If there is one beneficiary of the Greece-Turkey crisis, it is France’s President Emmanuel Macron. First of all, he is progressing fast in a new language: Greek. He has shared a social media message in Greek for two times in a row now: first one on Facebook on July 23, and then two Twitter messages on Aug. 13.
Jokes aside about Macron’s actual grasp on Greek, it looks like he may have to share many more messages in the language. His solidarity with Greece may be increasing his popularity both in his own country and abroad. Macron has a very clear stance on backing Greece, which stands in deep contrast to Germany and the European Union Commission, both of which are hesitant to do so — except for expressing “deep concerns.”
While the EU Commission itself made the goal of being “geopolitically active,” it is Macron himself who has turned out to be the actually active party when it comes to geopolitical matters. His visit to Beirut in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion, during which he was given a hero’s welcome in the shocked and devastated city’s streets, has been referred to as “impressive” by even the most snobbish of analysts.
Moreover, Macron emerged triumphant after the EU agreed to the 750 billion euro stimulus package: a Harris Interactive poll conducted for LCI TV showed that around 50% of the French public were confident in Macron’s policies for France. This was only the second time since April 2018 that the French president reached the 50% confidence level. Other polls verify that Macron garnered around 4 to 6 or more points in his support levels after leading the way in getting the EU to reach a deal on the coronavirus recovery package and completing the reshuffling of his government.
Macron seems to have a clear-cut response to every major global development: his was a rare voice among EU leaders in calling for support of “pro-democracy protesters in Belarus.” On August 16, Macron said: “The European Union must continue to be mobilized in support of the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who are protesting peacefully for the respect of their rights, liberty, and sovereignty.”
He is far more vocal when it comes to the aforementioned topic of Greece and its relations with Turkey. Macron is being cast as the enfant terrible or even the outright villain in Turkey. It is not just government circles in Ankara that vilify the French president, like when Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, using a bizarre expression in Turkish, said that Macron resembles a rooster with its feet deep in “dirt.” Across almost all segments of media, there seems to be rampant “anti-Macronism.”
If Macron is becoming the “hate figure” in Turkey, he is winning hearts in Greece. Polls already showed that Greeks are far more worried than Turks about a possible war, and a recent poll showed that Greeks are now also more open to “military solutions.” According to a recent survey by Kapa Research conducted both in Turkey and Greece, 46% of Greeks turned out to be ready for military retaliation if they believe their sovereignty has been obstructed or violated. For Turkish people, the respective percentage is 35%.
What’s more, the first real military “spark” between the two countries already occurred last week: according to the Greeks, as a result of a hostile collision, the Kemal Reis frigate of the Turkish Navy has been “severely” damaged. Alternatively, according to the Turkish side, the Greek Navy frigate Limnos has been “severely” damaged. The incident (described as a “mini-collusion” by Reuters) took place on August 12 — just as France and Greece concluded their joint military exercise in the area.
As the winds of war blow in the Aegean, France is raising its military profile in the Eastern Mediterranean. Macron already announced that France’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean would be “temporarily” increased in cooperation with its European partners, including Greece. France also concluded a defense agreement with Cyprus. The French Armed Forces Ministry announced in a press release in August that the “temporary reinforcement” would begin towards Souda, Crete, on the same day as the deployment of two Rafale combat aircraft from Cyprus, where they had been participating in a joint military exercise from August 10 to 12.
The two Rafale aircraft jettisoned the area between Cyprus and Crete, together with the Greek frigates Spetsai, Limnos, Kountouriotis, and Aegean and the French frigate La Fayatte and helicopter Tonnerre. The French-Greek exercise was obviously a show of strength as it cut through the designated Navtex area declared by Turkey for August 10-20 in the south of Kastellorizo and Meis, Rhodes and Rodos, and Karpathos and Kerpe.
Next in line is a meeting between Macron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 20 at the official retreat of the French president at the Fort de Brégançon. The two leaders will focus on the Eastern Mediterranean, but they have a lot of other things on their plate as well. On one hand are Europe’s “domestic” matters: the coordination of the European countries in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the EU multiannual budget, the Conference on the Future of Europe, and Brexit. And of course, the climate crisis.
On the international front, there is the erupting Belarus issue and Lebanon’s plight. If not for these two unexpected topics coming up, the major focus would have certainly been on the Eastern Mediterranean. Last but not least, the EU’s relations with China and Africa will also be discussed.
The Elysée Palace added an emphasis to the announcement of the meeting that “(t)he meeting has an exceptional character as it is the first time (Chancellor Merkel) has been invited to Fort Brégançon by a president of the Republic.” Russian President Vladimir Putin last August and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (when he was the Prime Minister) already “tasted the pleasure” of being hosted at Fort Brégançon.
Evidently, the policy approach towards Turkey from this autumn onwards will be on the table. The meeting will be one of a series in which Macron will enforce his winning hand as Merkel approaches her expiry date in politics. The countdown has already begun — next year around this time, we will be discussing who will take over the chancellor mantle in Germany as federal elections are scheduled to take place in August to October 2021.
The Fort Brégançon meeting may give us some clues about post-Merkel Europe — on which Macron is seeking to put his Hancock in bold letters.