The public debate during the past few days between two former prime ministers, Kostas Simitis and Kostas Karamanlis, has created the need for an introductory remark on the conditions and purposes for a public discussion on foreign policy issues, especially when it involves persons who have managed said issues and possess presumption of knowledge and responsibility.
The review of various periods or even moments, when these were pivotal, the clarification of factual data and honest and unbiased self-reflection, can facilitate the elaboration of the national strategy, the familiarization of the public opinion with the complexity and difficulty of the issues, without simplifications, covering up and ornaments and finally the formation of the necessary national consensus. Defending past choices is not only the right, but also the obligation of those who have handled national policy in the name of the Greek people. This, however, is secondary to the obligation of everyone participating in the constant exercise of truthfulness about the facts, deeper understanding of the situation and foresight as to the developments and risks, which is the meaning of the national strategy.
I am not a supporter of either “neutrality” or “offsets.” I was a member of Simitis’ governments and I have my share of responsibility and honor for everything that took place. I was in charge of the defense policy in George Papandreou’s government and served as a government partner, vice president and foreign minister of the Samaras-Venizelos government – i.e. a government that bridged the gap between the traditional rivals of the Metapolitefsi period, PASOK and New Democracy, in the field of foreign policy – among others. I know, therefore, that stereotypes can be mitigated, that understanding can be fostered and consensus can be built even when this seems impossible, at the outset because of different partisan traditions, aesthetics and audiences. When the common denominator is responsibility for the future of the country, the harnessing of a crisis and the protection of national interests, not theoretically, but directly and practically, anything is possible.
In fact, the basic condition is not to question the patriotism of the other within the constitutional and democratic spectrum. When we say “other” we mean the other government, the other party, the other perception within the same catch-all and democratic party. The correctness, foresight or effectiveness of the choices or individual actions may be challenged, but not the intention and the patriotic spirit.
Internationally, there are of course two schools of thought in foreign policy, as well as in fiscal policy. One that gives primary importance to avoiding immediate political and especially electoral cost or seeks to derive immediate political and especially electoral benefits through choices, actions or impressions in the field of foreign policy and national issues, and another that is willing to accept any political cost by making major foreign policy moves, with the expectation of course that these will eventually yield political benefits and not just historical recognition. After all, foreign policy and democracy as a whole always move between conjuncture and history and are evaluated at both levels.
Let us now look at the example in question. The Helsinki strategy was the optimum strategy at that time. It yielded a tangible result in the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the European Union, without the prerequisite of a political solution of the Cyprus problem. This great national success due to the Helsinki European Council paradoxically allowed the Greek-Cypriot community to overwhelmingly reject the Annan plan in the 2004 referendum. Therefore, as a result, it facilitated the perpetuation of the pending status of the political solution to the Cyprus problem until today – it remains to be seen until when. This is a classic example of heterogony of purposes.
In the sphere of Greek-Turkish relations, the Helsinki strategy was explicitly abandoned in December 2004 after the governmental change in March of the same year, with its legacy being the acquis of the exploratory talks that resumed a few weeks ago, after a five-year hiatus and the contacts on confidence-building measures. The thought that the Helsinki framework, if it remained stable in December 2004, could lead to the complete settlement of the pending issues in Greek-Turkish relations through an appeal to the International Court of Justice, while in the meantime the Republic of Cyprus had joined the EU and the Greek-Cypriot side had unequivocally rejected the Annan plan, is very optimistic, obviously based on the assumption that in order to speed up its EU accession process, Turkey would fully comply with the Copenhagen and Helsinki criteria, without being interested in anything else. Moreover, it is based on the hypothesis that no EU member-state (not even France) would object for its own reasons to Turkey’s common path with the other candidate countries at that time.
The next question is whether Greece, by agreeing in Helsinki to a political text of conclusions of the Presidency of the European Council (and not to a legally binding text) which invited Turkey, as well as all candidate countries, to follow the procedure of the ICJ to settle “all border disputes and other related issues” with EU member-states, had accepted the jurisdiction of the ICJ for the delimitation not only of the continental shelf and the EEZ, but also of the territorial waters as well as any unilateral claim or allegation Turkey would have brought before the ICJ.
Perhaps some people believe that Greece had accepted in Helsinki such a broad and loose jurisdiction of the ICJ and either think that this was a great national success or that it was a crucial mistake that had to be corrected. Both of these approaches are, in my estimation, based on a false premise. My reading of the Helsinki conclusions is that Greece had never decided and accepted something like that. On the contrary, any recourse to the ICJ presupposed, as it does now, the conclusion of a “compromis” (procedural agreement on the jurisdiction) after consultations and negotiations, while the country would act within the framework of the national strategy, which implies a national consensus. I have to stress that an agreement of this type is an extremely delicate and critical international convention for the national interests, a document of historic proportions. I do not think it has ever been accepted, nor could it be accepted, that Turkey can unilaterally bring any issue that it describes as a “dispute” to trial in the ICJ. This self-evident fact is clarified by the statement on the jurisdiction of the ICJ that I submitted on behalf of the Hellenic Republic in January 2015, after consultation with the opposition and the country’s leading experts in international law (Emmanuel Roukounas and Christos Rozakis).
After all, since 1999 – to be exact since 2002 – a lot of time has been spent in successive rounds of exploratory talks, while Turkey has gradually changed its own fundamental choice regarding its accession to the EU, altered its imperative priorities in terms of internal and external security, changed its constitution not only through constitutional revision, but also through the ongoing repulsion of the 2016 coup attempt.
The preceding observations are, I suppose, sufficient to take us from a discussion on the 1996-2004 period (which could also refer to the 1976-1980 or 1987-1988 periods) to the present time, the last “moment” of which is remarkably long and dense: For the first time since 1974, we are witnessing a rolling episode of political, diplomatic and often military tensions in Greek-Turkish relations lasting about 18 months, from November 2019 until today.
It is also obvious, for the first time so intensely, that there is a major international-political problem of Turkey and its relations with the West (primarily the US and additionally the EU), a problem different to and wider than Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus problem together. Critical parameters of Greek-Turkish relations will depend on developments in this broader issue. Let me repeat that even if Turkey pursues an extreme anti-Western policy, geography dictates that Greece should pursue, within the framework of international law, the delimitation of the continental shelf and the EEZ, as well as good-neighborly relations. Greece wants to protect its national sovereignty and activate its sovereign rights in accordance with international law. Greece does not want to turn the Aegean Sea into a “Greek lake,” nor to exclude Turkey from the Eastern Mediterranean. To each their own.
The decisive factor is always the parameter of time, which unfortunately passes irreversibly. Now, 47 years after the invasion of Cyprus, 45 years after the 1976 crisis, the rejection of the Greek recourse before the ICJ, the Berne Protocol and the 395 (1976) Security Council Resolution, 34 years after the 1987 crisis and Davos and 22 years after Helsinki, the window of opportunity has narrowed both for fossil fuel extractions in the Mediterranean and for the situation in Cyprus.
Therefore, everything in the field of national issues has always been more complex than usually presented. Everything has a lesson to offer. There have been many shifts and some major achievements during this period of almost half a century. Everything is charged and credited to the Nation, which has continuity, like the state, regardless of the democratic change of governments.
As with everything we say during this anniversary year, there is an increased general obligation for self-reflection and above all, there is a national duty for truth.
Evangelos Venizelos is a former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, former minister of national defense. He is also a former leader of the PASOK party.