Briefing With Senior State Department Official On Secretary Pompeo’s Travel to Greece, Italy, Holy See, and Croatia

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks, and thank you, everybody, for joining us this morning. Welcome to this background call previewing Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Greece, Italy, the Holy See, and Croatia. Joining us this morning to brief you is [Senior State Department Official]. He will appear in the transcript and for your reporting as a senior State Department official. He’ll begin with an overview of the trip and then take your questions.

Since this briefing is on the trip, I would ask that you confine your questions to that subject matter. As a reminder, the call is on background, and the contents are embargoed until the completion of the call. For the sake of efficiency, if you would like to ask a question, please feel free to go ahead and get in the question queue by dialing 1 and then 0.

And with that, I’ll go ahead and hand it over to our briefer. Please, go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hey, thank you, [Moderator], and thanks, everyone, for joining us as we get ready to head back to Europe. It seems like just a few weeks ago the Secretary was doing his travel in Central Europe meeting with a number of allies and important partners there, and now, as [Moderator] noted, we’re traveling to Greece, Italy, we’ll also go to the Holy See, and Croatia next week departing on Sunday.

This is going to be Secretary Pompeo’s second trip to Greece. It was just under a year ago when we went to Athens and had – as part of our bilateral Strategic Dialogue with Greece and a number of engagements there. I think going back this year, it will underscore just how strong U.S.-Greek ties have become over the last few years. U.S.-Greek relations really are at a generational high, and this coming visit will underscore a year of real successes in our bilateral relationship.

We are flying into Thessaloniki. This will be the first time that a U.S. secretary of state visits that extraordinarily historic city. It is, of course, a gateway to the Balkans in terms of investment and trade, and we’ll be under – able to discuss and underscore a lot of progress that’s gone on in that region. It happens to be the hometown of Foreign Minister Dendias, which will add a nice touch to it, and of course, I think being able to get outside of the capitals gives the Secretary a chance to highlight our engagement broadly in Greece and other countries, for that matter.

We’ll demonstrate in Thessaloniki how we are, together with Greece, investing in the future of the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the Balkans. I think we noted in the trip announcement that the Secretary will sign a bilateral science and technology agreement. There will be an energy sector business leaders gathering that the Secretary will host to discuss and highlight energy diversification and infrastructure projects in Greece. I think you’re well aware of the push to help Greece become a more capable partner with the United States in terms of energy diversification and independence. The Development Finance Corporation recently visited Athens and is working to support a number of projects there, including with the Alexandroupoli and Kavala ports. So, a lot to do in Thessaloniki.

We’ll travel then the following day to Crete – the island of Crete to meet with Prime Minister Mitsotakis – that happens to be his home as well – and visit the Naval Support Activity at Souda Bay. This engagement, I think, is another example of the security relationship that, of course, has expanded since we signed last year the revision and expansion of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement with Greece. That’s enabled us to really enhance a lot of bilateral activities at Larissa and Stefanovikeio. We’ve been able to increase activity at the Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, and of course have assured access at the port of Alexandroupoli. As I mentioned, these are really big developments in terms of working with our NATO allies, in this case particularly Greece.

The 30th of September, we’ll then fly on to Rome, and this will be highlighted by the Secretary’s participation that day at the international religious freedom symposium that is being hosted by the U.S Embassy to the Holy See. It’s entitled “Advancing and Defending International Religious Freedom through Diplomacy,” and as you know, promoting the unalienable human right of religious freedom and fighting religious persecution is a key priority for the administration and a foundation of our diplomatic relationship with the Holy See. I think many of you are aware that the department has hosted in the last couple years the largest gatherings of religious leaders of all faiths at the Ministerial on Religious Freedom to discuss our joint efforts in this sphere.

The Secretary will meet with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin as well as the Vatican Foreign Affairs Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher. They will participate alongside the Secretary at the symposium to emphasize this important work, and then separately, there will be bilateral meetings with those Holy See officials.

In Rome, obviously, the Secretary will meet with Prime Minister Conte as well as Foreign Minister Di Maio. They’re just through some regional elections in Italy and it will be an opportunity for the Secretary and our partners there to catch up with a range of issues. Obviously, Italy is an important ally. We’ll be reviewing the transatlantic relationship, our joint priorities, certainly talking about COVID and what we’ve done together. You’ll recall the United States provided and continues to work on providing a large amount of assistance to our Italian partners who suffered so greatly in the early stages of – really on the front lines of the pandemic. They’ll look at promoting global security and countering malign influence in Italy and in other areas of joint interest throughout Europe. Certainly our commitment to safeguarding infrastructure will be important topics, and we’ll review, as I said, the package of humanitarian assistance we provided to Italy.

The Secretary also will have a chance in Rome to meet with the many international organizations, the UN organizations based there. And our mission, of course, Rome being a tri-mission city, as we call it, not just the bilateral and the Vatican missions, but also our mission to the UN organizations in Rome. So he’ll have a chance to have some multilateral meetings there.

And then we’re going to fly off – the Secretary will head on Friday morning to Dubrovnik in Croatia, where he will meet with Prime Minister Plenkovic as well the Foreign Minister Radman and the Defense Minister Banozic. Croatia, as you all know, is a steadfast ally and partner, a friend of the United States. They’re really a model of the Euro-Atlantic integration, something we promoted as a matter of policy for a number of years, and a real opportunity to see firsthand the extraordinary developments in Croatia in a part of the world that make it virtually unrecognizable from the newly independent country that emerged 25 years ago. When we think back to – a quarter century to the breakup of Yugoslavia, I think we’ll be able to reflect on the sustained U.S. engagement in Croatia where our assistance has certainly played a role, our engagement across the region as well. And Croatia represents the commitment to Euro-Atlantic values and institutions.

We’re certainly looking at our expansion in trade and investment, military cooperation, a whole range of things, as well as energy diversification, the Krk Island regasification facility that’s moved forward, and this will, again, allow us to just further deepen our excellent bilateral ties and celebrate Croatia’s successes while holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union earlier this year. And again, the COVID-19 pandemic and how they’ve been dealing with that, how we can trade experiences and information will underlie all of these stops as well. Under Croatia’s leadership in the region, we helped see the EU move ahead with negotiations for additional countries from the Balkan region, North Macedonia and Albania – Croatia’s played a big role in that.

So this will be a busy trip. The Secretary’s looking forward to it. A great opportunity, again, to meet with close counterparts in Europe and really make good use of just four days on the ground.

I’m happy to stop there and open up for questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen on the phone lines, again, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 followed by the 0. You’ll hear an acknowledgment that you’ve been placed in queue, and you can take yourself out of the queue by just hitting the 1-0 command again.

MODERATOR: Okay, for our first question can we go to – actually, when I call on you I’ll call on you by name. If you would give the name of the outlet you’re with before you ask your question. So for our first question, let’s go to Michail Ignatiou.

OPERATOR: Mr. Ignatiou is with the Open TV Hellas Journal. Please, go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], good morning. Good morning to all, and thank you for the briefing. I’m Michail Ignatiou. According to reports, Mr. Pompeo – Secretary Pompeo is going to Greece as a mediator in the conflict with Turkey. I wanted to ask you if this is – this information is true. And my second question: Did you ask Greece to withdraw its troops and weapons from the Aegean Islands? There are also reports about this. Thank you very, very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Michail. Nice to hear your voice. As you know, we’ve been vocal and the Secretary has certainly talked about it many times, on the need to de-escalate in the Eastern Med. He’s expressed his deep concern for challenges we’ve had there, but again, also embracing the recent positive developments and the prospect of return to dialogue. We welcomed the September 22nd announcement of the resumption of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey; certainly encouraging that. So I’m sure that will be touched upon.

As you know, the Secretary had met with Foreign Minister Dendias in Vienna last month, and also met with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu of Turkey a few days later when they were both in the Dominican Republic. Certainly the ability to deconflict and then have discussions and dialogue is so important between these two NATO allies, Turkey and Greece, and reduces the likelihood of any accidents or incidents, so we continue to encourage Greece and Turkey to move forward on that and ideally be able to create – complete an agreement.

This will be a trip that focuses, as I said in the opening remarks, on our bilateral relationship with Greece. We really have done so much in a year; we can reflect on that, some of the new developments – energy diversification, as I said, is an important topic in Thessaloniki and northern Greece, and we’ll highlight things like energy cooperation and economic ties.

And in Souda Bay we’ll focus, as I indicated, on our security relationship. Good security in the Eastern Med is, of course, a benefit to all Greece and Turkey, and all of our allies in the whole Euro-Atlantic region. That is a priority for us, for the NATO alliance, and we will continue to be very much engaged there, so looking forward to these opportunities.

MODERATOR: Okay. For our second question, let’s go to the line of Carol Morello.

OPERATOR: And Ms. Morello is representing The Washington Post. Please, go ahead, ma’am.

QUESTION: Thank you. When the Secretary is in Greece, he’s going there in the aftermath of this terrible fire in the refugee camp in Lesbos. Will he be talking – will he be offering any aid or assistance, or maybe offering to – for the United States to accept some refugees?

And when he is at the Vatican, what is the message he’s going to send about the Vatican’s recent agreement with China?

And one other quick question: Will Mrs. Pompeo be accompanying him? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, sorry, Carol. I had you on mute. Thanks for the question and look forward to seeing you.

As you know, the U.S. has been coordinating with the Government of Greece and the European Union and other humanitarian partners on assessing the needs in reference to your question about the fires at the Moria refugee camp. I think we put out a statement at the time of how saddened we were to hear about those fires further displacing thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. Over the past, I’d just – past year, I would just note we’ve provided more than $8 million in humanitarian assistance to assist vulnerable people in Greece. That includes about 5 million for COVID-19 pandemic response. I’m sure the subject may come up in the conversations with the foreign minister or with the prime minister, for that matter. I don’t have any particular new announcements at this point.

And then to your second question at the Vatican, obviously there will be an opportunity to discuss a whole range of issues with the Holy See. We have a very strong partnership based on shared values and the Holy See has been a key for many years in promoting peace and justice and dignity for all people around the world. That’s a point we underscore in terms of the priority of protecting religious freedom, and as a human right essential to what we are as Americans, I think we certainly underscore that with the Vatican vis-a-vis China and our concerns about China’s approach to religious freedom; the brutal way they have treated their minorities, including the Muslim minority; the difficulties for Catholics in China.

I think these will be topics, certainly, in the symposium on advancing and defending international freedom through diplomacy. So there will be a good opportunity there to offer our support for persecuted religious minorities in China but also in other parts of the world – the Middle East – and certainly emphasize ways we do and can do more of collaboration with the Holy See on this.

MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, can we go to Athanasios Tsitsas?

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And they are representing Antenna TV. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Antenna TV. I assume the Secretary’s visit to Greece will cover the recent maritime dispute between Greece and Turkey. I would like to clarify something: The American ambassador in Ankara, David Satterfield, said a few ago – a few days ago that the United States does not consider the Seville Map to have any legal significance. I would like to ask if the statement of the ambassador reflects the American policy regarding the dispute of exclusive economic zone between Greece and Turkey. Thank you, sir.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, sir, and let me just be clear that the United States shares the view that the EU has also expressed that the Seville Map does not have any legal significance. As a matter of principle, as Ambassador Satterfield has underscored many times, as the Secretary has said, we encourage all states to resolve maritime delimitation issues peacefully and in accordance with international law. We take no position on maritime boundary issues or generally how states should delimit their maritime boundaries. That’s why we’ve encouraged all sides to go to use dialogue and the opportunities and institutional structures that we have to have dialogue, use diplomacy to resolve these issues while de-escalating and avoiding any unilateral steps that increase tension and the risk of accidents or incidents.

MODERATOR: Great. Next, can we go to the line of Kristina Anderson?

OPERATOR: And Ms. Anderson is representing AWPS News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this call. So I have two questions. The first one is about the Greece MOU on science and technology. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the details of that, what might be included.

And then my second question would be about when you’re in Italy, when you’re in Rome, will the situation in Libya, off the coast of Libya come up? Thank you very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks for the question, and yes, as we noted, we will in Thessaloniki plan to sign a science and technology agreement that will be another contribution to our overall momentum in the bilateral relationship, certainly will enhance U.S. research and intellectual property protections and deepens understanding of regional research and innovation trends, particularly in energy and diversification. This is going to build on our growing commercial and investment ties in a number of innovative sectors. One I would point out is Pfizer’s new facility in Thessaloniki where we hope to visit. And there’s investments there also by Microsoft, so the U.S. presence in Greece and in northern Greece in the Thessaloniki area has been growing. This is really the first agreement between the United States and Greece in this field of science and technology in more than 40 years. So, as I said already, the intellectual property rights protections elements of that are going to be key. There’s obviously been a lot of developments in intellectual property in those 40 years. This is a great opportunity to highlight that and a reminder that Greece remains key to Europe’s energy diversification as a hub for new infrastructure as well.

And then your question on Italy about Libya. I’m sure there will be an opportunity to discuss developments in Libya, the desire to see a diplomatic process lead to a resolution of the challenges there. The Italians of course have great interest and a role, and we’ll continue to discuss that and, as the Secretary said, offer our diplomatic support to help see a resolution. There is no military solution to the challenges in Libya and we will, I’m sure, discuss that with both Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio.

MODERATOR: Okay, looks like we have time for a couple more questions. Let’s go to the line of Lara Jakes.

QUESTION: Thanks, [Moderator]. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. I – [Senior State Department Official], you had said in your wind-up that we’re at a generational high with ties with Greece. And I’m just wondering given this trip and also the Secretary’s recent trip to Cyprus, if that has come at any cost to U.S. ties with Turkey. And then separately I was wondering if the Secretary will have an audience with the Pope while he’s at the Vatican. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll just take your first question – or your last – sorry, your last question first. And there is no audience with the Pope scheduled. The Secretary, as you recall, did have an audience with the Pope last year when we visited the Holy See, I believe in October.

In your broader question about the relationship with Greece, indeed, we really accomplished a lot in these – in the last year in particular, but over the last few years – seen real progress there. As someone who has watched this region closely for a long time, I can certainly attest to that. That, of course, is a positive thing for the whole region. Good relations with one country do not dictate relations with another.

I think you may have seen the speech that Deputy Secretary Biegun delivered earlier this week at the American Turkish Conference. This is an annual meeting that highlights the powerful U.S.-Turkey relationship – two countries that are bound together, as we are with Greece, through the NATO alliance. And Greece and Turkey of course are both allies there. We face collectively threats, and those have intensified in terms of some of the strategic competition. And our U.S.-Turkey relationship is also as important as it’s ever been. I’d refer you to the deputy secretary’s remarks there to highlight all of the aspects of the relations with Turkey.

As I said, the Secretary had an opportunity to meet with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu just a few weeks ago. They speak on the phone regularly. Somebody – another questioner’s mentioned already our Ambassador Satterfield in Turkey who leads our very robust diplomatic mission there. So I think we have to look at each of these things both individually and then as a complex set of relationships where the NATO alliance, of which Turkey and Greece are both part, are fundamental to our security, and certainly that’s what we’ll focus on and we do with – in our talks with bilateral partners. This is just an opportunity to look at particularly some of the things we’ve been doing with Greece, as I’ve highlighted, a chance to get to some places outside of the capital, which is always an opportunity, and to really look holistically at the relationship.

Our goal is a set of relationships that benefit U.S. security and interests which we see as being of interest to our partners and allies in the region and to the whole Mediterranean, Eastern Mediterranean.

MODERATOR: Great. Let’s next go to the line of Sandra Veljkovic.

OPERATOR: And she is representing the Vecernji List. I hope I said that right. Please, go ahead, ma’am.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thanks. Vecernji List from Croatia. I’ve got two questions. The first: When in Croatia, will there be discussions on —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, I’m losing you. I’m not hearing your question.

QUESTION: Okay. Once again, I’ll try to speak up. In Croatia, will there be discussion on including Croatia in the Visa Waiver Program, especially given the fact that the visit will happen one day after the end of the fiscal year in the states? That’s the first question. And another one, given the makeup of the Croatian delegation, I suppose you will discuss fighter planes or the tender the Croatian Government set out for buying fighter planes? So can you please elaborate on both topics?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, thanks for the question. I’m glad to mention Croatia because this is a great opportunity and the Secretary very much looks forward to his visit there, and again an opportunity to visit someplace outside the capital by going to Dubrovnik for several hours on next Friday. On the Visa Waiver Program, we have been working with Croatia through the government and all the relevant authorities in their efforts to fulfill all of the criteria under the Visa Waiver Program.

There are of course a number of information sharing and technical and security requirements and Croatia has made substantial progress over the past year on this. We remain committed as a partner to helping advance Croatia’s efforts to advance toward the visa waiver program. I can’t pre-judge any particular outcomes at this point. As you note, it is important to look at a variety of statistics and technical aspects of this. I’m sure that will be part of the discussion. Our technical teams continue to work through our embassy and through the appropriate authorities, both here in Washington and in Zagreb. So we look forward to talking about that.

In terms of defense procurement, I’m sure there’s an opportunity for the leaders to talk about that, too. We all focus on – as allies in NATO we focus on financial commitments, burden sharing, but also the types of equipment and needs that countries need. We think there’s no better equipment than U.S. when it comes to fighter planes or other military acquisition. And there’ll certainly be an opportunity to discuss that, what the Croatians are looking for, what they need, how that contributes to the alliance, to their security, to all of our security. And again, we’ll have a chance to include that in the agenda, which will cover the whole range of issues. Thanks.

MODERATOR: [Senior State Department Official], do you have time for one more?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure.

MODERATOR: Okay. So last question, let’s go to the line of Paolo Mastrolilli.

OPERATOR: Mr. Mastrolilli’s representing the La Stampa. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing the call. I have two question, one about the Holy See and the other about Italy. The Holy See, after Secretary Pompeo article on First Things, replied that the agreement with China is only about the nomination of the bishops, therefore pertained more to religious issue than political ones. Is the intention of the Secretary still to ask that the Holy See cancel this agreement? And on Italy, of course Italy has joined the Belt and Road Initiative and is about to decide whether to allow Chinese company to build their 5G network. Is the intention of the Secretary to ask that Italy cancel their participation to the Belt and Road Initiative? And also if you are – are you going to talk about possibility of transferring NATO assets to Italy, like the AFRICOM command?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, thanks for the question. I always enjoy La Stampa when I’m in Italy. Your first question, in terms of whether the Holy See – again, I mean, we have a strong partnership with the Holy See and focus on protection of religious freedom. Obviously, the Holy See will make its decisions. But as we have for the 35 years that – of our diplomatic relations, we will exchange views and certainly that’s really part of the continuing partnership. I think we’re both trying to promote human rights and events and defend religious freedom. The Secretary made very clear in some of his recent op-eds some of his views, and it’s a great chance to have an in-person set of meetings with Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher to discuss those things openly as diplomatic partners.

On the broader issue of 5G and other infrastructure questions, this has been an ongoing discussion with our Italian partners as we have with other countries in Europe and frankly around the world, making clear the concerns that we have about trusted vendors when it comes to our 5G infrastructure, the risks there, the focus that we’ve placed. And we see increasing numbers of countries placed on Clean Networks, working together to be able to develop and implement the latest technology, but doing that safely, protecting our data. And I think that’s something that we share the same fundamental concerns with our Italian partners and others across Europe. So I’m sure that subject will come up, and the Secretary always looks forward to hearing about developments and views from his Italian partners as well.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], appreciate you taking the time out to brief us all this morning, and to everyone who joined the call. As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. As a reminder, this was on background, attributable to a State – senior State Department official. And with that, I will bid you a good morning. Take care.

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