1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia
Russian Temptation, European Inclination
The debate on the relations of Greece with Russia reached a turning point when the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party won the elections on the 25th of January 2015, and with the subsequent difficulties that the country has met in the negotiations with its European partners/creditors on the financial adjustment programme (Memorandum of Understanding, MoU).
Notwithstanding that a comfortable majority of the Greek people is united by the idea of belonging to the European Union and the Εurozone, the government shows a certain tendency towards intensifying and deepening its relations with Russia. This is due to the historical and cultural relations between the two countries, to the possibilities offered by Russia to make Greece an important point of energy transit towards Central and Western Europe, but above all, Russia serves as a counterbalance to the pressure exerted by the creditor institutions, regarding the austerity policy promoted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Furthermore, in June 2015 Greece and Russia examined the possibility of extending the Turkish Stream project to Greece through a South European pipeline, but the discussions have remained stagnant, in view of the recent political developments in Greece. There has even been an attempt to investigate the intentions of Russia on the prospect of a loan, while the possibility of Greece’s participation in the New Development Bank is currently under examination.
Given that these perspectives seem rather farfetched and hardly plausible, the relations of Greece with Russia may ameliorate, but without any significant change in the alliances of the country and of its geopolitical position.
The above must be read in the light of the impact of the sanctions imposed by the Russian government on the export of agricultural products from EU countries, due to which Greek producers have suffered significant losses in 2015. In June and July 2015, Russia rejected the possibility of lifting EU food embargo especially for Greece, reiterating that Moscow will lift its embargo on European foods only when the West scraps its sanctions against Russia. At the same time the number of Russian tourists visiting Greece was diminished.
National Interests Aligned to the Mediterranean, Turkey
In view of the above, Greece and the Greek people seem more open with regards to understanding the vital strategic interests of Russia in Ukraine. This is why the Crimea invasion has not triggered significant reactions. Indeed, there is little interest of public opinion towards the problems of the EU’s partnership with Eastern European countries. The attention focuses mostly on Turkey, the crisis in the Middle-East and North Africa — factors which may upgrade, according to the government, the geopolitical importance of Greece in the eyes of its allies within NATO.
Domestic Issues at the Forefront
The Riga Summit on the Eastern Partnership has passed almost unperceived. The attention of the public opinion and of the media was mostly concentrated on the meetings which took place in the side-lines of the summit regarding the Greek bail-out programme and the divergences which emerged in the discussions relating thereto.
Strategic Interests Lie with Improved Border Controls
Greece does not envisage a European army, as it does not believe itself to have the same strategic interests as many of its partners — especially towards Russia which is largely considered as a potential partner. The main preoccupation lies with the surveillance of the country’s eastern borders where the presence of the EU border management agency Frontex is considered to be completely insufficient, in view of the recent outburst of migrants’ and refugees’ flows on the islands of the north-east part of the Aegean Sea.
2. EU Enlargement
Economy at the Forefront, Expansion on the Sidelines
Greece has been so absorbed by its economic and fiscal adjustment problems, that the public debate on the enlargement towards the East and on neighbourhood policy has been almost non-existent. In this context, the crisis in Ukraine does not seem to have played either a positive or a negative role.
EU Involvement in Balkans, Turkey, Still Stagnant
Following his trip in the neighbouring Balkan countries, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs has reaffirmed that he envisages Greece as an element of stability in the Balkan area, so as to create an ‘internal Balkan space’ and encourage the course of these countries towards European integration, to ensure sustainable development in the region.
However, the enlargement towards the Eastern Balkans and Turkey lies in the centre of preoccupations of the government’s policy, of the media, and of the citizens at large. There are three concerns associated with Greece’s preoccupations in the area: regarding Turkey, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Cyprus.
With regards to Turkey, frequent violations of the Greek air space maintain a continuous tension between the two neighbouring (and NATO-allied) countries. Additionally, Turkey’s unwillingness to cooperate in curbing the flows of irregular migrants towards the Greek shores creates additional hard feelings, quite counter-productively, as Greeks are basically in favour of Turkey’s European Union membership perspective. Furthermore, the delimitation of the continental shelf between the two countries has been a major issue in the pre-electoral debate with regards to the growth potentials of the Greek economy in the Mediterranean.
The relations between the two countries were further aggravated following the unilateral Notice to Airmen (NOTAm) issued by the Turkish authorities to reserve extensive Greek airspace during six months, for the purpose of military exercises, including firing ammunition over the Aegean Sea, a movement which was deemed as a serious provocation to Greece’s territorial sovereignty.
The problems of Turkish occupation and the reunification of Cyprus seem to rest on a positive conjuncture after the election of Moustafa Akinji as the President of the Turkish Community on the island. Unfortunately, the hardening of the position of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ambient nationalism of the Greek community of Cyprus do not leave much margin for mutually beneficial solutions. However, a window is now open to the future.
Regarding the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the potential of finding a solution to that country’s denomination seems to be complicated by the recent political crisis linked with its Albanian minority. Provocative assertions on the part of high-ranking officials of FYROM have discouraged the climate of mutual trust between the parties.
This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.
The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.
This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.
The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.