As Turkey’s relations with the U.S. sour and sink to new lows, Greece-US relations have never been better. The outgoing SYRIZA cabinet was described as the most “American-friendly government,” but the incoming Kyriakos Mitsotakis premiership seems to be competing for that title.
Mitsotakis’ visit to the U.S. last week and his meeting with President Donald Trump was probably the most closely-watched visit of a Greek premier to the White House in Greece’s history.
Traditionally, Greece has been one of the countries with the least favorable views of the U.S., but that changed drastically in 2019. According to the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of the Greek public now has a positive view of the U.S.; that’s 18 percent more than what the 2018 data showed. The former Syriza-led government under Alexis Tsipras retained a pragmatic stance towards foreign policy: first came interests, and then ideology. That balance was harder to maintain for Syriza, as the party was supposed to be Communist because of its roots, and later it was branded as left-wing populist. In the end, looking at his tenure overall, Alexis Tsipras did become increasingly centrist, especially towards his last days as Prime Minister.
As a right-wing government, there was already more room for the Mitsotakis cabinet to maneuver — but increasing tensions with Turkey and the European Union’s ineptitude in ameliorating Greece’s anxieties may have contributed to record-high positive views of the U.S. in the country.
Nowadays in Greece, the possibility of an all-out war with Turkey is even more imminent: while the war in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean are not big issues on Turkey’s public agenda, much of the news and analyses in the Greek media are about these topics.
Therefore, a strong ally against Turkey seems to be useful in Greece’s case: since 2018, the U.S. and Greece have held “Strategic Dialogue” meetings due to the initiative of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At the second of these meetings held on October 7, 2019, Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias and Pompeo framed this “strategic dialogue” as a focus on areas of regional cooperation, defense and security, law enforcement and counterterrorism, trade and investment, energy, and people-to-people ties. Regional cooperation refers to cooperation in the Balkans and Black Sea regions, but the eastern Mediterranean area is the buzzword. The highlight of the cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean is the framework of the 3+1 format (Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and the United States), which was launched in Jerusalem in March 2019. On the energy front, the EastMed gas pipeline, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) are the projects on the table.
In case of defense and security, Greece’s military purchases from the U.S. and especially its involvement with the F-35 jet program are the critical aspects of the engagement. Following Mitsotakis’s visit to the U.S., the Defense Minister, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, declared that Greece plans to acquire 24 F-35 jets at a total cost of 3 billion dollars, including the infrastructure.
Moreover, Greece also plans to proceed with the upgrade of 82 F-16 jets. These steps will be taken to achieve “air superiority over Turkey” in the coming years. There are also plans to acquire more warships, and there will be negotiations with the Pentagon on that front.
Ankara announced that they had signed a deal demarcating new maritime boundaries between Libya and Turkey; these boundaries pass close by the Greek island of Crete, which Athens says infringes on Greece’s sovereignty. Turkey’s deal is with the U.N.-backed administration, one of the two feuding governments in Libya.
Mitsotakis’ clear goal was to garner Trump’s support vis-a-via Turkey’s recent deal and its eastern Mediterranean policy in general. Prior to his meeting with Trump, Mitsotakis said, “The agreement signed between Turkey and Libya infringes upon Greece’s sovereign rights and essentially causes great concern and instability in a region which is already highly problematic. So we’ll be very much looking to your support to make sure that these types of provocative agreements are not being put into place.”
While Trump did most likely speak positively about the Greek people and Greece in general, he steered clear of making a public statement denouncing Ankara’s recent moves. Trump exaggerated his praise to the point that he claimed that he knew everyone in the U.S. Greek diaspora. But after that came a crystal-clear question from a journalist about what he intends to do about his “good friend [Erdoğan’s]” provocative actions regarding Libya.
Trump replied by stating:
“When you’re talking about Libya, we’re discussing with President Erdoğan, we’re discussing [with] many other countries. I just spoke with the chancellor of Germany, with Angela [Merkel], and we talked about that subject specifically — Libya and what’s going on. We’ll be talking to Russia: they’re involved. A lot of countries are involved with respect to Libya. And it’s, right now, a mess.”
Things soured even more when Trump mentioned that European countries are not paying their dues to NATO, and that Greece is one of them.
But still, U.S.-Greece relations to be on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Or will military build-up make everything worse?
As I was writing this article, the popular Greek TV series Kokkino Potami (Red River) was airing.
The show concerns the Greeks of Pontos and the violence they faced at the end of the nineteenth century. The drama is based on a book by Chares Tsirkinides and mirrors his personal family stories. Topal Osman, a controversial historical figure from the Black Sea region, is also among the characters — a nationalist hero for some in Turkey, and a genocidal vassal in the eyes of many Greeks.
Delving deep into bitter histories in the popular psyche is common for both Greece and Turkey. This is in stark contrast to the mid-2000’s and early 2010’s, when TV series and movies featuring love stories between Greek and Turkish couples were en vogue. The resurfacing of old wounds in popular culture is a reflection of the current bitter political realities and animosity.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.