Athens caught between Scylla and Charybdis

The USA’s decision to attack Iraq has brought several issues to the surface that will change the geopolitical landscape. The diplomatic tug of war over the imminent Iraq war is an indication of a broader political game where much is at stake and the outcome is far from certain. The only certainty is that a new, highly fluid and unstable period has begun. The way in which Washington has handled the Iraq crisis leaves it little room to back down. The only way out is forward, so that it brings Iraq under control as soon as possible. Those who are more moderate hope that after the military campaign is over, international reactions will abate; however, the hard core is already planning the next phase of the crusade. There is no doubt that sooner or later the Americans will invade Iraq, incurring some losses. From the political viewpoint, however, theirs will be a Pyrrhic victory. An imperious policy and arrogant handling has achieved the impossible for the Bush administration: first, throwing away the huge reserves of sympathy generated by the September 11 terrorist attacks, secondly, sparking a globalized anti-war movement with immediate consequences at diplomatic level, and, thirdly, bringing about a Franco-German axis on the opposite shore. The rift within the Western camp has led to a series of chain reactions. Moscow and Beijing have not let the opportunity go to waste and have aligned themselves with protesting Europeans, for the first time setting up an informal international front aimed at a political containment of the sole superpower. It would be an exaggeration to talk about political isolation, but without doubt, the USA has never before been in a similar position. The fact that they have reacted by issuing threats (against France and recently against Russia) indicates its complete lack of political flexibility. Americans have never looked kindly on the idea of European unification. Seeing it as a potential challenge to their hegemony, they are displeased by any moves to set up a joint foreign and defense policy. They do not want the EU to go further than the existing intergovernmental cooperation mechanism and if possible, they would prefer it to revert to being a common market. Nevertheless, until recently the USA maintained a cautious stance toward the second pillar of the transatlantic alliance. However, as soon as the Franco-German axis refused to toe the line, US diplomacy swung into action to try and split Europe. The letter from the «eight» was the first strike. Then the remaining countries in what (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld calls «the new Europe» hastened to stand by the superpower’s side. At the weekend, Bush went to meet the prime ministers of Britain and Spain in the Azores, not to solve a problem, but to emphasize, one more time, the opposition to the Franco-German axis and, by extension, the rift within Europe. Greece is trying to strike a neutral note, facilitated by its position as head of the European Union Council for the first half of the year. On the one hand, it supports greater European unification, indeed in the direction of a federation. In other words, it supports the need to draw up a joint foreign and defense policy. On the other hand, however, it is carefully avoiding anything that might harm its relations with the USA. That is feasible because the contradiction has not yet produced any painful dilemmas. So, for the moment, Athens has room to maneuver, even if it cannot always avoid the pitfalls. At the moment, London is asking for a special summit on EU-US relations, to include the 10 candidates for membership of the EU. Greece, as current EU president, has indirectly rejected the request. Of course, the question will come up again and will probably dominate the spring summit. The role of Prime Minister Costas Simitis and Foreign Minister George Papandreou is to bring about a compromise, as occurred at the previous summit. This time however, things are much more difficult. The Greek presidency’s options are limited and, precisely for that reason, it will not be blamed for any failure. The most important problem facing Athens is the safeguarding, as far as possible, of its own foreign policy from the effects of the fluid geopolitical environment. According to the Helsinki accord, the resolution of the problems in the Aegean has been linked with Turkey’s course toward Europe. After the breakdown of the talks on the Cyprus issue in The Hague, the same thing is bound to happen with the Cyprus issue. The failure of the Annan initiative has not condemned Cyprus to be divided forever, as many have claimed in order to suit their own purposes. In reality, the Turkish refusal gave the Greek-Cypriot side the advantage. The fact that Athens and Nicosia responded positively (to the initiative), although the solution proposed had its flaws, does not allow for any objections regarding the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU when it is raised in the European Parliament. When the accession treaty is signed on April 16, the die will have been cast. In practice, there is no chance that Cyprus’s accession will not be ratified by one of the EU members’ national parliaments, as they will be voting for the enlargement package as a whole, and not for the accession of each of the 10 candidate countries separately. The acquis communautaire will not be implemented in the occupied sector of Cyprus, creating a very interesting state of affairs in which Turkey, a candidate for membership, will be occupying part of a EU member state. According to a statement by a European Commission official, starting accession negotiations with Turkey, which is «illegally occupying EU territory,» will be very difficult. Just a few days ago, the Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen asked Turkey to consider the consequences a breakdown of talks in The Hague would have on its own candidacy. Ankara is afraid of the effects that (Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf) Denktash’s negative stance will have on its own relations with the EU. It is obvious, however, that at this time, Turkey’s first priority is the front with Iraq. Under the circumstances, diplomatic activity on the Cyprus issue will cease for the time being, only to be reactivated in a few months’ time. It is in the EU’s interest to tie up this loose end, and it will therefore give it priority in order to move on in its relations with Turkey. Ankara will be forced to change its tack, unless it decides to abandon its ambitions to join Europe, although this does not appear likely. When the Turks realize their dilemma, they will probably try to negotiate, exchanging a positive stance on the Cyprus front for the satisfaction of their demands by the EU. Then the Greek Cypriots will have the advantage, and will have every right to ask for new negotiations with a clean slate, aimed at obtaining a resolution in line with the acquis communautaire. The game will not be controlled by Washington and London on their own; Europe will be far more involved. Pitfalls In order to get to that point, however, certain pitfalls will have to be avoided. Nor can there be any complications due to broader geopolitical factors. (AKEL party leader Dimitris) Christofias’s allegation that plans were afoot to include the Annan proposal in the accession agreement is one example of a possible pitfall. A complication could ensue if the European Parliament rejects enlargement outright. It is common knowledge that there are those who want to teach the Eastern European states a lesson for acting out of line by serving as satellites of the USA even before they become members of the EU. Another complication could arise if the EU, in the light of new geopolitical developments, decided to freeze Turkey’s candidacy. In both cases, there is little Athens can do, but it is vital that it be prepared for developments like these.