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The Parable of the Populists and the Contemplatives
Competing claims and narratives in Eastern Mediterranean
One hot day in the summer of 1847, 19-year-old British soldier William Mills decided to take a dive in the Ionian Sea to cool down. Unfortunately for him, he was attacked and killed by a shark.
A couple of years later, Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos, inspired by that tragic incident, wrote the poem ‘Πορφύρας’ [Porfyras], using the dialect of Corfu. A friend of the poet expressed his doubts. The Greek nation, he believed, would be more welcoming to a poem written in the ‘national language’ rather than the dialect of the island. According to Iakovos Polylas - Solomos’ first biographer - the poet replied that the nation should learn to consider as “national, everything that is true.”
This is a very romantic view of how a nation and/or a State should conduct its business. It is naïve to expect that any nation and/or State would always be a truthful force of good in its interactions with the rest of the world. Financial, economic and geopolitical interests very often influence State narratives. Given the state of affairs in the modern world, this is to be expected and to a certain extent it is legitimate.
The problem starts when the prevailing narrative in a State presents legitimate yet maximalist negotiating positions - influenced by the interests already mentioned - as absolute, universal and inviolable truths that have to be vindicated. It is when instead of considering as ‘national everything that is true’, a dominant narrative presents everything national as true by definition. No country in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, has been immune to such phenomena - as the most recent crisis in the region highlights.
For the purposes of this article, I will leave aside the long list of Turkish claims in the Aegean Sea and the inflammatory discourse often used by members of its political elites. I will focus on the only issue that both Greece and Turkey agree that it is disputed: the delimitation of the continental shelf/Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The official position of Greece is that if no common ground can be found in bilateral negotiations with the neighbouring country, the issue should be brought before the International Court of Justice for resolution. In a recent press conference, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reaffirmed this position. He conceded that since there has not been a mutually agreed delimitation, those who do not consider the relevant disputed maritime area as a Greek EEZ are not, strictly speaking, wrong - from a purely legal point of view.
Given that the delimitation of the EEZ has not been settled, one would expect that there would be more space in the national debate for views like the ones expressed by Professor Christos Rozakis. A renowned expert of international law that has worked for more than two decades as a judge in international courts, Rozakis expressed doubts over whether the EEZ of all Greek islands and islets enjoy full effect. He based his view, among others, on the case law of the International Court of Justice - the forum that Greece has designated as its preferred adjudicator over this dispute. Instead of using the views of such experts to acknowledge the possibility of and prepare the public for the compromises that the International Court in the Hague may favour, the Greek Government was quick to distance itself from the academic’s views. His tenure as a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Scientific Council was not renewed, while he received the scorn of large sections of the media.
Is that surprising? Not really. One can easily trace similar patterns not only in the debate concerning the delimitation of the EEZ but almost over all the ‘national issues’. The Greek political elites have traditionally failed to prepare the public for the compromises to which our official positions would lead. In the case of the Cyprus issue, our official mantra has been that the solution would entail a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality. Little effort has been made, however, to explain what that really means. As a result, even suggestions, proposals and settlement plans that have been based on those principles, such as the Annan Plan, have been demonised as an absolute anathema. Equally, in the name dispute with North Macedonia, the declared objective of all the Greek governments had been to agree on a ‘compound’ name with a geographical qualifier. Still, politicians with governmental positions were publicly demanding the renaming of the neighbouring State without the use of the term ‘Macedonia’.
One could argue that such maximalist positions are necessary for any negotiation. This might be true. Still, when they consist of the prevailing narrative, they can become obstructive and counter-productive. If any of the problems mentioned, including the delimitation of the EEZ is to be solved in a peaceful, consensual, sustainable and democratic way, compromises will be necessary. A prevailing State narrative that adopts a maximalist position makes the landing zone for potential compromises much smaller and thus the resolution of the disputes more difficult. The intractability of all those disputes and the current tense climate in the region stand as a proof.
But even as a negotiating tactic, such maximalist narratives are often unsuccessful. In 2011, for example, the International Court of Justice found that the veto that Greece exercised to block North Macedonia's bid for NATO membership was a violation of the 1995 Interim Accord. The Court accepted as evidence the speeches of the then Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis with which he informed Parliament about the Greek veto.
Even worse is that the adoption of such narratives enhances a permanent feeling of victimisation and grievance. A recent 4-minute video produced and released by the Financial Times that presented in a rather dispassionate way the competing claims in EastMed was interpreted by some Greeks as a hit-job against Hellenism. It was condemned as not real journalism and an absolute disgrace for the paper for allegedly having pro-Ankara overtones.
Banging the nationalist-populist drum has traditionally been a popular activity in this part of the world, paying short-term political dividends to politicians and opinion makers. Unfortunately, it has never been beneficial for the long-term interests of any country in the region. Therefore, even if we do not want to follow Solomos’s axiom religiously, we should start heeding the ‘wicked’ messengers. They may not bring good news, but at least they do not offer false promises.