Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview on Turkish newspaper Milliyet, with journalist Özay Şendir

Özay Şendir: After President Erdoğan’s visit to Athens on December 7, you will pay a return visit to Türkiye. What are your expectations from this visit? As Erdoğan and Mitsotakis, do you have any hope of achieving what Atatürk and Venizelos achieved in Türkiye-Greece relations?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Ι am really glad I will have the opportunity to reciprocate the visit of President Erdoğan to Athens last December. We have agreed to hold regular meetings, where we review the progress of our standing dialogue.

So my visit will be an opportunity to take stock of the progress we have made in our relations the past few months and also to reiterate our commitment to improving relations.

Greek-turkish relations are complicated and charged with history and emotions. This will never change. What we can change is the perspective: rather than seeing an impossible puzzle, we should focus on enhancing a positive agenda and seek for cooperation between the two countries and their peoples.

We owe it to the Greek and the Turkish people and to the next generations to continue on a constructive path. And we have a responsibility as leaders in the same region to be forces of stabilization, not confrontation in the area.

This is not the easy way. It is a difficult path and there will be obstacles. But I don’t see the reason why we should not make the effort, when former leaders of our countries succeeded, under much more difficult conditions. Improvement of relations will be to the benefit of the two peoples and the region.

Özay Şendir: We are in a period when nationalism is on the rise both around the world and in Europe. Could the propaganda period for the European Parliament elections to be held in June harm the tension-free period between Ankara and Athens? Will advocating full reconciliation with Türkiye cause you and your party to lose votes?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I never shape my policy according to what the polls show and I have proved that I made uncomfortable decisions when I had to, because I had to do what was right. And we as leaders have an obligation to introduce our people to the benefits of dialogue in good faith and of good neighbourly relations. Greece and Türkiye are destined by geography to live side by side. They are not doomed to live in conditions of permanent tension.

Channels of communication between the two counties must remain open even in periods of tension. I have always been consistent in that and I have personally supported this approach since the beginning of my first term. I will continue to do so.

I think we should talk more to each other, rather than talk about each other. Greece has always been resolving disagreements through dialogue in good faith and in line with international law and good neighbourly relations. Greece does not threaten anyone. And I would like to reiterate that we are neighbors, not enemies.

Özay Şendir: What should be done to maintain the tension-free period between Athens and Ankara? What kind of responsibility will you take on your own behalf?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: A tension free period is the least we owe to the Greek and the Turkish people. Especially in times of global uncertainty, polycrisis and turbulence in the wider region.

Even if we don’t manage to proceed with the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, we can disagree in a civilized manner.

At the same time, we can unleash so much potential by promoting people to people ties. I am hoping we will maintain the positive atmosphere in our relations and will take the Greek-Turkish relations forward for the benefit of the two peoples.

There are issues, both bilateral and international, where we agree and others, where we disagree. Even friends do not always agree. But this should not stand in the way of always seeking cooperation and synergies.

Özay Şendir: Dear Prime Minister, there are those who think that “Turkish-Greek relations will never improve”; and believe that we should be ready for a conflict or war any time. Is there a dialogue mechanism that will work properly between the two countries in case of tension? What would you like to say to those who are pessimistic that these relations will never improve?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I am not a pessimist. History does not move forward with pessimism. I am a true believer in pragmatism and in the power of will of a strong and determined leadership.

Pragmatism dictates that it is natural for neighbors to cooperate, and despite disagreements, make honest efforts to surpass them. Greece and Türkiye face common challenges. Migration, climate change, natural disasters require common understanding and cooperation more than ever.

The dialogue mechanisms are already in place, as in my first meeting with President Erdoğan after we were both re-elected, in Vilnius in July 2023, we agreed to redefine the framework of our relations and establish multi-layer channels of communication. Through these channels we prevent tensions at a higher level.

All channels should remain open in an honest way. The roadmap is there and we are following it. Signing with President Erdoğan the “Athens Declaration on Friendly Relations and Good Neighbourliness” last December was an important step forward in our relations.

Özay Şendir: Hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens go to the Greek mainland and islands every year as tourists. How much does the fact that there are no problems between the peoples make a full reconciliation between Athens and Ankara easier? Will you take into account the request from Turkish citizens to expand the visa application at the door? I met Boutaris at a dinner when he was the Minister of Municipality of Thessaloniki. He said that he wanted Athens to introduce a visa application for Turks at the door in Thessaloniki. Can we expect such steps shortly?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I should underline that the “visa at the gate” program for 10 Greek islands is an exemption from the Schengen rules -an exemption that the Greek government successfully negotiated with the European Commission. The philosophy is short visits to the Greek islands that have a ferry connection with the Turkish coast. As an exemption from the rules, it is clearly defined in agreement with the Commission and cannot be extended.

I am very happy with the success of this program. It is a win-win both for Turkish citizens who want to enjoy the beauties of the Greek islands and for the local people. This program is a model for people to people contacts and diplomacy and for mutually beneficial cooperation.

Özay Şendir: The topic we talked about the most in the last week was Greece’s Marine Park project. There are people in Türkiye who are skeptical about this project, and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also made a statement on the subject. What is Greece’s main purpose in this project? What would you like to say against those who think that this project is an effort to close the Aegean to Türkiye?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I believe there has been too much discussion for an initiative that is purely environmental. Ιt is our duty to protect our unique marine environment and the creation of Marine National Park in the Aegean together with the Marine National Park in the Ionian Sea are part of a list of 21 commitments, enabled by 780 million euros, which Greece announced during “Our Oceans Conference” hosted, in Athens, on 15-17 April. This is a project within the framework of International Law and the Law of the Sea.

Our countries face common challenges, such as climate change and this should be an issue of cooperation. Greece wants to have good relations with Türkiye. And there has been concrete improvement in our relations in the course of the last months, a path on which I am willing to continue and take even further.

Özay Şendir: Do you think that the rapprochement between Türkiye and Greece is really desired by the West and the European Union? The tension in our relations also provides advantages such as arms sales and base ownership to some countries. I would like to learn your observations on this issue and get your answer to the question of whether wouldn’t it be easier for us to reach a consensus without being influenced by anyone.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Relations between Türkiye and Greece have their own history. Τhey are an equation with two variables. But no country in the modern world prospers or evolves in isolation to the rest of the world, or outside the wider regional and international context. We act and interact with other players, we are affected by what is happening in our world, take for instance the Russian invasion in Ukraine that completely changed the geopolitical landscape and the rules-based international order.

These interactions and relations should not be viewed as a zero sum game. For example, Türkiye is a NATO member, but it is also a country with a strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Greece is a NATO member, an Eastern Mediterranean country and an EU member-state. Europe is our home, it is not a third party. Greece has always been a staunch supporter of Türkiye’s EU perspective, within the framework of the EU acquis.

And I sincerely believe that improvement of Greek-Turkish relations will also benefit EU-Türkiye relations and steps towards a positive agenda between Europe and Türkiye. The same is true for talks on the Cyprus issue. I am hoping that improvement in Greek-Turkish relations will lead to the restart of talks on the Cyprus issue, which is also an EU issue. On Cyprus I want to be clear: a solution must be based on the UN Security Council Resolutions.

Özay Şendir: For myself, I have a dream of a Türkiye-Greece relationship that cooperates on energy resources in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, shares the wealth, and hosts international organizations together. What kind of Turkish-Greek relationship do you imagine 10 years from now?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would like to see two neighboring countries cooperating in trade, in economy, initiating joint ventures, working together on big challenges of our time. And I am hoping that people to people ties will have grown stronger and will not depend on governments on both sides of the Aegean. I am hoping we will have dealt with our difference – the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean – which will unleash a new dynamic in our relations and in peace and security in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But even if we don΄t get there, my wish is that in ten years from now we will have established a new and lasting chapter in our relations: a chapter based on honesty and mutual respect and understanding without tensions and crisis.

Özay Şendir: I would like to ask you a special question that I also discussed with Kathimerini Editor-in-Chief Aleksis. I used to be able to find Saganaki everywhere in Athens, but now when I want Saganaki, I can find it with mozzarella. When I ask for Turkish or Greek coffee, I usually get the answer: espresso. I ask because I believe that Athens should protect its food and beverage culture as much as Barcelona and Rome. Are you disturbed by this food globalization?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Delicious food and familiarity with tastes and flavors is a very strong connection between Greeks and Turks.

I am not sure where you have been in Athens, but I can assure you you can still find saganaki with Greek cheese. Athens is a city where history blends with modernity and you can feel and taste this in every part of the city. The same is true for Türkiye.

As a food lover, I can tell you from experience that Athens has a very vibrant gastronomic scene, taking traditional Greek cuisine further, experimenting and exploring new possibilities. Cities are living organisms, they change and evolve. Modern Athens is not only a metropolis with a glorious ancient past, but also a dynamic city that bridges the past with the future.

Özay Şendir: Ergin Ataman and Fatih Terim are Turkish sports people currently working in Greece. Ivi Adamou and Despina Vandi are also artists who perform in the most important venues in Istanbul. In the meetings we hold as the Turkish-Greek Media and Academy Forum, we always agree on the idea of the people of the two countries meeting more.

What do you think about Turks working or investing in Greece? Would you be happy if the Greek business community invested in Türkiye? On behalf of reconciliation, how do you view the idea of achieving economic relations that we will be afraid of losing?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, I am really satisfied that our bilateral trade has reached in 2022 a record level of 5.4 billion euros and the prospects are even more positive. My priority is to enhance direct investments in constructions and infrastructure, digitalization and agriculture products. This is why I believe that our decision with President Erdoğan to establish a Greek-Turkish Business Council as a tool to bring together our business communities can unleash the full potential of our bilateral economic relations.

We always encourage private sector cooperation. Greek companies have the technical expertise and the experience in important sectors like constructions and infrastructure. In this spirit, I encourage joint Greek-Turkish business ventures.

Özay Şendir: I always hear expressions of satisfaction from Turkish citizens who come to your country on holiday. The only complaint I have heard is about the preservation of Ottoman-era cultural assets in Greece. Do you have a road map on this issue?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Greece has a long history and a rich cultural heritage to preserve and protect from the prehistoric ages and antiquity, to Byzantium and the modern era.

Greek authorities have always shown respect and sensitivity to preserving and restoring Ottoman period monuments. In the last 15 years about 125 projects of restoration and preservation of Ottoman monuments amounting to a budget of 90 million euros are being implemented or have been concluded. Moreover, restoration of important Ottoman monuments of high budget, such as the Beyazit Mosque or Hamsa Bey in Thessaloniki and others have been included for funding in the RRF (Recovery and Resilience Facility).

In the same spirit, and in the spirit of respect in historic cultural monuments with a strong symbolism, I consider self-evident that equal sensitivity ought to be demonstrated by the Turkish side for the preservation of monuments on its soil that belong either to the ancient Greek or to the Byzantine period. I am very disappointed by the recent decision of the Τurkish authorities to operate the Byzantine Empire monastery of Chora as a mosque, as well as by the older relevant decision about Hagia Sophia. These decisions go contrary to the ecumenical character of the monuments and our joint effort to grow mutual understanding. What we really need to do is to work towards constantly building further bridges between our peoples.