Greece is emerging as a Mediterranean power with a more proactive foreign policy.
For several years, Greece was synonymous with economic decline and political exceptionalism in Europe. The Greek economy contracted by 26% between 2007 and 2014, driving hundreds of thousands into unemployment. Between 2015 and 2019, the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras sent mixed signals to Brussels on Greece’s bailout programmes. In July 2019, the liberal and centre-right New Democracy party won the parliamentary election with a landslide victory. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was elected to bring the country back to ‘normality’ (kanonikotita). However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the national economy is still declining and reforms are not always successful.
However, a renewed air of optimism is sweeping across the country. The economy is projected to grow by 4.1% in 2021. Major investments by foreign companies, such as Microsoft, are planned in the coming years. Even the credit ratings agency Moody’s upgraded Greece’s rating in early November. Yet, the projected economic growth alone cannot explain Greek positivity. There is a new sense of national confidence after 10 years of painful EU-imposed austerity and reforms. Despite its relatively small size and population, Greece has plenty of reasons to feel confident.
Greece is the oldest parliamentary democracy in Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean and is fully integrated into the Western community of states. It became a member of NATO in 1952 and joined the European Economic Community in 1981. It is difficult to underestimate the geostrategic value of Greece, which enjoys a privileged position between three continents. Also, it possesses the world’s largest commercial fleet operating globally. The ports of Piraeus, Thessaloniki and Alexandroupolis operate as gateways to the EU and the Black Sea region. More importantly, the recent discovery of large gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean means that Greece could soon serve as an energy hub between European markets and regional producers.
The Energy–Security Nexus in the Eastern Mediterranean
Following the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, the need to reduce dependency on Russian gas exports has forced European governments to focus on the Eastern Mediterranean’s energy resources. Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian gas exports could contribute to the diversification of supplies. Greece’s geographic location makes it a natural bridge between the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean and the energy-consuming countries of Western Europe. In January 2020, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli ministers signed an agreement to build a 1,900 km subsea pipeline to carry 10 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually.
The EastMed pipeline is the best demonstration of the emerging Greek–Israeli partnership. Both countries have opposed Ankara’s grandiose ambitions in the region. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey seeks to enhance its political influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and restore a sense of ‘greatness’ to the country. Energy exploration and transportation are perceived by Ankara as a zero-sum game. However, Turkey needs allies to realise its plans. In November 2019, Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord signed a maritime agreement with Turkey in exchange for military support. The two countries are now supposed to share an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from Turkey’s southern shore to Libya’s northeastern coast. The legality of the agreement is disputed by the Libyan opposition, France, Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus. The deal with Libya achieves two things: it makes Turkish foreign policy seem less unilateral; and it is a ‘lawfare’ tactic against Greece, its main geopolitical competitor in the region, which claims the same EEZ.
In any case, the EastMed pipeline project is only feasible with US backing. The passing of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act by the US Congress in 2019 sends a message of support to Greece, Cyprus and Israel. As an alternative, Ankara has offered to build a ‘peace pipeline’ to transport Cypriot, and possibly Israeli, gas to European markets via Turkish territory. Cyprus has not rejected this route, on the condition that there is a resolution of the Cyprus Problem which would include unification of the island and the withdrawal of the Turkish troops from the northern part. After the opening of the ‘ghost town’ of Varosha by the Turkish army, the prospects of a peace settlement seem more remote than ever.
The growing militarisation of the Eastern Mediterranean mainly involves US allies – Israel, Greece, Egypt and Turkey. There is a cycle of confrontation between Turkey and the rest that could lead to an armed conflict. It is imperative for the US to use its influence to defuse tensions in the region.
Greece as a Mediterranean Power
From strengthening links with Khalifa Haftar in the civil war in Libya to providing aid after the recent port explosion in Beirut, Greece is silently present. This increased involvement does not come from nowhere. The end of the Yugoslav wars in the late 1990s has redirected Greek interest towards the Mediterranean. From the Greek point of view, the Mediterranean is a source of threats and challenges.
Owing to its geographical proximity, Athens cannot afford to ignore developments in the Middle East and North Africa. The ongoing Syrian civil war has caused a severe humanitarian crisis whose effects are still being felt. Indeed, thousands of Syrian families have found refuge in the Greek islands and the mainland. Athens supports the international coalition against the Islamic State, albeit only logistically.
For a country that prides itself as being the origin of Western civilization, its position within the EU is of utmost importance. Despite the 2007 accession of Bulgaria and Romania, Greece still feels rather isolated and detached from the rest of the EU. There is widespread disappointment because most European governments are not willing to confront Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and his brinkmanship strategy in the region. The Greek government has repeatedly called for the imposition of sanctions against Turkey. The Erdogan regime has disputed the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that established the present borders between the two countries. Although the treaty has only brought peace and stability, Ankara has made groundless territorial claims against Greece. Simultaneously, Ankara has tried to prevent Cyprus from exploiting its own offshore gas reserves.
The Mitsotakis government has invested in bilateral partnerships to compensate for the EU’s failure to protect Greece. Traditionally, Greece has maintained close defence ties with Washington and Paris. The former has been Greece’s main ally due to historical links and to the large Greek community living in the US. The latter has been Greece’s closest ally in Europe, sharing political values and cultural ties. It is hardly a coincidence that Athens plans to purchase frigates from the US and warplanes from France.
In addition, Athens has formulated a regional balancing strategy by collaborating with key neighbouring countries like Israel and Egypt. Both Jerusalem and Cairo have shared Greek concerns about Turkish assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood has infuriated Israel and Egypt, respectively. Moreover, the new Greek government has reached out to pro-Western Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that have their own problems with Turkey’s neo-Islamist leadership.
Due to its location, Greece could easily deploy military assets for collective security efforts in the region. It is one of the few NATO countries that spends more than 2% of its GDP on defence. The Hellenic Army and Air Force have participated in numerous NATO missions including in Afghanistan. The Hellenic Navy has operated in the Eastern Mediterranean, assisting in the evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon (2006) and Libya (2014). Moreover, the country has military facilities that are vital to Western security.
In this context, Athens is constructing a new geopolitical identity as a bulwark of the West in the Eastern Mediterranean. This means that the country may have new responsibilities within the framework of NATO/European planning for regional security issues. Thus, Greece can become a security provider that will protect Western interests in a perennially volatile region.
Emmanuel Karagiannis is an associate professor at King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.