Greece has the opportunity to restore its political and economic influence in the Balkans, which has receded in the past decade, partly as a result of the economic crisis but also because of the failure to resolve the name issue with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council think tank, tells Kathimerini in an interview. He calls on the governments of the two countries to move forward with the process of implementing the Prespes agreement, while also urging the opposition in both countries not to block the necessary parliamentary votes and to abide by the pact’s implementation if approved.
Wilson, who visited Athens earlier this month and met with members of the government, the opposition, diplomats and opinion makers, says that the United States and Greece should cooperate with Turkey as their interests are best served when Ankara remains a constructive ally and partner on resolving regional issues. In that spirit he notes that energy development in the Eastern Mediterranean will help integrate the economies of both communities on Cyprus, as well as Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, comprising a natural regional energy market.
How is the recent agreement between Greece and FYROM viewed in Washington?
Washington views the Prespes agreement as a historic breakthrough that will not only normalize relations between Skopje and Athens, but also dramatically bolster stability in Southeast Europe. The agreement offers Greece the prospect of restoring its political and economic influence in the Balkans, a historic reality which has waned in the past decade. Thessaloniki in particular is well positioned to benefit as the economic linchpin connecting goods and people from the Balkans to the Aegean and onward. For Skopje, the agreement is a critical step in unlocking its accession to NATO and jump-starting its accession talks with the EU. This stabilizing effect will enable Greece’s northern neighbor to more decisively advance reforms and develop more rapidly economically. Resolution of the name issue offers the prospect of greater regional integration, resulting in greater security and prosperity.
How do the US and Europe assess the strong opposition in both countries?
The United States, NATO and EU leaders recognize the political leadership and courage required to back this agreement. Any agreement will be stronger with broader support across the political spectrum in both countries. That said, for those who will not support the agreement, Americans and Europeans would expect responsible political actors would neither foment opposition nor block parliamentary votes. Furthermore, Americans and Europeans welcome the commitment by all parties to abide by the agreement’s implementation if approved.
How can Greece once more play a leading role in the Balkans?
Greek influence in the Balkans has receded in the past decade, partly as a result of the economic crisis but also because of the failure to resolve the name issue. The Prespes agreement, combined with a growing economy, position Greece to claim a seat at the table for all major decisions impacting the region, for Greek diplomats to re-engage actively in the region helping to shape developments, and for Greek businesses and entrepreneurs to grow their investments. In many respects, approval of the Prespes agreement would position the Greek government to reclaim its role in stewarding and advancing the Thessaloniki declaration that all nations of the region will become part of Europe. In short, the agreement repositions Greece from being an obstacle to being a catalyst for regional development and integration.
What are your thoughts on the way Greece has responded to the refugee crisis?
The Greek people have responded extraordinarily well to what has been a historic migration across its territory, demonstrating remarkable solidarity and hospitality. And yet, several years into the crisis, Greece still has steps to take to ensure a more routine management of migration issues. In the wake of the Turkey-EU deal, Greek authorities are faced with managing the long-term prospect of those approximately 70,000 irregular migrants who remain in the country, many in conditions few Greeks would countenance. While the migration challenge has exacerbated many problems in Greece, individuals and civil society have responded with remarkable ingenuity and resilience in many cases, in turn helping to build the capacity of Greek society to play important roles on major societal issues not limited to migration.
Given Greece’s frontline status and the burden it has carried for the EU, Athens has earned a voice in any major decisions on migration taken by the EU. As such, Berlin, Budapest and other key capitals should be consulting intensively with their Greek counterparts as they search for more sustainable, common solutions.
Regarding Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new strengthened presidency, how should Greece and the West deal with him?
The United States and Greece share a common interest in keeping Turkey anchored in the West. To this end, Athens and Washington can work together to keep Turkey actively engaged in all major regional issues. US and Greek interests are best served when Turkey remains a constructive ally and partner on resolving regional issues.
Erdogan has linked the issue of the two Greek soldiers who accidentally crossed a few meters into Turkish territory with that of the eight Turk officers who sought asylum in Greece, and proposed an exchange.
It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which one NATO ally should detain soldiers from another NATO ally.
ExxonMobil plans to drill in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone in October. Will this go ahead despite Turkey’s aggressive behavior?
Our goal should be to ensure that energy becomes a source of cooperation, not tension, in the Eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of gas in the region should be a boon to all the littoral states, providing long-term predictable sources of energy for the region. Over time, energy development will help integrate the economies of both communities on Cyprus as well as Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, comprising a natural regional energy market.
How does the Trump administration view the alliances that Greece and Cyprus have with Israel and Egypt?
Greece occupies a strategic location and inherits a historic role as a key actor throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Fostering closer ties between Greece and Cyprus on the one hand, and Israel and Egypt on the other can provide a political and economic network to help manage regional problems and develop more effective solutions. Developing such ties can create a more stable, predictable region and restores historic economic and political connections across the Med.