While the two-party coalition government in Athens fights battles on many different fronts – including more recently with Greece’s international creditors – on the other side of the Aegean, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dreaming of the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire.
Disappointed by Europe’s stance toward Turkey’s aspirations to join the bloc, he has cast his mind back to the year 1354, when the Ottomans invaded Thrace in the first leg of their conquest of Europe.
Swept up in his vision, Erdogan recently claimed that “Thrace is Thessaloniki but at the same time it is Komotini and Xanthi. It is also Kardzhali and the Vardar River. Going further back, it is Skopje, Pristina and Sarajevo,” he said.
The path to Europe, though, can no longer be forced open by hordes of janissaries. Its opening depends on the adoption of European ways. To be fair, Europe is also no longer as attractive as it once was for Turkey given the economic and political crisis it is experiencing.
The West has viewed Erdogan as a special case for several years. His foreign policy, as represented by Ahmet Davutoglu, in particular, has been a complete failure. His much-lauded axiom of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors has been partially applied and then only in regard to Greece.
Nevertheless, Greece does not have the luxury of distance from Turkey as do most of its European Union peers, and Ankara’s nostalgia for a bygone era, however far-fetched it may sound, could also herald a fresh crisis between the two nations at a time when Turkey is feeling particularly powerful, even though the economic boom of the past few years seems to be on the wane.
The truth is that war between the two countries has been narrowly averted on several occasions since the mid-1950s and that was mainly thanks to the intervention of the United States, which some say is showing signs of disengagement from the region.
Whether this is true or not, Greece needs to start giving its foreign policy greater priority, especially as it is about to assume the rotating presidency of the EU. This presents an excellent opportunity for the government to strengthen its international image.
The agenda for the Greek presidency does not contain anything really exciting – probably for the best – but this does not mean that developments in the region will stand still. The situation in Ukraine is getting very heated indeed and relations between the EU and Russia are strained. It is likely that the issues dividing them will emerge stronger during the Greek presidency.
Policy interests may have become very one-dimensional at home but that is hardly the case when we look beyond Greece’s borders.