Due to its geostrategically valuable position at the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece has an opportunity to leverage its strengths to become an indispensable regional power for its allies and trade partners. Having precariously navigated over a decade of austerity measures, Athens is now more confident in the pursuit of its core interests and has in recent months pursued a flurry of diplomatic overtures. To this end, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Greece and hosted an informal dinner for Balkan leaders in August. Then, in September, the Greek prime minister met with his Israeli and Cypriot counterparts to push ahead with a lucrative regional energy initiative.
If Greece successfully exploits the means and ways available to it, Athens could position itself as a crucial gateway to Europe, a core node in an emerging Mediterranean energy hub, and a regional leader in the Balkans. Greece could also stand to assuage some of its worst security concerns stemming from its de jure NATO ally and neighbour, Turkey.
One of Greece’s core strengths is its tradition as a maritime power. Greece was only recently overtaken by China as the largest commercial fleet operator in the world. The combined value of Greece’s fleet is estimated to be $163 billion, and its tonnage exceeds that of more economically powerful states with large commercial fleets such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Greece benefits as a geostrategic crossroads with maritime access to Europe, North Africa, and Asia with the ports of Piraeus, Thessaloniki and Alexandroupolis functioning as access points to Europe and the Black Sea region.
With its membership of the European Union and its strong maritime position, Greece is well-placed to present itself to emerging powers as a gateway to the European bloc. The recent visit of Narendra Modi to Greece appears to have bore fruit in this regard, as New Delhi and Athens agreed to upgrade their bilateral relationship to a strategic one. Indeed, following a meeting with his Indian counterpart, the Greek prime minister said that his country would act as a ‘dynamic gateway’ to Europe. Moreover, Modi commented that the two countries would aim to double bilateral trade by 2030 and that Greece and India would cooperate more closely on security and defence, agriculture, tourism, technology, and education.
For Greece, seeking stronger relations with emerging powers like India will become increasingly important as the world order shifts to multipolarity. A sound diplomatic strategy will also enable Greece to better position itself as an instrumental member of the European Union and NATO, rather than as the recovering economic backwater it was relegated to in late 2009. Greece does not possess the hard power to significantly impact global politics at the highest levels, but it can punch above its weight as a leading voice in a multilateral setting. By becoming a crucial access point between Europe and the rest of the world, Athens will command greater influence within the European Union and hence, greater leverage to secure its national interests.
Greece can further enhance its influence by taking an active role in regional politics as well. The Balkans has traditionally been fraught with instability, but there are also opportunities here for Greece to take a leading role within a multilateral setting. Currently, five countries in the Balkans are candidates for European Union membership: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. Owing to Greece’s longstanding historical and cultural ties in the region, Athens can play a key role in the ascension process by acting as a regional stabiliser – a role which is again within grasp now that the country’s economy is on more level ground.
In practical terms, Athens may seek to bolster economic cooperation, infrastructure and connectivity, energy security, cultural exchanges, and support for reform. Greece should seek to facilitate discourse and multilateralism in the region as it did in late August when several Balkan leaders alongside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in the Greek capital for an informal dinner, culminating with a joint declaration regarding the war in Ukraine. By acting as a facilitator for regional cooperation, Greece can position itself as the first port of call for foreign officials when issues in the Balkans arise. The emphasis of such an approach would rest on diplomacy and soft power. However, Greece will need to be careful that disputes with neighbours such as North Macedonia and Albania do not sour its outreach efforts.
Another important way Greece can act as an access point to Europe is in the vital energy sector. Europe’s scramble to wean itself off Russian energy has created new opportunities for Athens to act as a bridge between the European Union and alternative energy suppliers. Relatively recent discoveries of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean have upped the stakes in the region, with the leaders of Greece, Israel, and the Republic of Cyprus meeting this September to discuss further cooperation in the energy sector. Eastern Mediterranean gas could contribute significantly to meeting Europe’s electricity needs. To this end, the European Union-supported EuroAsia Interconnector subsea cable is projected to supply an initial capacity of 1,000 megawatts of electricity to Europe through linked grids in Israel and Cyprus through to Greece by the end of the decade.
Greece has also been in talks with Egypt to facilitate the construction of a 1373 km long undersea cable that will connect the Greek and Egyptian electricity grids. The GREGY Interconnector is projected to supply Europe with 3,000 megawatts of electricity via Greece when it is completed in seven to eight years. The GREGY Interconnector has been identified by the European Commission as a Project of Common Interest (PCI) and is thus eligible to receive public funds. If the project is completed, Athens will be able to further position itself as a key node in Europe’s energy infrastructure.
Greek policymakers will have to be mindful that the country’s position at a geostrategic crossroads is a double-edged sword and that threats in close proximity to Greece will outweigh the opportunities if not managed well. The chief threat emanates from Turkey and its revisionist ambitions vis a vis the territorial and maritime boundaries in the region. This could cause a whole host of problems for Greece, from potentially limiting its ability to facilitate lucrative energy deals to open conflict.
In recent months, the exceptionally poor state of relations between Athens and Ankara have improved, largely due to the outreach which occurred in February when parts of Turkey were levelled by earthquakes. The result of this ‘earthquake diplomacy’ is that the leaders of both countries are now back on talking terms and discourse is again possible. Both countries have proved capable of solidarity when struck by natural disasters, as was the case in 1999 and more recently this year. Greek diplomats should seize the impetus and encourage rapprochement whilst this sense of goodwill lasts.
However, previous periods of détente between Athens and Ankara have failed to produce longstanding resolutions to the disputes that have pervasively soured Greco-Turkish relations. Greece should aim for a long-term diplomatic resolution to these issues but must also be prepared to deter and repel hostile Turkish actions if the current upswing in relations does not result in prolonged rapprochement. Naturally, effective deterrence relies a great deal on a credible military component, especially since senior Turkish officials have repeatedly questioned Greece’s sovereignty over its own territory; but there is a place for strategically minded diplomacy, too.
Athens should consider, when appropriate, conducting dispute resolution with Ankara within a multilateral setting. As a member of the European Union, Greece is able to leverage the greater weight of Brussels during disputes with external actors. Greece, together with Cyprus did this successfully in 2019, when the European Council agreed to downgrade relations with Turkey after both countries protested the presence of the Oruç Reis – a Turkish research vessel – in contested waters off the coast of the Greek island of Kastellorizo.
Additionally, Greece should seek to make itself a more indispensable ally within NATO, to which Turkey is also a member. Historically, Washington has tolerated Ankara’s pursuit of its interests to the detriment of other US allies, largely due to Turkey’s immense geostrategic value. Henry Kissinger’s tacit support for Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 is a strong case in point. Nevertheless, the US and Turkey have increasingly diverged on several important security issues in recent years, such as the status of the Kurds in Syria and Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system which culminated in Ankara being booted from the F-35 program. Greece enjoys many of the same geostrategic advantages as Turkey and is more of a status quo power, making conflicts of interest with the US and other NATO allies less likely. Hence, Greece should deepen defence cooperation with the US and NATO. By doing so, Athens’ interests may receive greater credence if threatened by Turkey.
Ultimately, Greece’s national interests will be best served if it is able to leverage its innate geostrategic advantages whilst limiting its vulnerabilities. As a regional power, Greece does not have the military, economic, or political weight to reshape the global order, but by forging the correct partnerships, it will be possible for Athens to successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities of the emerging multipolar world order.