In January 2020, when Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with United States President Donald Trump, the Greek leader remarked that the standard of relations between the two countries “is the best it ever was. But it can become even better”.
The improvements being made in Greek-US relations come at a time when Athens is increasingly viewed by Washington, DC as the most stable centre-point in an unpredictable region – a position formerly held by Turkey.
But Turkish moves in the Middle East and internationally condemned drilling in waters off the coast of Cyprus have soured the country’s relationship with both Europe and the US. These tensions have shown through in recent months, most notably with the US removing Ankara from its F-35 fighter jets programme after Ankara chose to invest in a Russian missile-defence system.
The eastern Mediterranean
The US is eager to support EU nations – and Israel – in obtaining energy independence from Russia, and has thrown its support behind Greece’s recent signing of a new energy deal.
In a clear action taken against Turkey’s drilling incursions in the region, the Greeks have partnered with Cyprus and Israel to develop a 1,900 kilometre subsea pipeline to carry gas from the eastern Mediterranean’s increasingly valuable deposits to Europe. The agreement, signed by Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis, is valued at approximately 6 billion euros.
The move has infuriated Turkey, who argues that the project is unnecessary due to the existing Trans-Anatolian pipeline and notes that their country is the most secure route through which to distribute gas to Europe. But strained relations mean Greece is eager to promote any scheme which increases energy security in the region.
The gas pipeline deal represents just one arm of cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. Greece bears significant weight in Cyprus due to a shared history, culture, and identity, and it’s relationship with Israel has developed considerably in recent years. The three nations partake in an annual summit to discuss matters relating to the eastern Mediterranean, sharing information and policy on energy and energy security, the refugee crisis, counterterrorism, counter proliferation of weapons, maritime security, and defence cooperation. Last year’s summit was attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a further sign of Washington’s growing interest in matters relating to the region.
Many major Greek foreign policy challenges in the eastern Mediterranean stem from relations with Turkey. Mitsotakis has voiced frustration over Greece being isolated when it comes to its dealings with Ankara, and has called on Member States to realise that issues pertaining to migration and sovereignty incursions are European challenges – not just Greek ones.
In an interview with French political quarterly Politique, Mitsotakis said “Europe does not seem to treat our problem as a European problem”, pointing to the migrant deal as an example, and adding that “any problems Greece has with Turkey, or with any other country, are automatically also problems of the European Union”.
A deal made in 2016 between the EU and Turkey greatly reduced the migrant influx encountered by frontline nations. But since September 2019, there has been a resurgence of refugee arrivals in Greece, with more than 74,000 registered last year according to UN figures. This has led to increased tensions on Aegean islands such as Kos and Lesbos, where further detention centres have been planned – albeit to the disdain of local citizens.
Meanwhile, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has suggested that the country may deploy military personnel to Libya as part of the EU’s Sofia mission – which enforces an arms embargo on the country’s warring sides – and an array of Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia “to protect critical infrastructure”, from possible attacks such as the one Iran was allegedly behind against the Abqaiq and Khurais oil installations last year. Traditionally, Greece’s foreign policy approach has been to remain neutral in active conflicts and maintain friendly relations, when possible, with larger nearby countries such as Iran and Russia.
Mitsotakis has also noted that Ankara’s recent moves to claim large portions of the eastern Mediterranean as its maritime territory, including the sea border deal between Ankara and the Tripoli-based government, amounted to a “blatant provocation” toward Europe.
“Europe, together with Greece of course, should react accordingly. They should remind Turkish President Erdogan that our borders are immovable and unnegotiable”, said the Prime Minister, who described his country as a “pillar of stability and security in the East Mediterranean”.
One of the few benefits stemming from increased tensions with Libya and Turkey has been the development of a far stronger relationship with Egypt, which has backed Greece’s criticism of the sea border deal.
Despite current difficulties, diplomatic channels remain open and bilateral relations between Greek and Turkish military officials, branded as “confidence building measures”, took place over the course of last week in Athens. However, there is no report on what, if anything, was accomplished. Of particular concern to Greece is the almost constant airspace violations by Turkish fighter aircraft, which number in the hundreds on an annual basis.
Greece has Europe’s largest fleet of battle armour, and defence spending has always remained a high priority for Greek administrations – even during the period of austerity. Mitsotakis is expected to continue investing in the country’s armed forces, particularly their aerial capability, through the upgrade of their F16 fleet.
The Balkans and EU Accession
Elsewhere, the New Democracy-led administration is looking to establish the country as a leading economic and cultural centre in Southeastern Europe, and build on the settlement of the decades-long name dispute with North Macedonia (previously known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The issue was settled under the Prespa accord, signed by former Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, in April 2019.
Meanwhile Greece, along with most EU nations, has been critical of French, Danish, and Dutch moves to block EU accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania. Athens favours accession roadmaps for the remaining Western Balkan nations who are not EU members (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia), to guarantee a more stable western flank in the region.
Speaking before a NATO conference last November, Mitsotakis said “If we look at the big geopolitical context, it is very clear that the European path needs to be kept open for all Western Balkan countries, provided they meet the requirements, this is not an automatic process, otherwise this void is going to be filled. And I also take some cues from Greece’s story, in 1979 Greece [concluded negotiations to become] a member of the European Economic Community, because a French president, at the time, took a bold decision, looking at the bigger geopolitical context, that Greece had to belong to Europe in order to overcome the trauma of the junta (military dictatorship).”
The Prime Minister has been a firm defender of NATO as the primary pillar of European defence. And in the face of growing instability in North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, his administration is likely to continue establishing strong bilateral ties with NATO allies in Europe and the United States.
But for now, it seems as though the success of Greek foreign policy will be shaped, to a very large extent, by how the country deals with the increasingly unpredictable Turkish influence in the region.