NEW YORK – Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) is a champion of the foreign policy issues that concern the Greek- and Cypriot-American communities. He works hard to develop support among his colleagues on those issues, but because experience has taught him the value of getting officials to visit Greece and Cyprus, he recently lead led his first Congressional delegation (CODEL), which opened the eyes of Congress members about everything from the progress those countries are making and their value to the United States.
He is happy to help negate the negative publicity Greece has been receiving, and told TNH “Even though the Greek people have not felt it yet, the numbers are good and I hope recovery is around the corner.”
CODELs are required to have a formal leader and to be bi-partisan. Bilirakis’ delegation, which included Michelle Bachman (R-MN), Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Jack Kingston (R-GA), met with Greek Premier Antonis Samaras for more than an hour and a half, and with President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus.
The Cyprus trip took place amidst of Turkish military provocations, and at an impromptu press conference there, Bilirakis condemned the illegality of Turkeys intention to violate Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. “We must be firm and take a strong position and denounce those moves,” he said.
Bilirakis said the State Department statement about Turkey’s provocations had to be stronger. “It was good that I was there,” to make a stronger condemnation, he said. “The United States has to support Cyprus,” but he added the Obama administration has been good in that regard.
When he was on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Bilirakis got a high State Department official to say on the record that Cyprus and Israel have the right to enter into bilateral agreements in the EEZ without Turkey’s interference,
He is very excited, as are the three countries themselves, about the increasing cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus.
In addition to discussions with Evangelos Venizelos, Deputy Prime Minster; Foreign Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, ?Minister of Administrative Reform and e-Governance; Yiannis Maniatis, Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Change and Dimitrios Avramopoulos, the Greek Defense Minister, the trip included visits to U.S. military personal at the vital base at Souda Bay in Crete.
There was also a briefing at the Greek Pentagon which one participant called “absolutely fascinating.” A 4-star general referred to Greece (and the alliance with Cyprus and Israel) as the last line of defense for the Christian World, a statement that moved Rep. Bachman.
A GREEK-AMERICAN GOES HOME
The trip’s personal highlight for Bilirakis came when he addressed the Greek Parliament. “It was an honor…to represent the U.S. as a Hellene,” he told TNH.
The emotional experience made him think of his grandparents, all of whom were born in Greece and who instilled their love of Greece and its cultures and traditions in him.
He said the first few paragraphs of his presentation were in Greek, but even when he was reading his English text, “when I felt it in my heart, I said it in Greek.”
Bilirakis said “The people are suffering and I feel for them,” but he and Bachman were very impressed with the ability of the members of the coalition to work together despite their philosophical differences to overcome the crisis despite decades of hostility.
Bilirakis said “they are working hand in hand to save the country and make the reforms.”
He was especially impressed by Mitsotakis, who “showed us a chart of what he is doing and it is outstanding.…he is a statesman…making some tough decisions on reforms and transparency in the government, giving citizens access to services through the internet.”
Bilirakis said “The MPs were also pleased,” with the visit, and noted they were also concerned about ISIS, which threatens regional stability. They told him, “Please do everything you can to destroy ISIS.”
He said Michelle Bachman “has always wanted to travel with me officially to Greece…she is a Philhellene – she named one of her children Sophia – as a result of her studying history.
“Bachman came out of the meeting very pro Greek,” he said, and noted that although she is retiring from the House, she will remain an important conservative opinion leader.
Bilirakis is very excited about energy exploration in Greece, and noted the important Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which passes through Greece and Albania, where they spent the trip’s last day and met with its Deputy Prime Minister. Bilirakis called Albania a strong ally of the U.S. and noted Greece has supportive its EU candidacy, but in Albania he brought up the issue of the rights of Albania’s Greeks in Northern Epiros, where his wife Evdoxia has roots.
“There is dialogue there,” and they know they must respect minority rights to enter the EU.
Bilirakis was also impressed with Archbishop Anastasios and the new Cathedral of Tirana.