Greece yesterday threw cold water on an outline EU agreement that could open the way for a key trade pact between the 15-member bloc and Turkey, saying Athens wasn't getting what it had asked for.
In Bonn, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel expressed "regret and incomprehension" at Greece's decision yesterday to keep blocking an EU customs union with Turkey, saying EU members had already made big concessions to Athens.
Greek government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos said a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou detected four flaws in the outline agreement and therefore demanded improvements in the deal.
"We reviewed the issue and the position of the Greek government is negative," Mr. Venizelos said. He was speaking to reporters after an urgent cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou to assess the deal agreed in principle by EU foreign ministers in Brussels Monday.
Mr. Venizelos said the government believed negotiations on the issue could continue, adding there was room for change in Monday's provisional plan. "The government believes that negotiations can continue in a bid to improve or modify certain positions that do not benefit the Greek side," Mr. Venizelos said.
The European Union reached an outline agreement on Monday to begin negotiations with Cyprus and Malta over EU membership. The agreement forms part of a diplomatic package under which Turkey is to be given privileged trade relations with the European Union as well as increased financial aid.
The spokesman said four flaws were the basis for Greece's objection to the plan. He said the plan did not stipulate a definite date for the commencement of negotiations for Cyprus' entry to the EU. "The draft plan says negotiations can begin six months after the intergovernmental meeting in 1996. Greece wants to replace the word 'can' with 'will begin'," Mr. Venizelos explained.
He added that Athens wanted the EU to scrap "some of the financial funds" to be provided to Turkey as stipulated in the deal, and secure "better pre-accession relations between the EU and Cyprus". As a fourth reason, Mr. Venizelos said Athens wanted better assurances on the effect the EU-Turkey customs union would have on the Greek textile industry. The spokesman said Mr. Papandreou would send letters to his EU counterparts stressing Greece's positions on the controversial issue.
During the meeting, the prime minister praised the "huge effort" of European Affairs Minister George Alexander Mangakis, who found in Brussels "a negative atmosphere" and had to negotiate from a "minimum basis." On Tuesday, Mr. Mangakis threatened to resign "if the government found inadequate" the Brussels agreement. On Wednesday, after returning to Athens, he withdrew the threat.
In Bonn, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel was quoted by Reuters as expressing "regret and incomprehension" at Greece's decision yesterday to keep blocking an EU customs union with Turkey, saying EU members had already made big concessions to Athens. "Any change of individual elements will endanger the package as a whole," Mr. Kinkel said in a statement. "The partners in the EU have already gone a long way to meet Greek interests. Germany played a decisive role in reaching a compromise by setting aside its own positions". "The proposed compromise must not be endangered now."
Mr. Kinkel is one of the strongest advocates of pulling Ankara closer to the EU with a customs union, arguing this will help stability in the Middle East and stop secular Turkey drifting into the orbit of Islamic fundamentalism.
In Brussels, the 14 other EU member states with permanent representatives (to the EU) insisted that the agreement with Turkey should not be called into question. The permanent representatives may hold a special session today to discuss the agreement. The last meeting of foreign ministers before it is due to be ratified on March 6 is scheduled for February 15. Next Friday the issue will be brought before the European Parliament for discussion.
In Paris, diplomatic sources said that as soon as Athens announced its negative position, the French government began efforts to blunt the differences in order to achieve ratification of the agreement.
The sources said the selection of the word "can" in the draft text was equally binding in the French language to the word "will." "It is obvious that the Kranidiotis-Juppe formula would be subject to amendments (by the rest of the EU partners)," the sources said, adding that, "France made extreme efforts to find the best possible solution for Greece, under the existing circumstances."
In Ankara, Turkey said yesterday that Greece's rejection of a provisional EU-Turkey customs union deal was largely a problem for the European Union, and that Ankara would not be discussing the subject with Athens. "We see it as a problem between Greece and the EU," Foreign Minister Murat Karayalcin told Anatolian news agency after Greece had announced its decision.
"This is a development that must be seen as the internal affair of the group," he said. "Turkey is not in a position to individually evaluate the attitude of all member countries." He said, however, the customs union should not be linked to any other issue. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Ferhat Ataman said in a statement that the European Union had a responsibility to complete customs union in accordance with a 1963 agreement.
In Athens, main opposition New Democracy party spokesman Vassilis Manginas said "the consequences of the government's attitude will be immense on a national level." "We stand before new great national problems," he said.
Political Spring party leader Antonis Samaras yesterday described as positive the fact that "even in the last hour the government has realised its error and rejected the Brussels agreement." Communist Party of Greece deputy Antonis Skyllakos expressed the view that Greece will lift its veto on the EU-Turkey customs union describing yesterday's decision as a "(diplomatic) manoeuvre." Coalition of the Left and Progress party president Nikos Constantopoulos yesterday asked for "drastic modifications and improvements in the EU-Turkey customs union, with specific reference to the Cyprus problem."
The government said yesterday that it had no plans to change its policy on the country's penitentiary system following the resignation of Justice Minister George Kouvelakis. Government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos stressed that the policy implemented by Mr. Kouvelakis was government policy as set out in its pre-election policy statements. The same policy, he continued, would be "unswervingly" implemented by Mr. Kouvelakis' successor, Anastasios Peponis.
Replying to questions, Mr. Venizelos said that the draft bill on prison reform which has been tabled in Parliament would remain unchanged with respect to its political framework, while Mr. Peponis would decide whether specific provisions would stand or be amended. Mr. Peponis is due to be sworn in today.
In his letter of resignation Wednesday, Mr. Kouvelakis accused Under-Secretary to the Prime Minister Antonis Livanis of undermining his work on prison and judicial reform. "I'm not accustomed to making statements," Mr. Livanis said yesterday in a statement, describing Mr. Kouvelakis' charges against him as "figments of the imagination." Mr. Livanis said his only relation with prisons "was the one during the dictatorship."
Political Spring party leader Antonis Samaras yesterday said he was awaiting an answer from the government regarding Mr. Kouvelakis' charges on the existence of rackets. Coalition of the Left and Progress president Nikos Constantopoulos said Mr. Kouvelakis' resignation showed that the political life of the country was dissolving and asked Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and Mr. Kouvelakis to elaborate on the reasons o f the latter's resignation.
The government yesterday expressed satisfaction at the release of the four members of the ethnic Greek political organisation Omonia, imprisoned in Albania last year on espionage charges. Foreign Ministry spokesman Costas Bikas said that Greece's position had been that an end to the ordeal of the four had to be put for Greek-Albanian dialogue to recommence.
The four, along with a fifth Omonia member pardoned by presidential decree on Christmas Eve last year, were initially sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to eight years. Albania's Supreme Court yesterday upheld the original conviction but reduced their sentences to five years and then suspended them.
"Following the judgement of the Supreme Court of Tirana and the release of the four, we believe that their ordeal has ended. We should like to express our satisfaction and the hope that a new chapter will open in relations between the two countries to the benefit of both peoples," Mr. Bikas said.
Government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos described the release as "a positive development" which could provide an opportunity for an improvement in Greek-Albanian relations. "The government repeatedly stated that what was important was that an end be put to the ordeal of the imprisoned members of Omonia, irrespective of the legal grounds on which such a decision was based," he added.
Replying to questions, Mr. Venizelos said that there were no plans for Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias to visit Tirana, adding however that the re-commencement of dialogue with Albania at a political level had always been Greece's intention. "We can speak of a re-commencement of political dialogue provided the Albanian side does not go back (on its decision) to release the Omonia members," the spokesman said.
Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias described the release of the Omonia four as a pleasant surprise and expressed the hope that he would soon meet his Albanian counterpart Alfred Serreqi, in order to make a fresh start for the bridging of differences.
Political Spring party spokesman Akis Gerontopoulos warned that the release of the four did not amount to their vindication. "Their sentence stays and the Berisha regime continues the flagrant violation of the human rights of the Greek minority," he said. Coalition of the Left and Progress leader Nikos Constantopoulos expressed his satisfaction over the development, and called on the government to utilise the opportunity and initiate a process of dialogue with Tirana.
A State Department statement after the release of the Omonia four Wednesday night expressed satisfaction over "the substantial progress achieved in the resolution of this affair, on the basis of Albanian judicial procedures", and also hope that it would "open the road to the direct and full normalisation of relations between Albania and Greece, to the benefit of both countries".
Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias will meet with his Yugoslav counterpart Vladislav Jovanovic when he visits Thessaloniki today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Costas Bikas confirmed yesterday.
Mr. Bikas said that the meeting between Mr. Papoulias and Mr. Jovanovic was within the framework of Greece's efforts to find a solution to the crisis in former Yugoslavia.
According to an ANA despatch from Belgrade, Mr. Jovanovic will fly to Thessaloniki on a working visit today. Citing diplomatic sources in Belgrade, the despatch said that his talks with Mr. Papoulias would focus on the Bosnian peace process and developments in Krajina in view of the withdrawal of UN peace-keeping troops on March 31.
The two ministers are also expected to discuss the issue which arose following recent statements by Mr. Jovanovic that Belgrade would recognise the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) if the latter recognised that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia constituted a continuation of former Yugoslavia.
Honorary president of the main opposition and former prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis met with British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in London yesterday on the issue of Turkey's customs union with the European Union and the Cyprus issue.
Mr. Mitsotakis told reporters later the meeting was "friendly, pleasant and, I believe, useful". "Mr. Hurd is a person with understanding and aware of the problems faced by Greece and its region, and he always helps the Greek position. We spoke mainly of the current problem which is Turkey's approach towards Europe and the customs union, in conjunction with our (Greece's) demand for Cyprus.
"I told him the Greek position (in regard to these problems) and that our demand made for Cyprus should be satisfied, given that the problems in Greek Turkish relations stem from the Cyprus issue and there can not be any settlement of the various other problems if the Cyprus issue is not solved," he said. Mr. Mitsotakis will brief the Greek government through the Greek ambassador to London on the substance of his meeting with Mr. Hurd.
The head of a delegation from the Turkish Businessmen's Association said its recent visit to Greece was "positive". "We observed that Greece's attitude towards Turkey is changing ... we discussed issues of mutual interest, like environmental pollution," Fegas Berger, head of the delegation, said.
Mr. Berger also noted that trade relations between the two countries does not exceed 230 million dollars, a sum which is considered very low. "Trade needs to be supported by the banks," Mr. Berger said, adding that "the president of the Commercial Bank of Greece has said that he is ready to support Greek-Turkish commercial enterprises".
Referring to the loss of a Turkish F16 warplane Southeast of the island of Rhodes Wednesday, after been intercepted by Greek fighter aircraft, State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley said yesterday the US was obviously concerned over incidents of this nature and the effect they can have on relations between the two countries. She added she had no explanation available, other than that of mechanical failure.
Cyrus Vance, the United Nations' mediator in Greece's dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), told the ANA yesterday that prospects for the resumption of negotiations between the two sides looked somewhat improved. "The issue seems to be proceeding a little better," he said in reply to a question submitted in the course of a press conference on the role of the UNO in safeguarding, maintaining, and securing world peace.
The conference was organised in view of a draft bill (HR7) now going through the US House of Representatives, aiming to impose stringent restrictions on approval of peacekeeping missions abroad and severe cutbacks on their funding.
Responding to other questions concerning the US peacekeeping mission to FYROM, Mr. Vance stressed that "one of the most important achievements of the United Nations in the Balkans region has been the timely deployment of forces in 'Macedonia' for preventive reasons". "The fact that these forces, consisting of men from Scandinavian countries and the US are there," he continued, "has resulted in the safeguarding of peace and stability in this very important region..."
"Thanks to the preventive forces in 'Macedonia', and despite certain difficulties due to the prevailing circumstances, there seems to be no indication of real dangers of a conflagration. Possible clashes there would have tremendous repercussions on the whole of the southern Balkan region. The preventive mission of these forces, therefore, creates a most significant, positive, climate, which I hope can be maintained and safeguarded". Mr. Vance let it be understood that he would personally be in favour of the participation of US land forces in UNPROFOR.
It may be noted that the draft bill in question contains a special provision exempting from restrictions US participation in the UN forces in FYROM. A number of representatives argued for an increase in its funding.