Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Palmer “In Conversation” with Nektaria Stamouli
Moderated Q&A at Delphi Economic Forum Event
Grande Bretagne Hotel
March 5, 2020
Moderator: Good afternoon everyone, and thanks to all the distinguished guests joining us here today for this important event. We are joined today by the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. State Department, Matt Palmer, a man well known in the region and for a good reason. Mr. Palmer is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, currently responsible for the Western Balkans and the Aegean. He knows the region very well. He speaks Greek fluently–
DAS Palmer: Όχι, όχι, όχι! [No, no, no!]
Moderator: We’re going to do this in English, don’t worry. [Laughter]. He has served in Cyprus as well as in Serbia, that’s why he speaks all these languages. He’s going to talk to us about the U.S. role and strategy in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, a very volatile area where Greece is a pillar of stability. And then we’re going to have a Q&A session to analyze all this.
Mr. Palmer, the floor is yours.
DAS Palmer: Thank you very much, Nektaria. Thank you for the kind introduction. This is an extraordinary group, Symeon, that you’ve put together here, and I’m grateful for this opportunity, although representing the Delphi Forum is a tremendous spurt. It’s a lot of responsibility, a little bit of pressure also to be in a room where you call out, Hello Minister, and 20 heads turn to see who’s speaking.
Thank you all for coming tonight. Thank you for this opportunity. This is a remarkable moment in the U.S.-Greece relationship. It is inarguably I think the best moment in this relationship in the history of modern Greece. I think we saw this very clearly in the recent visit of Prime Minister Mitsotakis to Washington which in many ways was really the event of the season, and it underscored the depth and the breadth of this relationship. We work well and closely together across the Eastern Mediterranean, well and closely together in the Western Balkans. We see the world in a very similar way. Our interests, our values, our policies align very closely. We see Greece as a pillar of stability in the region. We see Greece as a partner for the United States in terms of security issues, in terms of energy issues, in terms of promoting rule of law and stability across the region. We look forward to building on the good work that we have done to date and further deepening and strengthening this important partnership going forward.
This is a challenging time in the Eastern Mediterranean. Certainly what we’re seeing on the border right now between Greece and Turkey underscores how fragile the situation can be. Through this all, Greece can count on the friendship, support, and the partnership of the United States.
Moderator: First of all, I would like to start with the issue that you mentioned, and it’s currently at the top on the Greek agenda and the European agenda, which is migration. Many are concerned that Turkey invaded Syrian territory despite advice to the contrary, and has created a humanitarian crisis. And now it’s weaponizing migrants to force support from the international community.
How do you comment on that? What’s the U.S. perspective on that?
DAS Palmer: I’d like to begin, if I may, with just a few thoughts about Idlib and to underscore that from the perspective of the United States, as we look at it, the responsible party is the Syrian regime and Russia as well as Iran and Hezbollah. But the responsibility for the violence in Idlib for the assaults on civilians that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, that responsibility lies with Damascus and Moscow.
In terms of what’s happening right now on the border between Greece and Turkey, I would underscore what it was that the President of the United States said to the Prime Minister, to Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Greece has a right to defend its borders. This is an entirely reasonable position. It’s the right and responsibility of every nation state.
I would resist describing the migrants and the refugees as weapons. I think it’s important that we understand them for what they are, which is human beings, and as much a victim of circumstances as anybody else.
We are deeply sympathetic to the position that Greece finds itself in and to the disproportionate share of the burden within the European context that Greece finds itself bearing. And in this, we welcome the recent demonstration of support on the part of EU authorities, the commitment of 700 million euros to support Greece in providing services to migrants and refugees; the additional personnel related to Frontex to help provide for security. So the EU has demonstrated also that it recognizes the burden that Greece is bearing, and it’s important that all involved find a way to come together, sit at the table, talk this stuff through, and find a path forward, a solution that respects everybody’s needs and the interests of all parties.
Moderator: Are you worried there could be a spillover effect in the Balkans or in Cyprus as it happened in 2015? And is migration an issue that you have already or you are currently discussing with Turkey?
DAS Palmer: Certainly the risk that migrants moving from Turkey towards European destinations, moving through the Balkans and in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, getting trapped in Bosnia-Herzegovina, puts pressure on the governments and the economies and the social structures in the Western Balkans in a way that can be very difficult for some of these fragile states in the Western Balkans to manage.
So yes, that is a concern. It’s important that this issue be addressed by all of the stakeholders and that we find a solution that allows for stability and provides for a durable long-term answer to this challenge.
Moderator: I would like to ask something more about Turkey specifically. Turkey is a NATO Ally, but it’s also the only country in the region that has a revisionist agenda. We have seen what happened in Syria. It is violating the arms embargo in Libya. And it seems to get away with that. Is there a red line on what constitutes unacceptable behavior?
DAS Palmer: Certainly the relationship with Turkey is complicated. It’s complicated for Greece, it’s complicated for the European Union, it’s complicated for the United States. The current migration challenges are only one aspect of that relationship and demonstrates only one component of this very deep, complex, but consequential relationship that we have with Turkey that needs to be managed.
So I think it’s important that we work to address some of the points of friction, that we work to address the challenges of Turkish drilling operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, that we work to address what’s going on in Syria, that we work to address the issue of migration, but that we do so in such a way that keeps Turkey firmly anchored in the strategic West as a NATO ally and as a partner.
In that regard, we’re pleased to see channels of communication being opened between Greece and Turkey including on military confidence building. This is something that will go a long way towards restoring a durable equilibrium and create vehicles, mechanisms, for not just Greece but for all of us to engage in managing this very complex and interrelated set of challenges.
Moderator: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the U.S. administration seems hesitant to apply U.S. law on Turkey. Will the U.S. proceed and apply sanctions should Turkey activate the S400?
DAS Palmer: I can’t preview sanctions decisions. There’s a deliberative process that’s underway. What I can tell you is that Turkey’s decision to acquire the S400 is of significant concern to the United States. We’ve made that very clear in both our public messaging and in our private conversations with Turkish officials at the highest level.
There have been consequences, and those consequences have been immediate and significant, including in particular, Turkey being unwound from participation in the F-35 program. That’s true both in terms of the receipt of physical aircraft and in terms of participation in the industrial production of the F-35. That is a consequence that is significant, something that Turkey understands as being a negative for Turkey and for Turkish security. And I’m hopeful going forward that we’ll be able to find a way to address U.S. concerns about the S400 that would make it possible for Turkey to be restored to the F-35 program. But we’re quite some ways from there.
Moderator: We generally see the U.S. is drifting its attention from the Middle East, and sometimes it has a rather ambiguous stance in the Eastern Mediterranean. We have seen that President Trump signed the East Med Act, but he said he expressed some reservation.
So I would like to ask you, what does the U.S. want its role to be in the Eastern Mediterranean?
DAS Palmer: That’s a great question, Nektaria, it really is. I think what I would underscore here is that we are increasingly looking at the Eastern Mediterranean as a coherent strategic space, one where the United States finds itself competing for positive influence against big powers. The Russians are here, the Chinese are here within the Eastern Mediterranean framework, the Iranians are here, and the United States is here. We are competing for influence in a positive fashion. We have a vision for this region that is one of harmony, that is one of shared interests and shared values. We’d like to work with the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean to promote a collective response to shared challenges.
I would highlight, for example, the 3+1, which brings Greece, Cyprus, and Israel together with the United States to discuss energy and security issues in a positive, forward-leaning fashion. This is an important vehicle for us. I think it’s an important vehicle for the region. And I think it’s a model for the kind of multilateral cooperation that can help manage shared challenges in a confined space.
Moderator: What can Greece and Cyprus expect from the U.S. regarding Turkey? For example, if there is a drill ship or a research vessel and it starts operating off Crete or off Rhodes. What can we expect from the U.S.?
DAS Palmer: I think in the beginning what you can expect from us is that we’re going to do everything we can to keep the situation from getting to the point where there is any kind of crisis. It’s important to keep dialogue open, it’s important to keep channels of communication open. We’d like to avoid a spike in tension. We’d like to see if we can remove elements of friction. We’d like to do everything that we can to ensure that two partners, two Allies don’t find themselves at odds.
In the past, you’ve seen the United States engage at senior levels when there have been upticks in tension to try and help resolve those. Senior Americans getting on the phone, getting on planes, working with partners in Athens and in Ankara to address and resolve these points of friction before they become points of conflict.
Moderator: After the Greek Prime Minister’s trip to Washington and his meeting with President Trump, there were many reports, I’m sure you’re aware, that there will be an initiative, a U.S. initiative that would alleviate tensions between Greece and Turkey. And I would like to ask you, because this was stipulated: Are you the initiative? [Laughter].
DAS Palmer: You know, I’m always trying to take the initiative. [Laughter]. That’s a loaded word, “initiative.” I wouldn’t describe anything that we’re doing as representing some kind of single coherent initiative. But what we are doing is, we are engaged on a regular basis, every day, with our Greek partners, with our Turkish partners, with Israel, with Cyprus, with Egypt, with the entire Eastern Mediterranean, trying to address and resolve some of these regional challenges.
Certainly what’s going on in Syria right now is of serious concern to all of us. What’s going on in Libya is not just an issue for Libya, it’s an issue for the entire region, one where we’re all stakeholders, one where we all have skin in the game and a stake in the outcome.
So we’re working with allies and partners and friends to try and address and resolve these issues and create a framework for the region that is supportive of and conducive to all of our collective interests.
Moderator: We know that the U.S. is very interested in Alexandroupolis. I would like to know if there is any development there. I know you are visiting, I think, tomorrow. And generally, if there’s any, if you see a lot of interest from U.S. investors. How do you see the climate?
DAS Palmer: Thanks for that question. Ambassador Pyatt and I are getting on a plane tomorrow evening to go to Alexandroupolis and I will confess, it will be my first time. So I’m excited about it. It’s a part of Greece I haven’t been to before, and I’m really looking forward to it.
We see the infrastructure being developed at Alexandroupolis as being an essential component of the broader regional energy infrastructure. This is a point of entry for LNG from multiple sources including from the United States. We see Alexandroupolis feeding into the broader regional and Europe-wide energy grid opportunities to move LNG up through Bulgaria into the European system, and then up through the Western Balkans.
I think the Alexandroupolis facility will position Greece to be a leader of the energy field. This is something that the United States looks at as being a very positive development. It will strengthen Greece’s footprint in the Western Balkans. It will position Greece to play a leading role in the region. We look at Greece as a strong, capable partner in this effort. The United States looks forward to working well and closely with our Greek friends and partners in this.
In terms of American investors, absolutely. I think there’s American business that looks at this as an opportunity, not just the LNG exporters, but I think you’re going to find American business looking for ways that they can get in on the action too, as the grid begins to expand and opportunities are created for international companies, multinational companies, to make investments with an expectation of sufficient return.
Moderator: What about the East Med (Pipeline Accord). It was signed in early January, and we know that it has the U.S. support. Does it make sense, there is a lot of speculation if it makes sense business wise. What do you think? Is it going to materialize?
DAS Palmer: The East Med Pipeline, do you mean?
DAS Palmer: I try not to make predictions about the future, and I especially try not to make predictions in those areas in which I am woefully unqualified to make predictions. And this kind of big energy infrastructure investment is an area in which I’m going to say conservatively, there are 25 people in this room better positioned to answer that question that me.
I can tell you what we’d like to see, which is that we’d like to see the resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, the hydrocarbon resources, developed cooperatively and brought to market in a manner that helps provide for regional and European energy security through diversity of supply. There’s a lot of different ways to do that, and I think it’s going to be markets more than governments that are the drivers of that, as it’s important that these projects be sustainable and productive.
Moderator: Now let’s move a bit to the Balkans. What do you think about the Europeans’ failure to decide on enlargement? And if you think there will be a positive outcome there soon?
DAS Palmer: I’m on record calling the non-decision from October a mistake. In fact, I think I called it a historic mistake. The good news is that there is an opportunity to rectify that mistake in March at the European Council Meeting later this month. We would very much like to see a positive decision by the European Council to open accession negotiations with both North Macedonia and Albania. We think that both countries qualify for this on the merits. The recent report from the European Commission was very positive, very supportive, makes very clear that it is of strategic importance for the European Union to offer the green light to both Skopje and Tirana. It’s important that the European Union send a clear and unambiguous signal to the Western Balkans that the path to the European Union is open. That there is a prospect, a prospective, to use the EU terminology, for eventual membership for the Western Balkans. And Albania, North Macedonia, this is the place to start.
Moderator: There are elections next month in North Macedonia. Do you think if VMRO is elected, the Prespa Agreement might be torpedoed or the European perspective of the country might be diverted?
DAS Palmer: Again, I don’t really want to predict what VMRO’s-DPMNE’s policies would be when and if they come to power. I can tell you what the United States will do, which is to reaffirm and underscore after the April 12 elections in North Macedonia our continued support for the Prespa Agreement, the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, and a path forward for North Macedonia towards membership in the European Union.
The implementation of Prespa is key to North Macedonia’s progress towards EU membership. These things are entwined and mutually supportive and reinforcing.
We’re also looking forward to North Macedonia moving ahead on the NATO track. Here I think we can expect much more rapid progress. I expect Spain to move forward with this over the course of the next couple of weeks, and it is my hope that in the very near future, we will be able to celebrate North Macedonia’s accession to the NATO Alliance as the 30th member of NATO, and that will be a great day, something that we’ve been working towards for many years.
Moderator: As regards Cyprus. Do you see any prospects of the Cyprus issue being resolved? And does the U.S. prefer a one state or a two state solution?
DAS Palmer: The United States support for a bi-zonal, bi-communal, federal settlement on the island of Cyprus is of long standing. It is clear, it is unambiguous, and it has not changed. We are committed to working with the Greek Cypriot community, the Turkish Cypriot community, the leadership on both sides in support of a UN facilitated process that reaches this agreement.
There is an active process underway, spearheaded by Jane Holl Lute looking to establish the terms of reference for a renewed effort. We’re hopeful that that process will bear fruit, and that the parties will be able to agree on the basis for renewed effort to achieve agreement on a Cyprus settlement.
Resolving the longstanding Cyprus dispute, reuniting the island of Cyprus, would make a tremendously positive and important contribution to regional peace and security. And this is an effort that the United States has long supported, one that we will continue to support going forward, one that I’ve dedicated a fair part of my life to. So for me, it’s personal as well as professional. I lived three years in Cyprus. I have great affection for the place. And I’m committed to do everything that I can to help bring that about.
Moderator: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Palmer for this very interesting discussion.
Mr. Ambassador, would you like to add something?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks, Nektaria. First of all, I want to say again a huge thank you on behalf of the Embassy to Symeon and to the Delphi Forum for putting this together.
We are very committed to the vision of Greece’s regional role, that Delphi represents, so I’m looking forward to June, and we’ll be there.
I just wanted to capture one idea. We’ve talked a lot about different topics tonight. If there was one sentence to capture what underlines this, it’s the idea that we are in this together. We’ve talked about Henry Kissinger. We’ve talked about Secretary Pompeo’s letter to the Prime Minister. The thing that I would emphasize, and I have seen the evolution of this now over four years, going back to 2016. We have built a remarkable level of confidence between our two governments, and so we understand that we share the same strategic objectives, and we have developed the ability to talk through with each other some really difficult issues including the particularly difficult issue of how to ensure that we keep Turkey anchored in the West, and how we work together to achieve that objective. Because we have exactly the same strategic objective.
But the other thing that I would really emphasize, and I think you see it in the candor that Matt has offered this evening, and I will tell you, his government meetings are even more frank than this in terms of how we now talk to each other.
We come to this not as adversaries or countries that have different interests or different outlooks, but as allies and partners with a very highly developed ability now to work together. And I think as Matt said, the United States has begun to pay much more attention to this part of the world, and in particular, our efforts through the 3+1 to look at the Eastern Mediterranean as a unified strategic space. And Greece is our partner to do that.
We won’t always be able to answer every question. But I think what I would really like to underline is how far we have come, and frankly, it has been the accomplishment now of two different Greek governments, both the Syriza government and now New Democracy, in terms of building this kind of a partnership where we’re able to deal with each other on very difficult issues, including the fact that on a Sunday afternoon when a lot of other things were going on in the United States, Prime Minister Mitsotakis was able to get President Trump onto the phone, and then there’s a very clear signal from the President of the United States that we understand and recognize the right of Greece to do exactly what it’s been doing over the past few days on its northern frontier.
Moderator: Thank you all very much.