“While it is ultimately up to the Ukrainian side to determine the timing of the negotiations and the terms of a just peace, it was of paramount importance that, in the face of (Russia’s) aggression, the EU Member States stand with Ukraine in defense of the principles of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders,” says Ioannis Vrailas, Greek Ambassador Permanent Representative in the EU. In a thematic interview with the Athens Digest, the agenda focuses on Ukraine, energy and migration.

Ioannis Vrailas, Greek Ambassador Permanent Representative in the EU

Interview with John Papageorgiou

Before focusing on the agenda of our discussion today about Ukraine, migration, and energy, I would like to ask your opinion on how Greece is currently positioned in the EU and about your goals and expectations in 2023.

Our discussion is taking place precisely three years since I took office as the Permanent Representative of Greece to the EU. During this period, the EU and its Member States had to deal with unprecedented crises that changed the world’s social, economic, and geopolitical landscape. The Covid outbreak and its many repercussions, the energy crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to name the most prominent ones, fundamentally transformed our world and tested Europe’s resilience.
Against all odds, the EU has preserved its unity and responded successfully to the multi-faceted challenges. The EU reopened its economy, vaccinated its population, displayed robust solidarity with the Ukrainian people and – even if it took longer than necessary – mitigated the consequences of the energy crisis.
All those years, the Greek government has been at the forefront of initiatives and negotiations such as the introduction of the European digital vaccination certificate, the adoption of the Recovery and the Resilience Facility, and most recently, the adoption of a price cap on gas imports. At the same time, Greece has developed into an energy diversification hub securing natural gas for its neighbors. It has impressively reopened its tourist sector. Thanks to the sacrifices of the Greek people, the Enhanced Surveillance Mechanism that had been imposed in the wake of the financial crisis has come to an end. Not only that, but in 2022, Greece moved up 16 places in terms of the attractiveness of its business environment marking the most significant improvement among 82 countries over three years, according to the latest Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report.
In 2023, we look forward to working with the Swedish Presidency, the Commission, and our EU partners to promote European growth and innovation and tame the inflationary pressures caused by the energy and the supply chain crisis. We need to tackle the competitiveness gap vis-à-vis third countries, as well as the risk of de-industrialization that we see looming for the European economy. We must review our common rules for fiscal discipline and accountability. Supporting Ukraine, and promoting peace, and regional stability in Europe and its neighborhood will also remain top priorities. Migration is a serious European problem that requires collective European solutions. These are but just a few of the many files that we deal with on a daily basis.

The EU has approved nine sanctions-packages against Moscow. At the same time, the world -including the member states- are still seeking a “way out” scenario. In your opinion, what could a feasible common approach to help end the war look like?

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has brought back large-scale war to Europe in the 21st century, something that was unimaginable only two years ago. It has profoundly undermined European security and stability, in blatant violation of the UN Charter and international law.
While it is ultimately up to the Ukrainian side to determine the timing of the negotiations and the terms of a just peace, it was of paramount importance that, in the face of this aggression, the EU Member States stand with Ukraine in defense of the principles of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders.
It is a real pity that we have reached this point. Greek-Russian relations had been historically good and we had always been on the side of strengthening EU-Russia cooperation. But strict adherence to and fight for the fundamental principles of International Law is the irreplaceable tool against revisionism and expansionism, whose re-emergence not only in Russia but also elsewhere, including in our own neighborhood, is particularly worrisome.

What do you expect from the EU-Ukraine Summit on Feb. 3?

As the Summit is taking place one year into the war, it presents an opportunity to highlight the unprecedented and unparalleled level of EU support to Ukraine, as well as the commitment to maintain it for as long as it takes. This support extends to the full spectrum of the political, military, economic, financial, and humanitarian spheres. It is combined with pressure exerted on Russia, via restrictive measures, as well as multilateral efforts to isolate it and hold it to account.
This EU-Ukraine Summit will be the first one, not only since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, but also after the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine. The European perspective gives hope to the Ukrainian people for their post-war future and encourages the Government to continue implementing reforms even under these difficult circumstances. In the same vein, the EU is committed to playing a leading role in Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction. Of course, now that Ukraine is a candidate country, there are even higher expectations that it will align itself with all the decisions adopted by the EU in the area of Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Finally, the third goal of the Summit will be to reach out to the Global South and address the global consequences of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, especially on food security through the EU-Ukraine Solidarity Lanes. In this context, let me mention that 50% of the grain exports from Ukraine are transported by Greek-owned ships or ships of Greek interests.

The task of protecting external borders while safeguarding migrants’ rights is not an easy one. The EU has developed several tools in recent years. Were they effective enough?

While nothing can ever and anywhere be perfect, Greece has made great strides in proving that striking the balance of protecting external borders while respecting fundamental rights is possible. Since 2019 Greece has adopted an enhanced border surveillance policy, which led to fewer casualties at sea, better reception conditions, and faster and fairer asylum processes with full respect for human rights, while at the same time guaranteeing that Greece lives up to its obligation towards the rest of the European Union to protect our common external borders. For a sustainable migration policy, the EU needs to curb illegal flows and open legal pathways in accordance with the needs of the European economy. At the same time, we need to do everything in our power to fight smugglers and human traffickers, including through cooperation with third countries of origin and transit, in terms of both preventing illegal departures and successfully returning those who abuse our asylum system. Finally, the European Union has to step up its efforts in relation to border protection and support member states in building up their infrastructure for border surveillance.

Although repeated efforts to finalize a new EU migration framework have been made, the challenge is still there. Do you see a way to move forward?

The way forward in addressing the migration framework is through a holistic migration management approach. Saddling the frontline States with more responsibilities while offering insignificant or no solidarity will not work. A strengthened protection of the external borders, the capability to return those who remain illegally on European territory in a united and coordinated manner, and the responsibility to share the burden of the migratory flows are the main parameters of the complex equation of finalizing the migration and asylum framework. A fundamental condition for an effective EU framework for migration is striking a balance on burden-sharing. Such a balance will guarantee the solidarity the EU requires to address future migratory challenges.

Recently, the new Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni said coordination between her country and Greece has helped make the defense of European Union borders a central priority for the Commission and member states. Do we expect this “alliance” between Greece and Italy to continue and possibly include other member states?

Countries in the Mediterranean, facing the brunt of illegal migration, have an interest in working together to provide solutions that will mitigate migratory flows. Greece, along with Italy, Spain, Malta and Cyprus are at the forefront of the migratory pressure and have a common interest in working constructively and in a unified manner in pursuit of the best possible solutions. The premise of the MED5 approach is that the existing framework does not address the current migratory pressures and needs to be urgently reformed. To move forward, we have to agree on a joint European level of responsibility of migration management, equitably shared among member states, which will be based on objective criteria and on a needs-based solidarity and responsibility mechanism that will reflect the actual situation on the ground.

After intense discussions, the EU has agreed on a package of measures aimed at securing energy safety and reasonable prices. A natural gas price cap was included in the agreement. How much has this helped the EU tackle the energy crisis so far?

Indeed, despite the difficulties, the EU has demonstrated noteworthy unity and solidarity, agreeing on a comprehensive package to tackle the crisis. By reducing natural gas and electricity consumption, we have managed to decrease by 80% our dependency on Russian natural gas. We are also already preparing for the next winter season through the operationalization of the common purchases platform.
Moreover, through the RePower EU initiative, we are attempting to turn the crisis into an opportunity, accelerate our efforts to deploy renewables and make our economies greener and more sustainable.
The price cap agreed in December, an idea initially proposed by the Greek Prime Minister in March 22, is an important milestone in the overall European response against the weaponization of the energy crisis by Russia, which will contribute to the stabilization of the energy market. I am proud to say that Greece played a dynamic and constructive role since the beginning of the crisis and made a substantial contribution towards finding common solutions to the benefit of all EU citizens.
It is undeniable that that the EU’s response was not as swift as we would have wished. Still, one needs to take into account the complexity of these issues and the sensitivities that MS traditionally have relating to the energy sector. It may have taken longer but in the end we did get there – in traditional EU fashion.

Do you think the current measures will secure supply in the mid-term considering the potential increase in demand next spring?

We are in a far better position compared to last year. The key issue is to ensure that storage units are filled, which means that we have to tackle the combination of reduced gas flows from Russia compared to last year and an expected increase in global gas demand due to the end of the zero covid policy in China. If the mild winter continues and the level of storage filling remains, as expected, above 40% in April, which is when the filling season begins, then the EU will not face any major difficulties. But even if we are confronted with new and unexpected complications, I am confident that, given the experience we have acquired and the latest tools we have put in place, especially the common gas purchases, we will be in a position to secure the necessary gas quantities at reasonable prices. Under certain broader conditions, linked to the risk of de-industrialization that I referred to earlier, the mid and long-term prospects could be rosy if we manage to replace costly hydrocarbon imports with a domestic EU renewable energy industry, with benefits for the environment, our economies and all our citizens.