Greek foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean: Energy and Realpolitik

The Eastern Mediterranean is a region plagued by conflict and instability. The Syrian civil war has turned into a regional crisis, drawing other neighbouring counties into it. Post-Mubarak Egypt has sought a new role as a leading Arab country. Israel has been involved in a shadow war with Iran and its Shia allies. Simultaneously, Turkey is becoming increasingly assertive in pressing its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. The United States, Russia, and France have shown strong interest to engage in the regional security architecture. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has not diminished Greece’s diplomatic capability to cope with new complex security environments. In fact, Athens has developed a new foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean that deserves some attention.

The new geopolitics of energy

Following the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, the need to reduce dependence on Russian gas exports has forced European governments to consider the Eastern Mediterranean as a potential source of energy. Israeli, Egyptian, and Cypriot gas exports could contribute to the diversification of supply. The Eastern Mediterranean has an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, but technically recoverable, natural gas. Greece’s geographic location makes it a natural bridge between the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean and the energy-consuming Western Europe.

Hence, Athens has negotiated with Nicosia and Jerusalem the construction of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline, which would connect Israeli and Cypriot gas fields to Europe via Crete and mainland Greece. In January 2020, the three countries signed an agreement, although the final route is still under consideration. However, the EastMed pipeline project is feasible only with U.S. political and financial backing. The passing of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 by the U.S. Congress sends that message.

As a result, Turkey feels even more left out and isolated. Therefore, Ankara needs allies to support its position. In November 2019, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord of Libya signed a maritime agreement with Turkey in exchange of military support. The agreement has established an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between the two countries by ignoring Greek islands, including Crete which is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean. The legality of the agreement is disputed by the Libyan opposition but complicates the situation. Against this background, Athens was forced to reach out to Cairo. In August 2020, the two countries signed an agreement for a partial demarcation of maritime boundaries between Crete and the northern coast of Egypt.

But this is not all. The Cypriot government’s determination to exploit its offshore gas deposits has provoked a military reaction from Erdogan’s regime. Turkish drilling ships have repeatedly entered the Cypriot EEZ, accompanied by warships, to conduct various activities; yet, Nicosia has already licensed parts of its EEZ to foreign energy companies. Due to ethnic ties, Athens has supported the Republic of Cyprus in its confrontation with Ankara.

Energy geopolitics also play a role in Greece’s ambitious plans for renewable energy. In October 2021, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Egyptian Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi signed an agreement to build an undersea electricity interconnector via the new Greek-Egyptian EEZ. This project aims at bridging Europe and Africa by building a submarine power cable of total capacity 2000MW in either direction. In combination with the other interconnections that are developed in the region, including interconnections with Italy and Bulgaria, the interconnector with Egypt could transform Greece into an energy hub of cheap, environmentally-friendly energy.

Building realpolitik alliances

The partnership with Israel is the cornerstone of the Greek foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterraean. The deterioration of the Turkish-Israeli relations after the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010 paved the way for a new era in Greek-Israeli relations. On the initiative of Netaniahu government, the two countries signed agreements in the field of security, energy, trade, and tourism. Jerusalem has shared Greek concerns about Turkish assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has not only supported the Palestinians, but it has also offered moral support to Hamas. Not surprisingly, the air forces of Israel and Greece have conducted several joint exercises in recent years. Additionally, Athens plans to purchase advanced Israeli systems for its army, navy, and air force.

Moreover, Athens has built a new relationship with pro-Western Gulf countries. In late November 2020, Greece and the UAE signed a defence pact which includes a provision for mutual defence if one country’s territorial integrity is threatened by a third party. Three months earlier, Emirati F-16 jets were deployed at the Souda Air Base in Crete for training with the Hellenic Air Force. Abu Dhabi opposes Ankara’s attempt to dominate the Muslim world and supports the anti-Turkish opposition in Libya.

The UAE is not the only Gulf country that has developed military cooperation with Greece. In September 2021, Athens decided to deploy Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia for the protection of critical energy infrastructure. Some months earlier, Saudi F-15 jets flew to Greece to participate in joint military exercises. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has also opposed Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

At the same time, Athens has attempted to balance Turkey by forming an alliance with Paris, which views Erdogan’s Turkey as a geopolitical competitor. In late September 2021, Greece and France signed an agreement which includes a clause on mutual defence assistance. Consequently, the Hellenic Navy will soon purchase advanced French frigates to conduct operations far away from Greece’s shores.

An evolving scenario

Energy development and transportation in the Eastern Mediterranean is a game-changing factor. The Greek pivot to the Eastern Mediterranean serves as a test of capabilities and intents. Athens has formulated a new foreign policy by collaborating with key neighbouring countries, such as Israel and Egypt. Both Jerusalem and Cairo have shared Greek concerns about Turkish assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, the Athens has reached out to pro-Western Gulf countries that have their own problems with Turkey’s leadership and aspire to play a region in regional affairs. The French-Greek military agreement also confirms the growing commitment of Paris to regional security. This all amounts to a concerted, deliberate diplomatic effort to increase Greek presence in the volatile region of the Eastern Mediterranean.