The establishment of a regional organisation for security and cooperation in the Middle East is the further step that needs to be taken in the Eastern Mediterranean, Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides has said.
The minister was speaking during a panel discussion at the AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee) Policy Conference in Washington.
The other two panellists were the Executive Editor of Athens daily “Kathimerini” Alexis Papahelas and the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) Endy Zemenides.
Before his remarks, Christodoulides condemned “in the strongest possible terms” Sunday’s attack against Israel. He said that the main pillar of Cyprus’ foreign policy is to enhance its relationship with the neighbouring countries, namely the Middle East and the Gulf States.
“We are working at two levels. First at bilateral level with all neighbouring countries; second at a trilateral level, with the trilateral mechanisms we have started with Greece, because we believe that if we work together we can better manage the common challenges of the region and be more effective,” he said.
He added that from energy, which was initially the main issue at the trilaterals, now they were also discussing energy, security, defence, research and development, health and all issues of concern to the countries in the region.
“We are very glad that the international community is recognizing this added value of the trilateral mechanism and in this regard we had the participation of Secretary Pompeo at the meeting in Jerusalem that is sending a clear message of the political support of the United States to this regional cooperation,” Christodoulides said.
He also expressed satisfaction that France was interested in participating in the cooperation with Egypt, while Italy was already in discussions with Cyprus, Greece and Israel on the issue of energy.
“We believe we have to take a further step, to institutionalise our partnership and establish a regional cooperation for security and cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is actually the only region in the world that doesn’t have regional organisation,” he said.
Christodoulides informed the audience of the decision of the Cyprus government to establish a permanent secretariat for the trilateral mechanisms.
“We asked our partners in the region to appoint a diplomat in this permanent secretariat, in order to start working together with all countries in the region. Our long-term vision is to develop this secretariat to an Organisation of Regional Cooperation,” he said.
“We are always working on a positive agenda and we came together not against a third country, but because we believe through our cooperation we can better manage the great challenges of the Eastern Mediterranean. We are pillars of stability, we are predictable countries,” he added.
Christodoulides welcomed the Egyptian initiative to start a Gas Forum, describing it as an example of what can be done by working together “in all areas, not just energy”.
He said the potential of the Eastern Mediterranean to be developed as an alternative energy route to Europe was very important.
“That is why we want all countries in the region to work together and what we want to create is an ‘EastMed Corridor’,” Christodoulides said, expressing satisfaction because what Cyprus was saying five years ago that energy could play the same role for the region as was played by steel and coal in post-war Europe had been proven correct.
“Now in our discussions, all neighbouring countries see the importance of institutionalising our cooperation to a regional organisation for security and cooperation”, he said.
No one was excluded from this regional cooperation, he said.
“We don’t exclude anyone, even Turkey. We are open to everybody. Unfortunately, we cannot change geography; Turkey will always be there as a neighbour of Cyprus, Greece and Israel. Turkey with its behaviour excluded itself from our discussions. If Turkey wants to join these discussions, it is up to Turkey; to have good neighbouring relations and to respect the sovereign rights of the countries in the region,” Christodoulides added.
Asked what more the United States could do to encourage this process, Christodoulides said: “The US administration was approaching Cyprus through the prism of US-Turkey relationship or through the developments in the Cyprus issue. We tried to change this perception and we are very glad that gradually there is a change in Washington. Last November we had the first ever statement of intent with US government, on security issues, something we consider very important in our bilateral relationship,” he said.
Christodoulides also said it was important that Cyprus was recognised as a security provider and a pillar of stability in the region and not as security consumer, and he welcomed the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Jerusalem meeting last week.
Speaking about what he sees as the next step, he said that something that was discussed last week in Jerusalem was for the foreign ministries of the countries to identify other areas of cooperation besides energy. He also said that at last week’s meeting the issues discussed were energy and maritime security in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Now we are working to identify more areas, in order for the 3+1 cooperation to be enhanced in areas other than energy. We want the clear political support from the US government and a clear endorsement of this trilateral cooperation. We really believe that this is also for the benefit of the United States and the EU, and we are glad that we see an increased interest of the US administration for the developments in the region,” he said.