After Netherlands and Germany, Greece?

After Netherlands and Germany, Greece?

The war of words between Ankara and Western Europe during the past weeks has shifted our attention from another longer war of words: that between Ankara and Athens, with its latest phase having started with the case of the eight Turkish officers accused of taking part in the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, who escaped to Greece. 

The decision by the Greek Supreme Court not to extradite the officers to Turkey by accepting their claim that they may not get a fair trial in their country caused extreme irritation in Ankara and was followed by intense exchanges between the ministries of defense and foreign affairs of both countries. This was followed by a “tour de force” by the Turkish top brass around the Imia/Kardak rocks on the 21st anniversary of the Greek-Turkish standoff at the end of January. 

This latest standoff between Greece and Turkey has only added to the ongoing uncertainty, if not agony, in Greece over the frequent threats by the Turkish government that it may cancel the EU-Turkey deal on the migrant issue. Greece, being the first stop of almost 1 million people who headed for the rest of Europe last year, is trapped in the middle. Even after the EU-Ankara agreement, Greece has been struggling to implement its part of the agreement but poor infrastructure and bad management has shown that it has not always been able to live up to its task.

Many in Greece are fearing that Ankara’s anger toward Western Europe is just an interval before it turns its attention again toward their country. 

That said, there has been recently a preoccupation by Greek analysts and academics on whether this is the time to think seriously about revising the main Greek foreign policy principles toward Turkey and perhaps think of some fresh ideas. 

The supporters of extreme conspiracies are predicting an imminent war between the two countries, around June, to coincide with the scheduled start of natural gas extraction operations around Cyprus. 

Others are worried more about the inherent ideological mismatch of the present Greek government as well as its serious domestic problems after two years in power. 

Everything is going extremely slowly. Alexis Tsipras’ had hoped that by now, the country’s creditors would have completed their review of the economy and given the green light to more promised funds. Until now, plans have stalled as the creditors are asking for further painful measures. The ratings of the government are very bad and getting worse. 

At this particular point when public morale is low, when the official opposition is galloping ahead, foreign policy issues are also coming into question, particularly regarding a neighbor experiencing serious domestic political upheaval. 

Many in Greece wonder how a radical leftist party with internationalist leftist views on foreign policy, with a leader who has, in principle, advocated peace and cooperation with Turkey and a reduced defense budget can implement such a policy in coalition with a nationalist right-wing party that sees Turkey as a permanent threat? And this discussion has become more intense recently as analysts predict that the vision of a Turkey fully integrated into the EU is no longer feasible.

What a large part of the Greek public opinion sees, according to the latest polls, is a leftist government in trouble for neither being effective nor able to reverse the downward trend of most people’s conditions. At the same time, they see a government whose slim majority depends on its nationalist coalition partner whose participation in the government through the defense minister tends to underline the fear of Turkey and supports an increased defense budget “against the Turkish threat.” No surprise that Panos Kammenos, the Greek defense minister, was proud to be congratulated recently by the new American secretary of state, James Mattis, during the last NATO meeting in Brussels because Greece, in spite of its continuing economic problems, maintains its defense spending at a proper level.

The coming period is expected to be crucial for Greek political developments. The free-fall in the popularity of the Greek government has fuelled – again – the discussion for the need of an early election. If the review by the creditors is not completed soon, Tsipras may have to deal with a very angry public which will demand – again – political change. And this may be a delicate moment to see how much the policies toward Turkey will prop up a “patriotic” fervor or try a conciliatory tone which would perhaps fit more with the original ideological principle of Syriza. 

Of course, it takes two to tango, regardless of the speed, and for anything to change, things will also depend on the stance of Turkey.