Greece in the eastern Mediterranean: Turning engagement into influence

The convergence of geopolitical rivalries in the eastern Mediterranean has enhanced Greece’s standing. But it could also expose it to feuds that outpace its diplomatic and security capacity.

A Greek and Israeli helicopter crew step onto an aircraft carrier
Image by Ori Shifrin
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Greece is entangled in the remarkably swift geopolitical changes in the eastern Mediterranean. Athens has responded to the region’s explosive mix of competing maritime interests, energy claims, and military exercises by pursuing an increasingly proactive foreign policy, with the objective of gaining lasting influence there. This is a high-stakes game, but Athens has decided that it is worth the risks – and for good reasons.

Developments such as the 2015 migration crisis — driven in part by armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq — demonstrated the need for Greece to pay closer attention to events in its wider south-eastern neighbourhood. This was underscored by Turkey’s more ambitious regional posturing under its ‘Blue Homeland’ doctrine, which culminated in a November 2019 Memorandum of Understanding with Libya’s Government of National Accord designed to redraw the maritime border between the two sides. Athens viewed Ankara’s behaviour as a direct threat to Greek sovereignty, not least concerning the delimitation of maritime zones and access to natural gas.

Greece has responded by attempting to exploit openings created by the deterioration of US-Turkish relations. The European Union’s perceived failings in the eastern Mediterranean have helped convince Athens of the need to play a bigger (if not leading) and more consistent role in EU foreign policy on the region.

To this end, Greece has reached out to member states that traditionally take a more conciliatory approach to Turkey – such as Spain, Italy, and Malta – and increased its coordination with Cyprus. In parallel, Athens has sought to bolster its diplomatic profile by attempting to join European diplomatic initiatives such as the German-hosted Libya conferences in January 2020 and June 2021. Crucially, Athens has also proven more willing to pay for European support, as reflected in its recent purchase of French Rafale jets.

Athens has responded to the region’s explosive mix of competing maritime interests, energy claims, and military exercises by pursuing an increasingly proactive foreign policy, with the objective of gaining lasting influence there

Greece has further strengthened its decade-long political and security partnership with Israel. The Philia (Friendship) Forum – which took place in Athens earlier this year and involved representatives of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – capped a series of regional breakthroughs. Greek diplomacy was also central to the establishment in 2019 of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum — which now includes Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and France.

Greece has upgraded its military cooperation with the UAE – which recently joined Greek and Egyptian naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean. In August 2020, Athens and Cairo signed a treaty that designated an exclusive economic zone in the region, with the aim of countering Turkey’s maritime claims there. And Greece is currently working with Egypt on plans to export natural gas to Europe. In October 202o, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited Bagdad and Erbil, where he opened Greece’s first consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is widely expected to visit Baghdad soon – as part of a strategy of increased engagement with, and vigilance in, the Middle East.

A risky strategy

Nonetheless, Greece’s ambitious new strategy comes with its own set of risks. Firstly, the eastern Mediterranean is becoming more porous. Establishing common ground with neighbours such as Israel and Egypt, and regional powers such as the UAE, has benefited Greece so far. This approach has helped Athens pursue joint diplomatic, defence, economic, and energy objectives with its partners, and form a united front against Ankara. But the concurrent involvement of so many different players in the region — not least in military affairs — has heightened the risk of escalation. This was evident in summer 2020, when there was a sharp rise in tensions over competing naval exercises and Turkey’s plans to drill for gas in maritime areas claimed by Cyprus and Greece. Such escalation could become more common in an already volatile region — a development that would create significant security and economic challenges for the country.

Secondly, forging a new set of relations based on shared grievances and threat perceptions may only serve Greece’s interests in the short term. For instance, if Turkey reaches a détente with Egypt or Israel – which recent Turkish overtures seem designed to achieve – this could prove problematic for Greece’s pursuit of its regional objectives. For years, Middle Eastern geopolitics has been animated by the ‘enemy of my enemy’ reflex. However, the tactical alliances this has produced could be too fragile to support Greece’s new strategy in the region (even if there is no end in sight to geopolitical competition in the eastern Mediterranean).

Similarly, the convergence of European and Middle Eastern geopolitical rivalries in the eastern Mediterranean has enhanced Greece’s diplomatic standing. However, this could also expose the country to feuds that outpace its diplomatic and security capacity. In this context, Athens will need to engage in a much more exacting diplomatic game vis-à-vis its partners in Europe and the Middle East, to avoid crises that affect its standing in either region.

Finally, key initiatives such as the EastMed pipeline could very well prove Sisyphean. They might have provided Athens with a valuable political narrative. But it is unclear whether they will be viable in the long term, not least given the uncertainty around the funding involved and the competitiveness of gas extraction in the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Greece’s ability to profit from such activity could be undermined by its disputes with Turkey.

Inescapably, Greece will have to continue navigating these profound regional risks. So far, the country’s leadership seems cognizant of both them and the limitations of its foreign policy initiatives without sustained diplomatic engagement. The key challenge for Athens is in turning its increased diplomatic presence into greater influence and more durable commitments. In this effort, Athens should remember that diplomacy in the eastern Mediterranean will be not a sprint but a marathon.

Vassilis Ntousas is the senior international relations policy adviser at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels and an academy associate at Chatham House in London. @vntousas

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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