In this Briefing, our student contributor Sumru Elden (1st year Politics and International Relations) analyzes the background of the new defense agreement between Greece and France and what it implies for international actors in the resource-rich Mediterranean Sea.
On the 28th of September, Greece and France signed a bilateral defense agreement, to the shock of many spectators. This landmark military agreement contains a mutual defense clause requiring the other country to come to its defense if the other is attacked by a third country, even if the offender is a NATO state (1). Another part of the deal encapsulates the purchasing of three French Belharra frigates by Greece, which is expected to shift the dynamics in the Aegean Sea and compensate for France's losses on the failed submarine contract with Australia.
NATO member states are required to aid a member state that is under attack. However, the historically ongoing tensions between two NATO countries, Greece and Turkey, have made this clause rather complicated. The continental shelf and maritime boundaries have been a constant issue between these two countries as some Greek islands are less than 19km from Turkey’s coast (6). This issue has been used by both countries’ administrations to gain support in domestic politics. Furthermore, Paris and Athens have been dissatisfied with NATO for a while as NATO’s “neutral” stance in the Aegean Sea dispute has left Athens disappointed while France has been against the coercion of the US on Eastern Europe to buy its armaments (1). Thus, Greece seeking a better defense strategy, and France looking to strengthen its stance, led them to this bilateral agreement.
Looking into the foreign policy agendas of each country provides a deeper insight into the formation and effects of the agreement. France has been working avidly to make up for its loss of 34 billion euros after the annulment of the submarine deal with Australia (2). This deal has not only resulted in a large financial loss for the French military industry but also weakened Macron’s stance and power on the world stage. Therefore, the bilateral agreement, encapsulating the exchange of frigates, will aid the atonement of some of the damage, as well as help to establish France’s active role in the Mediterranean Sea. Recently, the East Mediterranean has been a hot zone for political activity with the discovery of oil reserves. Therefore, the debate of Cyprus and who has the right to access these reserves has become an eminent concern for many countries. Over time, France’s influence in the Middle East and Africa has diminished significantly, leaving just Lebanon, which was influenced by French culture, to maintain close relations with France. However, France’s wish to be a significant actor in the region and the EU has caused it to seek arrangements to solidify its involvement; thus paving the way for this defense clause in the agreement with Greece.
On the other hand, Greece was suffering a decade of military stagnation as a result of the economic crisis. Meanwhile, Turkey rapidly developed its military industry, investing over 55 billion euros on defense projects to establish a navy to match that of Greece’s (3). With these developments, it also began to act more assertively in the Eastern Mediterranean for natural resource rights, which left Greece feeling increasingly threatened. This has put serious pressure on Athens to modernize its military and especially navy forces to be able to fend off any aggression from Ankara. In addition, the United States’ withering interest in the EU and the neutral stance on NATO also pushed Greece to pursue alternative solutions to secure itself and to turn to France, a historical ally, to “comfort deterrence vis-à-vis” Turkey (4).
Lastly, Turkey’s foreign policy agenda has evolved to be more assertive due to its enhanced military capabilities and maritime claims. Encouraged by its military power and the apparent lack of unmatched militaries around the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has been aggressively employing survey vessels for oil exploration in the region. The vessel has explored areas in which Greece and Cyprus have territorial claims, further amplifying the need for Greece to seek defense deals and enhance its navy. Moreover, Ankara has deployed troops to Libya and signed a maritime deal, which is a highly significant achievement, to shift the power balance in the region. This maritime deal contains the establishment of an exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea which gives Turkey territorial rights to the resources on the ocean bed. Turkey has been determined in its agenda for the claim over the oil reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and has not feared the increased tensions with Greece. However, the EU has committed to “limited sanctions on Turkish individuals” to pressure Turkey to end its assertive policies in the region (5). The US also warned Turkey about its aggressiveness, resulting in the recalling of the survey vessels for the time being.
This deal benefits both parties as it opens up a new way to reach their internal foreign policy agendas. France, losing its international power after the Arab Spring, has further been pushed out of the world stage by China’s growing influence in Africa. Turkey’s pursuit of a new Africa policy, including opening embassies and signing bilateral agreements, has also undermined French power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, with the rise of Germany as a strong leader in the EU, France has been aiming for a powerful projection of leadership. This defense agreement with Greece would allow France to regain its position in the Eastern Mediterranean and obtain its role as an arbiter in the region. Henceforth, Greece and France will collaborate on the issues concerning the energy resources in the region and will face threats collectively. This agreement is also a start for the EU’s strategic autonomy and enhanced role on the world stage, which France has been an ardent advocate of. France’s military power is recognized and by promising to protect Greece it has shown great leadership in vulnerable EU countries. Lastly, Turkey’s involvement in Syria, Libya, and especially in the rest of Africa has enhanced the tensions between them. Hence, this agreement is a way for France to take a stance against Turkey, aiming to deter Turkey’s active role in the region.
Greece’s intention for this agreement has been to secure its ground as an opposing figure in the Eastern Mediterranean against aggressive Turkish policies. Greece is looking to deter Turkey’s escalating militarization and assertiveness through this bilateral agreement. The strengthening of Greek armed forces through the newly-purchased frigates will help to level out the field with Turkey. The shield of the French military will also help to increase the security of its borders and pose a strong threat to Turkish expansion.
However, the agreement has left Turkey feeling defensive and isolated, resulting in heightened tension in the region. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç stated that “Greece’s policy of armament as well as isolation and alienation of Turkey, instead of cooperation” will threaten the security of the region (6). Another statement by Ankara has said that this agreement will only work to strengthen Turkey’s determination in protecting its claims and rights in the region (6). Their statements also highlight the fact that both are NATO countries and there was no need for such an aggressive agreement and the purposeful isolation of Turkey as an enemy. Due to the nature of the agreement, tensions are expected to rise to an all-time high.
Future implications of the agreement may include disruptions to the status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean and further frictions between Greece and Turkey. Through this agreement, France’s involvement in Greece and the Republic of Cyprus will allow it to have a say in the division and extraction of oil with its companies, such as Total, or by its skilled exploration teams. This enhanced involvement will encourage closer relationships with former French spheres of influence such as Syria and Libya, enabling France’s influence on the domestic politics and policy decisions in these countries. With this strengthened power in the Eastern Mediterranean and expanded sphere of influence, France can move on from being a secondary force in the EU and taking Germany’s position as the leader. For Greece, this agreement will lead to a sense of heightened security in the region and might invoke stronger reactions and more assertive policies in the Aegean Sea. With the improved naval forces and the backing from France, Greece might play a more active role in the Aegean Sea. The increased budget on defense might be a burden on the already struggling economy but to France’s arms industry, this spending will be of great benefit.
As for Turkey, it seems to have two policy routes to take in light of this agreement. It can either transition from its assertive policies to a more moderate strategy, or it can accelerate its already-growing defense industry. Inspecting recent policy decisions, Turkey will more likely react to this agreement by investing in defense and security, further armament, and militarization. Moreover, the recent refusal of the United States to deliver jets to Turkey has pushed it to align itself more with Russia, such as through the purchase of S-400 missiles. This way, the Greek-French defense agreement may further alienate Turkey from the West and cause it to position itself more with Russia and China. Overall, this agreement has intensified the tension between Turkey and Greece and has made the issue of the Eastern Mediterranean and its oil reserves an even more pressing issue in world politics.
(1) Network, EURACTIV. “France and Greece Take First Step towards EU Force in NATO.” Www.euractiv.com, EURACTIV.com, 29 Sept. 2021, www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/france-and-greece-take-first-step-towards-eu-force-in-nato/.
(2) Panos Tasiopoulos , Eleftheria Katsi , et al. “Sous Le Ciel De Paris – a Promising Agreement Is Born.” Martens Centre, 1 Oct. 2021, www.martenscentre.eu/blog/sous-le-ciel-de-paris-a-promising-agreement-is-born/.
(3) Gurini, Ferhat. “Turkey's Unpromising Defense Industry.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, carnegieendowment.org/sada/82936.
(4) Tertrais, Bruno. “Reassurance and Deterrence in the Mediterranean: The Franco-Greek Defense Deal.” Institut Montaigne, Institut Montaigne, 18 Nov. 2021, www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/reassurance-and-deterrence-mediterranean-franco-greek-defense-deal.
(5) Arab Times. “Turkey Sends Oil Ship to Eastern Med, Approves Libya Troop Deployment.” Arab News, Arabnews, 23 Dec. 2020, www.arabnews.com/node/1781881/middle-east.
(6) “Greek Parliament Approves Defence Pact with France.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 7 Oct. 2021, www.reuters.com/world/europe/greece-france-defence-pact-protects-against-third-party-aggression-greek-pm-2021-10-07/.