Marching out of step

The government scrambled yesterday to contain the damage from Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou’s comments in a television interview in which he said that he did not rule out a military incident with Turkey with regard to Cyprus’s EU accession and his estimate that Greece had got «absolutely nothing» out of the agreement reached at Helsinki in 1999, in which Athens agreed to Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership and it was decided that Cyprus would join the EU without being hindered by its division. Papantoniou’s comments, on Mega Channel late yesterday, clearly implied criticism of Foreign Minister George Papandreou, at a time when crucial foreign policy issues are outstanding, such as the pursuit of a compromise over the functioning of the European rapid reaction force, reunification talks on Cyprus, Cyprus’s EU accession, and the fluid political situation in Turkey. Prime Minister Costas Simitis was annoyed by Papantoniou’s comments, sources said. Indicative of this is that after a meeting with President Costis Stephanopoulos, Simitis replied to a question as to whether he feared an incident with Turkey, saying, «No, I have no such fear.» The sources said that Simitis telephoned Papantoniou, who was on Crete, who hastened to clarify that he did not question the Helsinki agreement. Papantoniou’s aides, however, denied that the telephone call was to demand explanations, saying that the defense minister and the prime minister were in contact almost daily. An aide stressed that Papantoniou «had, under no circumstances, questioned the great importance and success of Helsinki.» The minister, he said, had stressed that «developments after Helsinki have shown that Turkish intransigence continues with regard to our sovereign rights in the Aegean and Cyprus and the responsibility for this lies with Ankara.» Sources said that the foreign minister expressed his annoyance to Simitis, saying that criticism was not aimed at him but at the government as a whole. Simitis is to meet with the two ministers tomorrow to discuss developments in the Euroforce issue. Sources said that Athens and Madrid are discussing adding a clause that will rule out a NATO member’s attacking an EU member, a clear reference to Greece and Turkey. The USA and the EU’s Spanish presidency appear to have dropped their refusal to change the «Ankara text» which gave Turkey a say in how the EU force will be used.