By Tom Ellis
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is in favor of strengthening Franco-Greek cooperation in defense strategy and operations, he told Kathimerini ahead of traveling to Athens today, just a few days after French President Francois Hollande paid a lightning visit to the Greek capital to discuss, among other things, the leasing of French multipurpose frigates to Greece to help with gas and oil exploration.
Le Drian sees Greece as a “key partner” in defense, noting that Paris will continue its efforts to safeguard the standards of the Greek armed forces, while he also stressed the need for a new Europe-wide strategy that will help the bloc deal with the multidimensional challenges we face today.
Le Drian met with his Greek counterpart Panos Panagiotopoulos in Athens today. The pair agreed to the formation of a Franco-Greek defense committee with the aim of Paris assisting Greece with its naval commitments. The committee will also deal with the servicing of equipment used by the Greek armed forces.
How useful would the FREMM frigates that Athens plans to lease from France be to Greece, given the present economic crisis that the country finds itself in?
France and Greece have a long shared history in matters of defense. It is a deep relationship based on trust. French industries have been important suppliers to the Greek armed forces and continue to work with them in equipment maintenance. Right now, the entire world is aware of the economic and financial context, so what has been at the center of our exchanges, beyond the acquisition of new equipment, has been deepening our defense cooperation in its strategic and operational dimensions.
How do you view Greece's geopolitical role?
In one year's time, Greece will have taken over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The handover will take place right after December's European Council, where defense issues will be examined for the first time since 2008 by heads of states and governments. It will be a key moment for Greece politically, but it will also be a key moment for Europe – the right time to show concrete projects which can make European defense a reality.
What are France's priorities in the bilateral defense cooperation field?
Greece and France have a long and strong defense relationship. Greece is a key defense partner for us. In 2008, our two countries concluded a strategic partnership showing their common views on defense. We intend to pursue and reinvigorate this dynamic on various issues. My meeting with Panos Panagiotopoulos provided an opportunity to share our ideas of the areas where our cooperation should expand.
Which areas are these?
In my view, the first area is [in the] “Europe of Defense” [action plan]. It is a deep conviction we both share: Europe should do more regarding defense, for three reasons, if not more. First of all, the conflicts we face today are multidimensional and deserve a global response, which is precisely where the added value of the EU lies. The European Union is the only structure able to mix development, security, culture, health, education and military tools to deal with a crisis in the long term. And this is the methodology we need in the 21st century.
Secondly, almost all European countries are facing budgetary and financial constraints at different levels. In this context, we all need to spend more efficiently and get the most out of our investments – for instance through pooling and sharing military capabilities in the framework of the European Defense Agency.
Third, the international context demands more European defense initiatives. The Unites States has explicitly invited Europe to take more responsibilities in defense, given its own evolution toward the Asia and Pacific zone.
Can more be done?
There are at least three areas where we, through the EU, could do more: operations, capabilities and industry. As far as operations are concerned, I would like to thank Greece once more for its support to France's Operation Serval [launched in January to liberate northern Mali from Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida]. This very early gesture was a strong political signal for us. Beyond Serval, we can be proud of what the EU is doing in Mali. The European mission (EUTM) in charge of training the Malian armed forces is a tangible contribution to the Europe of Defense. France and Greece are both taking part in this mission – France more specifically as the lead nation. The EU will continue to face challenges in Libya, where it should launch a common security and defense policy mission rapidly, while it should also stay committed to the Horn of Africa and the Balkans. On all these issues, I believe France and Greece have common interests.
Does Europe have the capacity for such action?
The availability of military capabilities is essential to the credibility of the Europe of Defense. We must focus our energies on concrete projects which can make a difference. Some first steps have been made in recent months, and we should support them and go further. For instance, on November 19, 10 European countries signed a letter of intent launching an air-to-air refueling initiative in Europe. Greece and France were among the signatories, showing their commitment to participate in concrete projects aimed at pooling and sharing capabilities between states. This is exactly the kind of projects I give priority to.
Finally, regarding industry, we would like to promote better synergies between the military and the civilian sector, namely regarding European funding for research and technology, and we also consider it essential to propose a European act to protect small businesses in the defense sector to help small and medium-size enterprises to benefit more from European defense programs.