Since the foundation of modern Greece in the early years of the 19th century, the country's foreign policy has focused on the enlargement of its territories at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. The fact that Greece could not have gained its independence if the then-European colonial powers, particularly the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire, had not given their support has profoundly shaped Athens' strategic interaction with the modern Turkish republic. The cardinal rule of their security strategy has remained the same over the last two centuries: never face Turkey alone. This has been accompanied by the assumption that it was Greece rather than Turkey that would help the West achieve its geopolitical interests in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region. Therefore, whenever Ankara was considered to be a more important ally than Athens, anti-West and anti-American feelings peaked among Greeks.
Pointing out Turkey’s non-European identity and tapping into the romantic pro-Hellenic feelings across the Western world would theoretically help Greece secure support against Turkey. Acting as the gatekeeper of the Western and European world in and around the Aegean Sea would presumably enable Greece to set in motion a blackmailing strategy against Turkey, particularly whenever the latter showed a strong determination to join Western clubs, in particular the European Union. Since Greece joined the EU as a full member in 1981, the key message Athens' decision-makers have been giving to their Turkish counterparts has not changed a bit: If you want to join the EU, you need to satisfy Greece’s demands in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Stated somewhat differently, Turkey’s road to Brussels would go through Athens and later Nicosia.
Times of cooperation
On the other hand, the best times in Turkish-Greek relations corresponded to whenever the two shared similar threat perceptions and interacted with each other as truly independent nations, rather than being seen as pawns in the geopolitical games of external powers. When left to themselves, Turkish and Greek leaders have shown outstanding statesmanship in developing a cooperative partnership. The time period between 1923 and 1954 attests to amicable relations between Athens and Ankara. Following the Greco-Turkish War in the early 1920s and given the geopolitical environment of the interwar period, Greece concluded that developing cooperative relations with Turkey, either bilaterally or within regional multilateral platforms, would act as an insurance policy.
In addition to this, the general conviction in Athens during much of the Cold War era was that its alliance with the United States through NATO would keep Turkish-Greek relations in balance. Whenever Ankara pursued anti-Greek policies and altered the regional scales of power in its favor, the alliance would intervene and prevent Turkey from realizing its aims. The fact that neither the United States nor NATO could have stopped Turkey from intervening in Cyprus in 1974 in order to stymie the Greek Cypriot coup aimed at unifying the island with Greece caused soul-searching in Athens.
Greece's application for EU membership in 1975 should have been seen as a security strategy to offset Turkey outside the NATO framework. The balancing of Ankara through the bloc has continued to define Greek strategic thinking and successive governments in Athens have viewed the EU as a “protector power” against Turkey, both in hard and soft terms.
Athens wanted to see the EU evolve into a kind of collective defense organization like NATO that would guarantee the external borders of member states against all external territorial threats. Since Greece joined the EU in 1981, the majority of its political parties have converged on a foreign policy goal of keeping Turkey outside the bloc.
Such an exclusionary Greek approach toward Turkey was largely made possible in an atmosphere where the majority of EU members were against Turkey’s candidacy, not to mention its full membership. This negative attitude toward Ankara’s application and European character lent legitimacy to Athens' efforts at manipulating the non-resolution of the Aegean and Cyprus disputes on Turkey’s way to Brussels. Stemming from the high-political character of the Cyprus argument, Greece could have resorted to using its veto power on other issues if its EU partners had not adopted pro-Athens stances on the Cyprus issue.
Athens' lack of influence
In the past, however, whenever Turkey demonstrated a strong willingness to join the EU, set in motion a comprehensive Europeanization process at home, adopted a pro-West orientation in its foreign policy or developed cordial strategic relations with such heavyweights as Germany and France, Greece’s ability to use the EU as leverage against Turkey diminished.
We are now going through interesting times, as Greece no longer has the ability to use the EU as leverage against Turkey. Ankara currently has more strategic autonomy than before and membership in the EU no longer tops Turkey’s national interests. The power gap between the two shores of the Aegean Sea seems to have also decisively widened in Turkey’s favor in recent years. Besides, there is no one single Western international community in which the United States and its European partners can agree on key strategic challenges that could put synchronized pressure on Turkey and Greece to defuse the tension in their bilateral relations.
Finally, Greece is not in a position to muster an anti-Turkey coalition inside the EU. Aside from France and some other states, the majority of EU members, in particular Germany, Italy and Spain, do not want to give a carte blanch to Athens in its latest confrontation with Ankara over Turkey’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. The sooner the two neighbors talk to each other through diplomatic channels and try to solve their disagreements bilaterally, the better. The past is replete with inspiring examples.
* Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Bilim University
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