Ms President of the European Commission,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to meet with you today, even under these unprecedented conditions needed to protect everyone from the coronavirus. It is fortunate, however, that technology can do away with both distance and with time.
So, let us travel through time.
In the late 10th century, a Byzantine princess left Istanbul for Saxony. She was the niece of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Theophano, set to wed Otto II and sit by his side on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.
In fact, she was destined to later become ruling empress, reigning on her own after his death.
This marriage gave Germans rights to the title of ‘Holy Roman Emperor’, which was, until then, reserved exclusively for those crowned in Constantinople.
But, at the same time, it instilled the West with the Byzantine culture and civilization, where the Greek element prevailed. One could, thus, say that it was an early union of our continent.
More than a millennium later, Empress Theophano makes the reverse journey. Now a strong symbol, she returns to one of the most prosperous cities of the Eastern Empire.
And she lends her name to a prize dedicated to the historical links between European peoples – and, importantly, to their shared future.
The Empress Theophano distinction was born to honour individuals, institutions and organisations that promote and further the European idea.
That is, those who contribute to the comprehension of Europe’s different starting points, all of which nevertheless flow into the same river bed: the equal union of its states.
It is a prize that is quite literally European. Because the idea comes from former President of the Council Herman Van Rompuy.
Its realisation from a group of restless personalities from Northern Greece. And its aesthetic embellishment, from Belgian artist Jan Vanriet.
Moreover, it constitutes a bridge that links Thessaloniki to Europe even more closely.
Because, whilst the nominations are put forth by the Advisory Committee, made up of prominent citizens from our continent, it is the Governing Council who make the final decision, made up of key figures in society, in the letters and in entrepreneurship of the capital of Macedonia, Thessaloniki.
After all, Thessaloniki itself constituted an early model of Europe as a region since, for centuries, it was contested by several conquerors, maturing into a crossroads of cultures and a home for different populations.
Just like this wonderful space that hosts us: the Rotunda was built as an idolatrous temple but became a Christian church, having also earlier functioned as a mosque. To become, today, a landmark for a dynamic metropolis that is a supranational Balkan pole.
That is, unfortunately, not the case with another leading symbol of religions and cultures meeting: the Hagia Sophia.
And it is very important that just yesterday, United States’ Presidential candidate Joe Biden added his voice to the global wave of protests against its conversion into a mosque.
He explicitly called for it to be restored to being a monument for all of humanity.
Ten centuries on, after the Byzantine princess’s first journey, we do not base European countries’ ties on marriages of their monarchs.
On the contrary, they are built on the interaction of its citizens, which is the essence of its democratic achievement: not just connecting states. But having their societies share a common fate.
The inaugural prize thus deservedly belongs to an institution which, for over three decades, has been promoting the osmosis and mutual understanding of Europeans.
How? By moulding the youth and by giving shape to the status of European citizen.
Because almost ten million young men and women have already aligned with the ERASMUS programme, from Cork to Heraklion and from Porto to Tallinn.
They have travelled and studied in hundreds of cities across the continent, enjoying experiences inside classrooms and at each city’s favourite haunts before enriching the European Union with new, dynamic blood.
Through this experience, ERASMUS participants have realised how our individual historical and regional differences are tiles on a mosaic rather than cracks in the larger image of the geographical and cultural unity of Europe
This is why many of them are now protagonists in the political, scientific and artistic life of our countries.
In fact, it is no accident that Xavier Bettel, the Prime Minister of Luxemburg, always takes the opportunity to speak warmly of his ERASMUS semester in the Law School of the Aristotle University.
And, of course, about his wonderful life here, in Thessaloniki.
So, by awarding the first of the Empress Theophano prizes to this programme, the Governing Committee is honouring the core of European values: understanding and brotherhood between citizens, which leads to collaboration between countries.
But at the same time, it honours Europe’s universal intellectual light, which found one of its most genuine representatives in the Dutch philosopher Erasmus.
The young men and women of ERASMUS were the first to live in a unified, free Europe. Without the religious rivalries, national wars and political conflicts which divided it in previous centuries.
But they also were the first to see first-hand not just the accomplishments but also the shortcomings of the European project. Because, together with their new friends in the countries where they studied, they also became acquainted with issues that continue to exist.
In other words, alongside the benefits of Unified Europe, they shared scepticism on its weaknesses. Therefore, their opinion is important.
Especially these days, when several of the certainties on which we have lived for decades are being shaken.
Because the given goals of cross-national safety and financial stability now see new threats such as health threats and the climate crisis. Meanwhile, the emergence of new centres of power is gravely disputing the historical prestige and influence of Europe on the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear Ursula,
All of these cause internal shocks, as certain poor choices amplify internal inequalities. Other hesitations undermine European confidence.
And certain cases of inaction embolden unsolicited third parties who rush to arbitrary action in areas where Europe has a strategic interest. These are challenges we ought to face head-on, and address.
Because, in turn, our common homeland’s societies are concerned. Their cohesion and their trust in the common vision are challenged. While irrationalism, populism and bigotry find fertile ground to develop.
With the Covid pandemic running riot and the economic crisis threatening labour and wealth, our difficulties are growing.
And it is natural for our peoples to turn to their governments – national but also supranational, European. Thus, our own responsibilities are growing.
Because Europe progresses when it listens to the requests of its people. And they prosper when the European Union responds to their expectations.
We are, therefore, here to affirm our conviction that we have come far and we are going further.
And, indeed, we recently took a major step towards something that once seemed taboo: that is, the potential for the European Union to fund and be funded as a supranational entity in its own right.
An attempt that should not merely succeed; it ought to become the starting point for a new course.
Nevertheless, one more front that tests the European idea has surfaced: Europe’s borders; not just the outline of European sovereignty but its very core values.
These are disputed when a third country like Turkey attempts to infringe on the rights of two member-states, Greece and Cyprus; posing a threat to an area that is sensitive not just for Europe but for international security.
The answer of the latest European Council to this matter was clear and unanimous: it explicitly aligned with Athens and Nicosia.
It invited Ankara to abandon its unilateral and aggressive acts, and to return to discussions on marine areas according to International Law.
The Turkish government was informed that its conduct will determine the future of Euro-Turkish relations. And, finally, the Council requested the reopening of the negotiations on Cyprus under the UN.
I would like to take the opportunity to condemn Turkey’s decision to extend the entry licence to the coast of Varosha.
This decision is in clear violation of the Decisions of the Security Council of the United Nations, and Greece shall stand by all relevant efforts undertaken by the Republic of Cyprus.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In addition to the coronavirus, economic upheaval and dangers to international security, one more challenge is testing Europe: immigration, whose burden has disproportionately fallen on our country.
Defending the eastern borders of our continent. Constantly saving lives in the waters of the Aegean. And hosting thousands of persecuted individuals inside its structures.
However, the pressure is immense for a single country to bear. Refugees are too many to fit in its expanse. And too disparate to smoothly integrate into its society.
Greece might have proven both its deterrent power and its humanitarian conduct, but the problem is intensifying. And, unfortunately, it has become explosive during the pandemic.
The recent destruction of the Moria camp proved the State’s readiness to create an alternative structure in record time. But it also signposted the limits of European immigration policy.
The European Union’s new Pact on Immigration and Asylum should, thus, constitute a serious starting point for its revision. So that Europe can achieve uniform and stable control of its borders.
Common and flexible asylum rules. And, above all, a system to fairly share the burden of managing refugee flows.
But enough about the several issues facing us that we are called to act upon.
As dear Ursula recently said at the European Parliament, “let’s stop talking… And let’s get to work … And let’s build the world we want to live in”.
Today, we celebrate Europe and its values. And I am overjoyed that the Empress Theophano Prize for the ERASMUS institution will be received by the President of the Commission herself.
She is, I believe, the most suitable person to bring to Brussels the honour awarded by Thessaloniki to the idea and to the future of our shared homeland.
A prize that carries the name of a powerful woman from the 10th century, in the hands of a dynamic woman and a leading figure of the 21st century.