Tales From the Region #3
Structural considerations for a prosperous Greece
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Continuity and priorities
The first signals from the new government in Athens vis a vis its foreign policy is that there will be continuity on how Greece is dealing with unresolved issues with neighbouring countries and how it sees cooperation with friends and allies.
What is certain, as we have seen from statements made by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the new structure of the Foreign Ministry, is that there will be an emphasis on economic diplomacy.
Greece will be seeking to enhance economic relations and to attract foreign investment something which has been a key aim for some time but with no real results the last couple of years.
New Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is considered a moderate politician, though he does not have previous experience in foreign policy. His position on several issues is not yet clear.
Having served at the Ministry of Defence (2014-2015), Dendias certainly has a feeling for relations with Turkey and issues related to cooperation with NATO allies.
As New Democracy’s parliamentary representative, he stood up to neo-Nazi Golden Dawn on several occasions and was one of the few party members who opposed the protests organised against the Prespes Agreement.
The new government has so far been cautious when responding to Turkey's rhetoric and activities especially in the Eastern Mediterranean and in relation to US-Turkish relations.
Speaking at the recent Economist conference in Athens, new Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos said that he was concerned about Turkey's revisionary tactics and aggressive rhetoric but added that Greece was not scared by this. Greece's doctrine is focussed on deterrence, he said. Athens will monitor closely developments in East Med while Turkey continues its drilling activity within Cyprus's Exclusive Economic Zone. but if provoked by Ankara in the Aegean its response will be calm and decisive, he added.
It seems that Greece will continue to keep communication channels with Turkey open, as was the case with previous governments. New Democracy understands that only discussion can prevent an escalation of tension, especially in the Aegean.
It will be interesting to see when Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Nikos Dendias will respond to the invitations that they have received to meet with Turkish officials. Athens was encouraged that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first foreign leaders to reach out Mitsotakis shortly after his election victory on July 7.
The new government will continue Greece's doctrine on the Cyprus issue, which is: Nicosia decides, and Athens will act accordingly.
Greece’s conservatives have always been hesitant to take any initiative regarding a resolution of the Cyprus issue, in contrast to the SYRIZA government which actively participated in talks in 2017 by putting new proposals on the negotiating table, such as the withdrawal of Turkish troops form the island and the end of guarantees.
These terms, however, are now considered vital part of any effort to solve the issue.
There was a warm welcome from members of the new government towards North Macedonia Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov during the recent Economist conference in Athens.
Dimitrov also received positive messages from the new government in regard to relations with his country and the Prespes Agreement.
New Democracy fiercely opposed the name deal and still believes that it is against Greece's national interest. But Deputy Foreign Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said at the conference that the agreement “leaves room through our neighbour’s European integration process to find beneficial ways of cooperation on both sides.”
Panagiotopoulos also said if the deal is properly implemented by both sides, “we can hope for a better future for our countries.”
It is no coincidence that after June's European Parliament elections, when ND looked on course for an easy victory in the subsequent national vote, that officials from the centre-right party started to down their rhetoric against the Prespes Agreement.
The party’s official line is that there is no possibility of the deal being scrapped. The conservatives’ explanation is that this would give Turkey the right to continue its revisionary tactics regarding the 1923 Lausanne Treaty.
In October, when the European Council will be called on to decide whether it will grant a date for accession talks for North Macedonia, Greece will likely follow the line set by others.
“We will look at the situation as it develops at the time,” Mitsotakis said recently, hinting that he will stand behind France, the Netherlands and Denmark’s position if they continue to block the start of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations.
If there is, however, unanimity for giving a date to start negotiations, Greece will likely not stand in North Macedonia’s way.
It seems, however, that Athens is poised to block Tirana's European hopes in October and will probably favour "decoupling" if there is unanimity on North Macedonia during the European Council.
This has been quite clear for some months, from when the then shadow foreign minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos called on the SYRIZA government not to give its consent for Tirana to be awarded a date.
Greece's focus will continue to be on the current political crisis in Albania and its record in tackling the rule of law and corruption. But the main concerns relate to the protection of the Greek minority's rights, an issue of some importance to New Democracy.
What remains to be seen, though, is whether the new government will try to tackle Greek-Albanian disputes after a promising discussion opened by the SYRIZA government in 2017 eventually stalled.
Trilateral schemes, energy, relations with US & Russia
The new government will certainly focus on the trilateral cooperation in the wider region, not only in East Med, with Israel, Egypt etc but also in the Balkans.
Energy and ways to put forward the construction of energy projects will be a top priority. This was clear in the statements that have already been made by several Greek officials.
Through these trilateral schemes, Greece would also like to signal that it has a role to play in the wider region as a pillar of stability.
This role was acknowledged by the US during Dendias's first meeting with his US counterpart, Mike Pompeo, in Washington this week.
It is no coincidence that the new foreign minister’s trip abroad was to meet with US officials. It seems that the new government will try to strengthen Greece’s ties with the US, an important ally.
That does not mean Athens will ignore relations with Russia. In fact, Mitsotakis visited Moscow in April when he was still the opposition leader, with the aim of attracting Russian investment.
Energy is set to be a driver for economic opportunities, including projects like the TAP pipeline and the start on the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria. There also seem to be high expectations for a significant increase in American LNG purchases by Greece.
The new government's intentions on the foreign policy front are likely to become even clearer following the unveiling of its policy programme during this weekend's parliamentary debate.
*You can follow Alexandra on Twitter: @alexvoudouri