Greece sits in the center of an unstable region with lukewarm ties to the European Union, but it remains a force of stability and a strong EU member, especially in its role in Europe’s new Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on security and defence.
Relations have been worsening between the EU and Turkey, to Greece’s east, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rules in an increasingly authoritarian manner and bolsters relations with countries like Russia. The small island nation Cyprus, south of Turkey, remains occupied by Turkish Cypriots claiming the northern part of the island for themselves, while the EU recognises the entire island as an EU member state. The historically unstable Balkan countries lie to Greece’s north. Meanwhile, Greece itself is a landing spot for refugees fleeing war in Syria and instability across North Africa, which is separated from Greece only by the Mediterranean Sea.
Around 62,000 refugees fleeing violence are now stranded in Greece, the International Rescue Committee estimates, amid a population of nearly 11 million. Between 2014 and 2016, 1.3 million people fleeing conflict and persecution traveled through Greece into Europe. In 2016, Greece helped broker a deal between Turkey and the EU in which Turkey agreed to take back irregular migrants who entered Greece by boat, in exchange for more EU resettlement of Syrians from Turkey, EU financial aid to Turkey, and the easing of EU visa restrictions for Turkish citizens. The deal is not perfect; there has been loud criticism from groups like Amnesty International. Still, it has helped take some of the migration pressure off of the EU, largely thanks to Greece’s go-between diplomacy with Turkey.
Beyond the migrant crisis, Greece has consistently placed emphasis on defence and security writ large. Greece, for example, organised the Rhodes Conference on Security and Stability in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2016 and 2017, bringing together nations from Southeastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Gulf to discuss crises and conflicts. Moreover, Greece is one of only a handful of countries that meet NATO’s defence spending requirements, spending around 2.4 percent of GDP on defence. Greece has a long history of substantive defence spending, averaging 6.2 percent of GDP throughout the 1980s, largely due to tensions with Turkey. About 2.7 percent of the Greek labour force is employed by the military, according to 2013 figures.
Now, Greece is becoming a lead nation in Europe’s new Permanent Structured Cooperation, which is arguably the EU’s most serious attempt so far to form closer defence ties. 25 EU member states – excluding the UK, Denmark, and Malta – signed on to PESCO in December 2017. Each member state involved has agreed to invest in shared capability projects and to coordinate joint missions. So far, 17 initial projects have been planned. Greece is a leading nation on two of them: Upgrade of Maritime Surveillance, and Cyber Threats and Incident Response Information Sharing Platform. The former will integrate land-based surveillance systems, maritime, and air platforms in order to distribute information in real-time to member states. The latter will develop more active cyber defence measures to mitigate cyber risks by focusing on sharing cyber threat intelligence through a networked platform for member states.
Greece’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a joint declaration with the foreign affairs ministers of Bulgaria and Romania, said he welcomes the signing of PESCO and looks forward to its swift implementation.
In addition to its contributions to PESCO, Greece currently participates in seven of the 15 ongoing EU Common Security and Defence Policy operations and missions, and it is the leading Framework Nation for an EU Battlegroup ready for rapid deployment. Greece is one of the only EU countries with national headquarters – in Larissa – that has sufficient capacity to command a European operation, along with France, Italy, and Germany.