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Stronger Together - Greece: You Can’t Choose Your Neighbours but You Can Choose Your Friends

BLOG - 18 February 2021

The tensions underlying Greek-Turkish relations transcend time and persist, over immigration and maritime sovereignty rights. In the past few months, both countries have been at the brink of a military imbroglio, implying the need for a fundamental rethinking of Greece’s strategy of engagement towards Turkey. In light of the ascendance of the EU as a political and security actor, how strong and cohesive can and will the European response to these tensions be? In this second chapter, Spyros Blavoukos, Associate Professor, Athens University of Economics and Business and Research Fellow, ELIAMEP, gives us his insight on how Greece should formulate a new strategic approach towards Turkey through a united European defense response. 

For Greece, 2020 was not only the year of the Covid-19 pandemic that destabilized the economic and social tissue of all EU member-states, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of European citizens. It was also the year of continuous tensions with the country’s Eastern neighbour, Turkey. This tension climaxed at least twice in the previous months, once again bringing the two countries at the brink of a military imbroglio. Greece has sought the support of its European partners and the Turkish behaviour has been stigmatized in various statements of EU officials and presidency conclusions, leaving open the prospect of economic and political sanctions. The first episode in the 2020 saga of tensions took place in spring, when desperate migrants were pushed towards the Greek (and European) land borders with Turkey, in an orchestrated attempt to overcome the existing border controls that implement the national and European asylum and migration policies. The second episode that evolved in the summer and autumn months entailed a direct challenge to the Greek (and Cypriot) sovereignty rights in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. The two crises brought forward the need for a new strategic approach towards Turkey, from Greece and the EU alike, that would allow containment without utterly ignoring engagement, under specific rules and conditions.

Two Main Security Challenges, One Common Denominator: Turkey 

This brief overview of the main security crises that Greece experienced last year does not just confirm Churchill’s famous saying that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume. They are inexorably linked with the EU foreign policy and two broader intertwined security challenges that the EU is facing: regional instability in the Mediterranean basin and migration flows. The former reinstates the significance of the Southern EU neighbourhood. The Mediterranean basin is still in turmoil with the Turkish aspirations for regional hegemony being the key destabilising factor. This is clearly evidenced by the Turkish interventions and military presence in Syria and Libya. How far does Turkey intend to go? How strong and cohesive can and will the European response be?

[For Greece] 2020 was also the year of continuous tensions with the country’s Eastern neighbour, Turkey.

These are critical questions that need to be considered. The latter security challenge is just a reminder that the migration flows that reached their peak in 2015 testing the European societal resilience may have been stabilised but this should not give the impression that the problem is fixed. It is not only the thousands of migrants and refugees who live at the various temporary settlements in Greece and elsewhere that need to be properly and fairly taken care of. 

The longer it takes to deal with this unacceptable limbo, the more the EU waters the seed of radicalization and fuels hatred, extremism and violence. Furthermore, the March 2020 incidents at the northern Greek borders with Turkey testify to the instrumentalization of the migration challenge from the Turkish side. The same challenge is further aggravated by the continuing instability in Libya and the existing cracks in the buffer zone that the EU is trying hard to establish at the northern coast of Africa. The political agreement on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum should rapidly evolve to concrete legislative action and a revised and more comprehensive agreement with Turkey on this issue should become the primary EU objective in the period to come.

Burden-Sharing Between the EU and the US / NATO

Countering these security challenges will contribute to the pursuit of EU strategic autonomy. After all, according to the High Representative, Josep Borrell, at the core of this concept lies the defense of European interests and values, not exclusively in the security and defense realm. Dealing with regional instability and migration by no means suggests a transatlantic rift or competition with the US. It entails the construction of a stable, rules-based regional order, inspired by the liberal and democratic values that bring the two sides together rather than drifting them apart. In that respect, the pursuit of strategic autonomy in the Mediterranean basin should be seen as an indication of a healthy and symbiotic relationship with the US, especially while the United States is operating a so-called "Asian pivot", shifting its attention to the Pacific region. Given this tectonic re-orientation and since geopolitics - very much like nature - loathes the void, it is imperative for the EU to fill in the gap, always in pursuit of a regional liberal order. 

The ascendance of the EU as a political and security actor has always been welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the Greek political system, albeit seen most of the time through the prism of the Greek-Turkish rivalry. Without ignoring the importance of the American factor, as illustrated by the significant upgrade in the bilateral relations in the last couple of years, Greece is very keen on and supportive of European military collaboration schemes, be they PESCO projects or the European Defense Fund. The main concern, in Greece as in many other EU member-states, is whether such schemes can indeed lead to substantial military cooperation and in due time defense integration, or whether they rather constitute rhetoric fireworks that will not survive the test of time. At this stage, following a prudent security portfolio diversification, Greece balances with one foot on each boat, namely the American protection and the increased European autonomy, being supportive of the latter without relinquishing the former. 

This is very much illustrated by the announced substantial increase in Greek military spending in the years to come. According to the official NATO data, Greece is one of the few countries in the Alliance that already exceeds the threshold of 2% of its GDP allocated to defense, as agreed in the Wales summit, back in 2014. Given the extended armament programme announced in 2020, as a corollary of the continuing tensions with Turkey, Greece will also improve its record regarding the 20% threshold of equipment expenditure as a share of defense spending, on which the country is lagging behind. Despite the deep recession triggered by the pandemic this year, the Greek annual defense budget is being hiked by more than a third in 2021.

The ascendance of the EU as a political and security actor has always been welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the Greek political system, albeit seen most of the time through the prism of the Greek-Turkish rivalry.

The five-year programme of the Greek armed forces modernization, amounting to over 11.5 billion euros (14.5 billion US dollars), is not limited to the purchase of French military aircrafts but also entails contracts with American defense firms, like Lockheed Martin. 

This dualism enables Greece to adhere to and call for a symbiotic relationship between NATO and the EU in terms of security and defense. Both organizations can be useful security providers as long as they take advantage of their comparative advantage and focus on their distinctive security niche. Stability is not only an issue of military might, after all! But even in the defense realm, the two organizations are not necessarily rivals. The development of autonomous European defense capabilities should not lead to duplication or trigger a crowding out effect, with EU member-states shifting their priority from NATO to the EU. To avoid such a harmful potential competition, the European defense integration process should evolve in an inclusive way, with due emphasis on interoperability and filling the existing NATO gaps. This is not only going to render the European defense venture more politically realistic and feasible, but it would also strengthen the collective defense capabilities of the West in a period of expanding competitive multipolarity and international "Westlessness".

The development of autonomous European defense capabilities should not lead to duplication or trigger a crowding out effect, with EU member-states shifting their priority from NATO to the EU.

It’s the Industry, Stupid!

Defense integration in the EU can proceed in two ways: first, as a result of a "top-down" intergovernmental process, with member-states’ governmental elites going through their own epiphany and overcoming long-held national taboos and stereotypes; second, following a "bottom-up" approach through the gradual build-up of a single European defense area, with the appropriate consolidation of the European defense industry.

The former has been tested and has failed numerous times in the past. The latter envisages defense cooperation emerging as a spillover effect of the collaboration between national defense industries. In this approach, defense integration will emerge as a corollary of economic and industrial partnership. The Commission and several non-state stakeholders are currently flashing out the economic benefits of such a path of defense integration in a consistent and persuasive way. The rationale and the modus operandi of the European Defense Fund (EDF) best capture this approach. Still, the halving of the available resources (from 13 to 7 bn euros) from the initial Commission proposal during the negotiations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) (2021-27) suggests that this is not a politically uncontested approach.

The Headline Objective and the European Rapid Reaction Force, the Battlegroups, and even - to a lesser extent - the ongoing PESCO projects have all been hailed as major breakthroughs towards the establishment of a defense dimension for the European project, only to be later on politically trimmed down. The EDF can make the difference due to its primarily economic logic and the economic benefits it accrues. The consolidation of the European defense industry can lead to defense integration from the back door, at least augmenting pressure on governments to seriously consider this prospect. This will have little to do with converging security or defense priorities, at least in the first place. Such priorities are a function of geographical location and diverging national perceptions of threat and their osmosis will take long. What will matter in this case is rather the spillover effect of converging business interests that can generate diffused socio-economic and political benefits for all member-states through economies of scale in military Research & Development, lower cost of armaments, and a growth potential for the European economy. 

 

Copyright: Sakis MITROLIDIS / AFP

 

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