Greece “today is no longer the ‘sick man of Europe’ but a fully fledged pro-European actor in the European Council”, noted former European Council President Herman van Rompuy in an interview to Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) journalist Sofia Papadopoulou.
Also the former Prime Minister of Belgium, Herman van Rompuy gave this interview ahead of his arrival in Thessaloniki for the 4th Award of the pan-European Empress Theophano Prize ceremony, that will take place on Thursday, November 9 at the Rotunda monument, in the presence of President of the Hellenic Republic Katerina Sakellaropoulou, among other officials from Greece and the rest of Europe.
Here follows the interview in its entirety:
– The Middle East is on fire once again. The situation reminds us of the harshest phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict throughout history. Do you see any way out of this bloodbath? What will the next day be for Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the other Arab peoples in the region?
The Hamas attack on October 7 pushed the two-state solution even further away in time. With nostalgia, many look back to the Oslo Accords between Rabin and Arafat that gave hope 30 years ago. Extremism and terrorism lead to the tragedy we are witnessing today. Israel will rightly want to prevent a repeat of what happened recently. However, violating humanitarian law threatens to destroy the moral support they received after the October 7 massacre along with ongoing rapprochement of the Arab world with Israel. At some point, hopefully, the day will come when leaders stand up along both sides who realise the follow-up to the Oslo Accords. With Hamas, that is not possible. Many Arab leaders realise this.
– Since we talk about wars, do you see an end to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine anytime soon? And what do you think the future of the EU-Russia relations should be?
From a historical perspective, wars almost never end at the negotiating table. A peace agreement almost always comes after the war. It was the same after World Wars I and II, for instance. In the case of the war in Ukraine after the shameful Russian invasion, judging from many historical examples, it will be no different. So the war itself will not be over soon. We must continue to support Ukraine and its brave people in their struggle for their independence and integrity of all their territory. That is what the EU and NATO are doing. With the current regime, things will never work out between the EU and Russia. All the bridges have been burnt. What will Russia look like after the war and their defeat – nobody knows.
– Greece and other countries worldwide have been severely hit this summer by the consequences of the climate crisis. Wildfires and flooding led to deaths and extensive economic damage. What could we as European Union members do better so as to address this challenge efficiently and help each other in the best possible way?
We need to get to the root of the climate problem. That is why the Union’s Green Deal is so important together with the massive funds provided in the European budget. Now is not the time to water down the climate goals! A country like Greece where tourism is so important cannot afford it. In case of disasters, we should have a type of European civil protection agency that can itself act quickly. I once proposed that in 2010. In vain, back then, but a lot has happened since then.
– Greece has managed to regain investment grade, a «huge success» as pointed out by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In your opinion, what does this mean for the prospects of Greece’s economy and the country’s position within the context of the broader European economic development?
I lived through the Greek socio-economic tragedy between 2010 and 2012 as president of the European Council. The second crisis of 2015 could have been avoided by the then Greek government. I had already left European politics by then. In any case, Greek citizens and families suffered greatly under this tragedy. Today, Greece is no longer the ‘sick man’ of Europe’ thanks to the efforts of governments and the Greek people themselves. The eurozone has shown solidarity whatever one may say about it. Of course, one must not fall into the mistakes of the past. In any case, Greece has returned to being a fully fledged pro-European actor in the European Council.
– Migration seems to be on the surge again with thousands of people trying to reach Europe on a daily basis. Isn’t it high time we found a truly European solution to address the issue in a way that all members of the EU are part of it or will we keep seeing Italy, Greece and a few others being constantly at the frontline?
After years of negotiations, the Union very recently agreed on a Pact on asylum and migration. Italy and Greece also gave their consent. It is an important step towards greater solidarity between member states and better protection of our external borders. For the latter, the Union has also signed agreements with Mediterranean countries because without their help we cannot succeed in protecting our own borders.
– EU officials keep claiming that enlargement in the Western Balkans is important for the Union, nevertheless this process is moving rather slowly. Long-standing disputes in the region as well as the inability of some states of the region to proceed to the reforms necessary to become members of the EU seem to be the main obstacles. Will we ever come to the long-awaited EU enlargement? And besides the Western Balkans could Turkey find its place in the EU?
I strongly support the enlargement of the Union. During my presidency, we welcomed Croatia as a new member state. Even then people talked about enlargement ‘fatigue’ in the Union but the process of accession has gone almost smoothly. Slovenia has been a member for much longer. The other Western Balkan countries should join sooner or later. This indeed requires internal reforms in the countries themselves, settlement of conflicts between the countries themselves and political will to overcome the ‘fatigue’ on the part of the existing member states. It can be done. If we fail in this, Russians, Chinese and Turks will take advantage of this to bind these countries politically while their economic and social future lies in the EU. This is also the will of the citizens of the candidate members in the Western Balkans. Turkey is sailing its own course separately – often against the EU in many areas. The Union is much more than a common market. I don’t think Turkey ever wants to be part of a political union.
I hope that one day the countries of the Western Balkans and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will be members of the greatest peace project in human history, the EU.
– This year the Theophano Foundation focuses on the key role of humanitarianism, especially under the prism of multilateralism as a catalyst to address global challenges, awarding its annual Prize to the United Nations in the name of António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General. How do you see the role of the UN in the world today? Are there any changes needed so as to address contemporary challenges?
UNO and the many organisations that make up their network remain important. Think of the big COP climate conferences. Climate is humanity’s biggest problem. However, the UN Security Council is often blocked because five member states (only one of which is an EU member) have veto power. Moreover, as a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia itself violates the UN Charter. The UNO and its current SecGen fulfil an important political and moral role. He speaks on behalf of humanity! This was evident when Antonio Guterres brokered an agreement to continue delivering grain from the Black Sea to the rest of the world in such need. He avoided a famine. Unfortunately, Russia refused to extend that agreement which is a shame.
Institutions are important but leaders can sometimes make the difference. However, UN institutions must also be adapted to the times. The veto power of some countries should be lifted. The holders of that right are the victors of the Second World War now almost 80 years ago. A real anachronism. The world has changed dramatically in the meantime.