Two hundred years ago the people of Greece rose up and demanded freedom from their Turkish overlords. The campaign for Greek independence and sovereignty caught the imagination of the British people. The most famous of the many Brits who threw themselves whole-heartedly into the struggle for Greek freedom was the poet Lord Byron, who died in Greece while supporting the campaign.
Greece has always had a peculiar hold on the British or perhaps the English sensibility.
In the last two centuries our love affair with Greece has continued unabated. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s dashing exploits in World War II or Winston Churchill dropping everything to hurry to Athens for Christmas 1944 to stop a Soviet communist enslavement of Greece are examples. Christopher Hitchens, the famous leftist English polemicist, cut his teeth writing against the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus and then a splendid book calling for the return of the Parthenon Marbles looted by a syphilitic Scottish aristocrat, Lord Elgin, who shamed British diplomacy and could only get away with his crime as Greece was still controlled by Istanbul.
Now Greece needs help again while the European Union is asleep at the wheel. Turkey is mobilizing against the country in a manner not seen for decades. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, boasted recently, “Greece will be responsible for all conflicts in the region, and will be at a disadvantage,” adding that Greece would be left alone in any future conflict.
His vice president, Fuat Oktay, said recently that it was time to look again at international agreements protecting Greek islands in the Aegean and that the 1947 Paris treaties which settled the borders of post-war Europe, including those between Greece and Turkey, should be opened up.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, described Greece’s insistence on its territorial water rights which are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other treaties as an “act of war”
This is 1930s language about redrawing borders and using force if necessary. There has been excitement about possible gas fields in the East Mediterranean though energy economists agree that the cost of extracting gas from the Med’s very deep waters do not offer hope of commercial viability. Greece has signed a pipeline deal with Israel. Erdogan is an obsessive Islamist who drones on about Islam in meetings with foreign leaders. In his 20s he staged a play in Istanbul about Jews and Masons controlling the world.
Meanwhile the European Union, in the shape of the EU’s chief adviser on foreign affairs, Nathalie Tocci, says this is just a local quarrel to be settled between Ankara and Athens with concessions of both sides. She is wrong. Erdogan has run Turkey’s economy into the ground with rampant inflation and an ever-devaluing currency.
He is obsessed with religion as his move to make the Istanbul cathedrals of Orthodox Christendom into mosques shows. Europe should make clear it stands with Greece. If Brussels is weak and wobbly, then today, as in the 1820s, Britain should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Greek people at this dangerous moment for democracy in the Mediterranean.
This is a challenge for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has never made any secret of his pro-Turkish standpoint. His great-grandfather Ali Kemal was a journalist and poet who served the Sultan. When he was editor of the influential Conservative political weekly, the Spectator, Johnson filled the pages with articles urging Turkish entry into the European Union. Now the UK has left the EU Downing Street is looking for non-EU partners and in July the British trade minister was boasting Britain would soon sign a new trade deal with Turkey.
It would be a major reversal of two centuries of British foreign policy to betray Greece and line up with Turkey. But British foreign policy and alliances are in such turmoil after Brexit that anything is possible.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister of Europe.