made decisions on every question related to agriculture, finance, European budgets, alone, without consulting experts. They solved the problems. While the EEC was taking care of people in the past, in 2000 after the adoption of the Euro, it started slowly to transform itself into a EU of the bankers, shifting the interests of the people to a back-seat position. While the deficit of democracy in the EU began to grow, the respect for human rights began to diminish. On 19 December 2009, the Greek edition of Elefteropia published an interview with me under the title ‘The Nightmare of Fascist Europe’. I am so sad that my prognosis came true. In reality, the EU today is destroying one of its own member states. Greece was forced to sign an agreement for a loan in May 2010 in order to implement the policy of tightening the belt to reduce the state debt, which in 2009 was 129% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or 299 billion euro in absolute nomination. After the three wrong programme agreements of the EU, IMF and the State of Greece, the state debt increased to 180% of the GDP. With the latest measures accepted last month, Greece stopped existing as a state, passing on the management of its economy to the EU and the creditors for the next 100 years. As a result of these wrong measures, the unemployment rate increased from 9% in 2009 to 27% in 2016. The taxation today is worse than it was at the time of the Ottoman occupation, the health system collapsed and the number of suicide cases doubled. The problem is not only in that the measures were wrong. “The Three” also breached the Lisbon Contract and the human rights of the Greeks. This was mentioned in the report of the Independent Expert of the UN, Juan Pablo Bohoslavski, presented to the UN Council for Human Rights on the 29th of February.
Why has the liberal state failed?
Mainly because it allowed the settling-in of corruption as a norm, lack of determination for resolving serious problems, indifference to the problems and the needs of ordinary people and the striking placement of the bank system as the main priority.
Russia has never threatened Europe or the USA. On the contrary, the West is threatening Russia by entering in the Moscow sphere of interests.
You have been the Secretary General of the Organisation for Black Sea Economic Cooperation (OBEC) and you have a lot of contacts both in Russia and in the whole Eurasian region. What would you say about the demonisation of Russia by the West and what is Europe losing economically and politically as a result of it?
I think that this is a big mistake. Humanity needs global peace in order to develop not only financially but intelectually and spiritually. Russia has always played an important role in Europe and is still capable of doing so. The programme ‘Partnership for Peace’, where Russia was included as a strategic partner of NATO, as well as the Agreement for Partnership between the Euro-union and Russia, provided space for close, positive cooperation between the West and Russia. But all this lost any meaning from the moment the USA came up with the idea to build missile umbrellas in order to defend themselves and Europe from unknown enemies. And Russia has never been a threat to Europe or the USA. On the contrary, the West is threatening Russia by entering in the sphere of interests of Moscow. One example of this is the events in Ukraine where the EU interfered in the internal affairs of the country in a way that has never been practised by Russia. Russia could have accepted an agreement for the association of Ukraine with the EU. At one moment Germany laid down additional conditions for signing of this document. The question for the release of Yulia Timoshenko from prison was set for voting in the Ukrainian Parliament and it was rejected. Then the EU announced that it will not sign the agreement for association. Demonstrations against the government began, in which the German Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time participated; there were victims, the Ukrainian President was removed, Russia annexed Crimea. It is easy to see who started it all. And it is not Russia. The sanctions which the EU placed on Russia have, in fact, a negative effect for the Europeans. Finland lost a lot from the termination of trade between the two countries, Russia responded with an embargo on agricultural goods. The same applies to all the countries of the EU exporting agricultural products to Russia. If the West was thinking more logically, there would have been wonderful cooperation in the sphere of energy, as well as in other aspects in trade and in business. This would have saved many lives and improved the lives of many in Russia and the EU.
How would you comment on the diplomatic failure in relations between Russia and the West? Why is there no diplomacy? Why the lack of normal dialogue?
It is a strange situation. From one side, we see Lavrov working with Kerry to end the war in Syria and their cooperation, I would say, could prove to be quite effective as far as the ceasefire is concerned. From the other side, you have NATO and the USA surrounding more and more of Russia. I think that the problem comes from the USA, where certain circles want American dominance on a global scale. But if those circles read a bit of history, they would realise that this could never happen.
Do you believe that the alternative parties and movements would be able to effectively resist the undemocratic system of the West, the failed liberal state? Do you believe that those like Podemos, Jerremy Corbin, the left bloc of Portugal, SIRIZA, the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders in the USA will be able to turn the scale to a new policy?
Keeping in mind the experience with Greece where the people surrendered and stopped resisting because SIRIZA lied to them again, it will take time for the alternative political movements to take over. It also depends very much on the riots in France, we must not forget how the protests of 1968 influenced the left movements and changed Europe. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is an interesting phenomena. He supports the division of the funds used by the banks. The deposits must not be used by the banks for accumulating benefits which are in their own interest. He supports the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which separates trade and investment banking. Sanders had a terrific fight with Hillary, but I am afraid that he will not succeed in the battle with the establishment of the Democratic Party.
You are a part of EPAM – a political party created on the streets during the protests in Greece in 2011. From the platform of EPAM you criticize SIRIZA for, after all, it accepted the programme of “the three”. What would have been the alternative option?
We are critical of SIRIZA mostly because it lied to the people and it gave up 62% of the votes in the referendum against the austerity politics. Of course, there were lots of other options. On the night of the 13th of July, Merkel and Shoible threatened Tsipras that they will ruin Greece by stopping all the financial flows into the country if he does not accept the new programme of strict austerity measures. Instead of leaving the hall, attacking Merkel publicly in front of the whole world, breaking up diplomatic relations with Germany – which would have made him a hero in Greece – he humbly gave in in order to become the typical collaborator. If EPAM was in government, it would have implemented the following: First, we would have rejected the memorandum of 2010 on the basis of clause 48 and clause 52 of the Viena Convention, which is related to the contracts. These clauses are for cases of international contracts being null and void. For example, if representatives of a country have been threatened with incorrect information, examples completely covering the Greek case. This rejection would have been in the form of a letter addressed to the Secretary General of the UN. At the same time, we from EPAM, would have nationalised the National Bank of Greece and to use its assets to protect the economy of the country. The means released from non-payment of credit and the assets of the National Bank of Greece would have been sufficient, for at least one year, for the country to manage its own resourses. In these conditions, which I already mentioned, EPAM would have asked for a retreat from the Eurozone, gradually, in the frame of one year for example, in which our own currency would have been re-introduced and the slow withdrawal of the euro from circulation. EPAM also wants the reduction of taxes, which will bring the pensions and the salaries to the level of the period before May 2010, which will revitalise economic development. The question about exiting the EU will have to be discussed at a later stage. EPAM does not say that the programme is easy to perform and implement and that it will start off without difficulties. But at least we would have been able to avoid the catastrophy which devastated Greece with the introduction of the six years of totally wrong policy. Now Greece has stopped its existence as a state. And this is happening for the first time in history.
And what would you say about the application of the programme of “the three”, combined with the leftist policy of SIRIZA? The politicians from SIRIZA are trying to convince us that they are trying to avoid compromises and to stick to their own political demands.
There is no left-politics. There is no politics when you simply follow instructions coming from Brussels. The last legislatation which our parliament was pressed to accept on the 22nd of May contained 7 300 pages and the Members of Parliament were given one day to study it. With the new legislation, Greece ceased to exist as a state, as the management of the economy of the country was given to the creditors and to the EU for the next 100 years. Now we have become a colony of the EU.
If SIRIZA fails, who would come? The “golden dawn”?
SIRIZA has already failed. The “golden dawn” is an opportunity. EPAM is still out of Parliament. We have the solution but the people are only just starting to hear us now. The problem is that the media support the parties which are already in Parliament and which were in the Parliament when the state failed.
What, according to you, is the meaning of the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey? What would you say about the strange cooperation between the EU and the neo-ottoman dictator, Erdogan?
The agreement between the European Union and Turkey is part of the problem but is not the problem itself. The foundation of the problem is the USA which, since 2001, took upon themselves to destroy states under the pretext that they are fighting terrorism. The USA destroyed Afganistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and they almost destroyed Egypt. These countries were destroyed with the help of NATO and member-states of the EU. The vicious cycle of exteme poverty in Africa has not stopped because of the wrong policy of support from Western countries. To stop the flow of migrants leaving their own counties, there must be no military activities there. To stop the economic migrants, the right economic schemes for development must be created. But what is unacceptable is the fact that the EU refuses to accept refugees from these devastated countries. And we are talking about countries whose own citizens have been an object of migration, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic. I would really love to see one day how the citizens of the EU invade Africa in search for shelter due to climate change, and how Africa builds up fences for protection of coming inflows. In your question, you characterised Erdogan as a neo-ottoman dictator. But what can we say about the others? The EU is also using similar methods, “protecting the freedom of speech” by extracting means from the anti-European media, it fights against them and even forms fancy words like “non-liberal democracy” to describe a modern “totalitarian regime”. So the non-liberal democratic EU made a deal with the neo-ottoman dictator. For the moment it works. The flow of migrants to Greece stopped, but many keep on coming from Libya, many have drowned. This agreement, however, makes no provision for those 55 000 refugees who are trapped in Greece. The meeting of the top in 2015 foresaw the transfer of 60 000 refugees from Greece and Italy to other counties in the EU. Nothing happened. Greece can load these people on board a ship, provide these people with temporary documents and present them to the EU countries who have participated in the destruction of Syria. Let’s mention the fact that accepting only 4 000 Syrian refugees in the USA is embarassing. When the wars are stopped, the process of creating new and newer refugees stops respectively. It is so simple.
Greece could have prevented the extension of the sanctions against Russia, but nothing of this sort was mentioned by the Greek side.
Recently, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was on a visit to Athens. You have experience with diplomatic relations with Russia and the region. This visit gave the impression that it was important and positive for the cooperation in Russia/Greece relations. What is your comment on the visit and its meaning?
If Greece existed as a state, this visit would have been of great significance. Unfortunately, what exists today is the former Greek Republic. At the press-conference, Tsipras mentioned the positive economic climate in Greece, which was good for investing to which Putin replied that he understands the economic difficulties that Greece is facing. I think this says it all. Greece, of course if it existed, could have certainly prevented the extension of sanctions of the EU against Russia, but such thing was never mentioned by the Greek side at the bilateral talks.
What do you see for the future of the relations between Russia and the EU for the next few months? Most European countries are suffering economically and politicaly from these sanctions but none of them have the courage to say it.
If the Germans decide to lift the sanctions, they will be lifted. But Merkel recently said that they would not be lifted. If, however, the referendum in Britain supports the exit from the EU, then the possibility for lifting the sanctions is big.