OPINION

Friend of Greece in tight race to become US senator

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A strong supporter and close friend of Greece and Cyprus, Democrat Congressman Chris Van Hollen of the 8th Congressional District of the state of Maryland is in a tight race for the seat of retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski. The Democratic primary takes place on April 26, and Van Hollen and Congresswoman Donna Edwards are the leading candidates. Pollster Patrick Gonzales, who has been conducting political surveys in Maryland for 30 years, recently said that this election “looks like it's going down to the wire.” In that context the Greek-American community's support could tilt the balance.

In Congress Van Hollen has been an engaged member of the Hellenic Caucus since his first election in 2002. He has worked hard to support the efforts of the caucus and advance issues of concern to Greece and Cyprus, from supporting Greece in the many challenges it faces, to the reunification of Cyprus, and the protection of religious freedom for Christians in Turkey and the Middle East, and in that context supporting the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

In an interview with Kathimerini, Van Hollen talks about the economic and refugee crises facing Greece and how the US could assist, noting that in October he urged the administration of President Barack Obama to find new ways to provide technical assistance to Greece to ease the enormous burden that has been compounded by the flow of incoming refugees to the Aegean islands. He talks about the Greek economy, the new energy corridor of Greece, Israel and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, and expresses concerns about Turkey's behavior.

A former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fifth-ranking position among House Democrats, and then the ranking member of the Budget Committee, Van Hollen is a powerful voice in the Democratic Party and his election to the Senate would add “firepower” to the Greek-American community.

Early in his career Van Hollen served as a professional staff member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under Chairman Claiborne Pell, who was a very strong friend of Greece and advocate for justice for Cyprus. Senators Joe Biden and Paul Sarbanes were also on the committee at that time. He traveled to Greece and Cyprus and authored a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on the way to advance progress on the Cyprus issue at that time. His connection to Hellenism stems from his marriage to a first-generation Greek American. His children were baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and he has worked to get funding for the Hellenic Studies program at the University of Maryland and was involved in efforts to save the Hellenic American Academy.

What's your assessment of the Greek economic crisis? Many in Greece – in other European countries too – are calling for less austerity and more expansionary policies.

I hope that 2016 will be a turning point in the Greek economic crisis. This crisis has gone on for far too long and has affected thousands of people who have lost their jobs and their livelihoods, seen their salaries and pensions drastically reduced, and will take years to recover both financially and emotionally. Also, many small and medium-sized enterprises have lost access to credit due to the capital controls imposed last summer.

Europe has opted for the austerity path.

Austerity plans are a bitter pill and it is critical for the Europeans, the US and others to do what they can to ease the burden of the structural transition Greece is currently engaged in. The long-term impact of these policies will depend on many things and it is important to ensure that the burden not be borne disproportionately by those least able to afford it. A sustainable recovery should benefit all Greeks, not just the most wealthy. We have seen how difficult that is here in the US with our own recovery where today our economy is growing again but too few working families have felt included in the new prosperity.

How is the US assisting Greece?

The United States has been assisting Greece during the economic crisis in many different ways, largely working behind the scenes. As you know, the US cannot provide direct financial assistance, but it can influence developments such as by encouraging eurozone governments to provide more debt relief, interacting with international organizations, and assisting Greek government reform efforts by providing trade and other supports. In October I joined with several of my colleagues to urge the Obama administration to find new ways to provide technical assistance to Greece to ease the enormous burden that has been compounded by the flow of incoming refugees to the Greek islands. The US government stands ready to provide technical assistance at the request of Greek authorities. But the need is enormous and I believe we need to keep looking for ways to help wherever we can until Greece gets back on its feet again.

On the refugee issue, how should Europe, and the world, deal with the unprecedented scale of the problem?

As you correctly state, the dramatic refugee issue is not a challenge that can be solved by individual countries themselves. Over 1 million refugees fled to Europe last year alone and the violence and destruction they are fleeing continues as we speak. Even if there were a settlement in Syria tomorrow, we don’t know what would follow. A coordinated approach involving all European countries and the international community at large is required to address this problem. Turkey, obviously, is a key country regarding regulating the flow of refugees from Syria. But until the instability plaguing the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere is addressed, the refugee flow to Europe will continue. European governments will need to develop a way to ensure a system of equitable burden-sharing among host countries – and the US, Canada and other countries need to step up and play their part as well.

Is there a long-term sustainable solution?

I also believe we need to view this as not just a short-term crisis — it is a long-term problem. These refugees include thousands of children who need to grow up in an environment that gives them hope and provides them an education so that they can move forward positively in their lives. This is an enormous challenge and one that the global community needs to face at large – not just from the standpoint of human compassion, but also because if this is not addressed it could become the next security challenge for the troubled Middle East and the broader region.

How do you see the role of Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean?

With the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the emergence of a number of failed states in the Middle East region, the Eastern Mediterranean has become a critical frontline region along the conflict-ridden areas to the south. These developments have exposed the region to the massive influx of desperate refugees pouring out of Syria, Iraq and elsewhere and to the potential dangers of ISIS-related terrorism coming to its shores. As close and historic US allies, Greece and Cyprus can play an important role on a wide range of issues including refugees, anti-terrorism and diplomatic efforts in the broader region.

How do you view the increasing cooperation between Greece and Cyprus with Israel?

The recently discovered natural gas concentrations off Cyprus and Israel have raised the scope of the region’s potential role as a key energy corridor to the European Union. Increased regional cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus over energy issues and other challenges is something the United States supports and considers a new factor that can increase stability in the region, help provide a strong backdrop for a negotiated settlement on Cyprus, and present an important counterweight to growing uncertainty and instability in neighboring Turkey.

Are you worried about today's Turkey?

The situation in Turkey today is of increasing concern and adds a new element of uncertainty and volatility in the Eastern Mediterranean. The renewed conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds in the southeast has the potential to spread to all parts of the country, increasing polarization and loss of life while fueling extreme nationalist elements in Turkey. At the same time, evidence of the government’s continuing ambivalence toward ISIS and other radical jihadist groups and its unwillingness to crack down on large numbers of ISIS elements and sympathizers inside Turkey is a potential powder keg at the edge of Europe. We have already seen President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s willingness to use the huge numbers of Syrian refugees transiting Turkey on their way to Europe along with this threat of instability as a lever with European states concerned about the return of extremists to their own countries. At the same time, he is increasingly harsh as part of his internal crackdown against anyone who dares to speak out against his policies. These trends are of great concern to me and reinforce the importance of strong US relations with Greece and a solution of the Cyprus problem at a time of growing uncertainty and instability in the region.