“The discovery of natural gas in Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, and the potential for discoveries in Greece and Lebanon can bring economic prosperity in the aforementioned countries, but also strengthen security in the broader region,” former US vice president Joe Biden has said.
In an interview with Kathimerini, Biden says that a solution to the Cyprus issue – an objective on which he has worked in the past – “lies within reach,” adding that reunification could maximize benefits from the Mediterranean island’s hydrocarbon reserves.
Biden, who will be in Athens for the Concordia Summit on June 6 and 7, talks about the efforts of the Obama administration to prevent Greece’s financial collapse, which, he deems, would have had “very serious long-term consequences” for Greece and the rest of Europe.
Finally, Biden criticizes the Trump administration for its controversial foreign policy moves. “Unfortunately, there are some who take security and prosperity in Europe for granted – questioning the value of our alliances, and indeed of the rules-based international order that the United States, Greece, and other countries painstakingly helped to build over many decades after the Second World War,” he says.
You played a leading role in the efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue. Are you worried about the current tensions between Cyprus and Turkey and the escalating incidents in the Aegean? Do you believe the US should play a role as a mediator?
We have a unique window of opportunity now to resolve the conflict in Cyprus so that future generations of Cypriots can live in peace, harmony, and prosperity. The two sides are close to a resolution, but they will only succeed in crossing the finish line if the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders are granted the political space to finalize the terms for reunifying the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation.
I have been involved in foreign affairs since I was first elected to the United States Senate 45 years ago, and over this time I have either participated in or observed many negotiations to resolve difficult, protracted conflicts – from Northern Ireland to the Middle East. It is extremely rare to work with two leaders who both genuinely want to achieve a resolution, enjoy good personal rapport, and share a common vision of the future. These opportunities are not only rare – they are usually short-lived. There are always groups – on both sides of a protracted conflict – who oppose a settlement.
That is why we must never lose sight of the fact that a reunification of the island holds enormous benefits for all Cypriots. A settlement will not only open up financial resources from the international community and private sector, it could also help maximize the economic benefits of Cyprus’s offshore hydrocarbon reserves.
The United States has an important role to play in facilitating a settlement, but not as a direct mediator. The UN is doing an excellent job of supporting the discussions between the leaders. The United States should continue to back the UN and encourage the sides to move forward. We can also help foster the private-public partnerships that will underwrite a more prosperous future for Cyprus. So let’s focus on the fact that a solution lies within reach, and on the prospect it offers for empowering the next generation of Cypriots to thrive and prosper by working together – not against each other.
The Obama administration and you personally also played an important role in making sure that Greece remained a part of the eurozone. Could you describe for us these efforts and the difficulties you faced? Was there a close call when you got very concerned about a Grexit and a destabilized Greece? Do you believe that the risk of a Grexit is gone?
President Obama and I were engaged with all parties in the Greek financial crisis, because we wanted to prevent Greece from experiencing financial collapse. Grexit would have had very serious long-term consequences for Greece and Europe – and could potentially have triggered a wider crisis of confidence in the global economy. We were concerned that in the high-stakes negotiation between Greece and its creditors, failure to reach a sensible agreement would have made all parties much worse off in the end. But because of each side’s desire to secure the best possible terms, this worst-case scenario was a real possibility.
While the ultimate decision was up to the leaders of Greece, the IMF, and the eurozone countries, I think we helped steer the conversation in a more pragmatic direction because of the credibility we had in Athens, Brussels and Berlin. We argued with the creditor countries that Greece had been saddled with an unsustainably high debt burden and that reform would only go so far with such a large debt overhang. At the same time, we encouraged the Greek leadership to think about how to demonstrate to its creditors that it had a credible roadmap for systemic economic reform, which was necessary. While a deal was reached and the worst of the crisis is behind us, we are not yet completely out of the woods. I believe the United States continues to have a role to play in supporting the parties as they move forward with discussions on Greece’s economic future.
Does the Eastern Med hold serious promise in terms of energy resources? What is the best way to go about their exploration and transportation?
The discovery of natural gas in Cyprus, Israel and Egypt – and the potential for discoveries in Greece and Lebanon – is an exciting development that could bring about not only economic prosperity, but also enhance regional security through cooperation, collaboration and integration.
Through my deep involvement in the diplomatic efforts throughout the region, I saw firsthand the impact “energy diplomacy” has already had and the potential for so much more. We have seen the strengthening of strategic relations between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. In combination with the Southern Gas corridor and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, the Eastern Mediterranean can, and I believe will, become an important part of the diversification solution to Europe’s energy security crisis.
This potential could be further maximized if a resolution of the Cyprus conflict is achieved, because it would unlock transport routes to Turkey and beyond. The countries in the region therefore need to focus on strengthening diplomatic ties and ensuring an attractive economic and legal environment to entice international energy companies. The success of the most recent bid round in Cyprus is a good indication of great interest and promise the private sector sees in this region.
There has been a lot of confusion about the goals of US foreign policy since January. Are you worried that this perception will erode US leadership around the world? Can it be reversed?
When US presidents speak about foreign policy, the entire world hangs on their every word. Foreign leaders, diplomats, politicians and pundits try to discern the meaning behind every utterance, tweet and gesture. That is why it is so important for this administration, like every administration that came before it, to clearly and consistently articulate its goals and interests.
I can understand why some confusion exists. One day we hear that NATO is obsolete, and only a few weeks later we hear that NATO is not in fact obsolete. For a NATO ally like Greece, this mixed messaging is troubling and disorienting. NATO has been the cornerstone of security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean for many decades, and in my view, NATO will continue to play that role for many more decades to come. Greece has been a stalwart ally of the United States and has made enormous contributions to the Alliance, not just by meeting or exceeding the Wales Summit defense spending commitments, but also by sending troops to overseas peacekeeping missions.
Unfortunately, there are some who take security and prosperity in Europe for granted – questioning the value of our alliances, and indeed of the rules-based international order that the United States, Greece and other countries painstakingly helped to build over many decades after the Second World War. Don’t forget that the United States and Greece have been allies in every major 20th and 21st century conflict – from World War I to today’s fight against ISIS. Our alliance must never be dismissed or discounted as “obsolete.”
Notwithstanding the mixed messages coming out of the White House, we fortunately have a strong bipartisan consensus in the United States Congress on the need to invest in our alliances and promote international norms. Based on this consensus, I am confident that the United States will continue to play an important leadership role in the future. Administrations come and go, but the fundamental interest of the United States in a Europe whole, free and at peace is enduring and will survive the political turbulence we are currently experiencing in Washington.