European Council on Foreign Relations

Greece: back in the foreign policy game?

Do not write off Greece as a regional foreign policy player. That’s how one could decode yesterday’s visit of Prime Minister Andonis Samaras to Ankara. Accompanied by all ministers from the tripartite coalition and a host of business people he was there to sign a bunch of bilateral deals with Turkey.  All that within the “High-Level Cooperation Council”- the joint government setup Turkey is fond of putting in place with neighbours from Azerbaijan and Egypt to Bulgaria. The contrast with the days of old in the 1990s, when Athens and Ankara were at the brink of war, could not be starker. As I wrote a while ago, Turkey's famed zero-problems policy only works in the Balkans, an exception as the concept has been in crisis since the beginning of the Arab awakening. Moreover and contrary to perception, Greece is not the prime blocker of Turkey’s EU bid. Nicosia and Athens are close, especially with Cyprus's new centre-right president, but they do run two separate foreign policies. Greek-Turkish relations have been rather pragmatic. With a trade turnover of USD 5 bn in 2012 and Greek FDI in booming Turkey in the region of USD 6.5 (in 2005-11) it looks as if intensified cooperation pays off, especially for hardship-ridden Greece which has lost up to 20% of GDP over the past few years.

'Good relations with Turkey' is not the only foreign policy success scored by Samaras. Getting Bulgaria closer to its own position over the issues regarding neighbouring Macedonia (known in Athens  as ‘fYROM’) is yet another. The hardened stance of Sofia vis-à-vis Macedonian cousins’ alleged “theft of history” and “anti-Bulgarian campaign” has resulted in declarations that Bulgarian support for the neighbour’s efforts to launch membership talks with the EU comes with strings attached. In December Bulgaria half-vetoed Macedonia at the regular EU Council - the decision regarding the talks was deferred to June pending a Commission report due in April.  Athens applauded. The two cabinets held a joint session in Athens on 17 December, with Samaras and Borisov calling Skopje to respect the principle of “good neighbourly relations”. Whether the joint offensive vis-à-vis Macedonia continues after the early elections in Bulgaria on 12 May is hard to tell. But the word ‘exemplary” leaders use to describe Bulgarian-Greek relations is not an overstretch – given the extensive trade, investment and human links across the border. The ECFR Scorecard also supports this argument: Greece's high slacker rating largely stems from being unable to commit financial resources to EU projects.

The relative calm of the euro crisis allows Greece some breathing space to assert itself. The worst-case scenario, a spill-over through Greek banks’ extensive presence in a number of Balkan countries hasn’t materialized. If anything, the sector is in consolidation mode. Of course, to fully restore its influence (remember the Thessaloniki Summit of the EU Council in June 2003!) Greece has to bounce back economically.  But then again it is not just Greece which is going through a hard time. Other regional leaders are in dire straits too.

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