From a weak position

Costas Simitis has been very fortunate so far to be treated with great leniency by domestic public opinion, compared with Greece’s previous prime ministers and as regards the handling of foreign policy issues, as he has sought to put an end to rhetorical confrontation with Turkey on the basis of public consent. Simitis, however, seems to have misread this public tolerance; and rather than limiting himself to removing Greece’s counter-productive veto over Turkey’s European course, he has lapsed into a policy aimed at mollifying Ankara. In doing so, he has also set perilous precedents by acknowledging that Turkey has legitimate claims – first in the Aegean Sea, under the Madrid treaty, and second on border disputes, at the Helsinki summit in December 1999. Now, Simitis is invoking the need for a dialogue with Ankara on the essential problems generated by Turkey’s revisionist policy on the Aegean Sea, as he believes this to be mandated by the European Council decisions at Helsinki. He supports his claim by saying that Turkey will be forced to refer any disputes to the International Court of Justice in 2004. However, a quick read of the Helsinki conclusions would convince any rational citizen that the pledge to resolve border and other disputes only binds the countries set to join the European Union; this does not apply to Turkey, which is not expected to join for another 20 years. Greece by no means has an EU commitment to begin negotiations on the Aegean Sea; that indeed would be an absurd undertaking for an EU member. Nor has Turkey undertaken any commitment to refer its differences with Greece to the international tribunal. Instead, the government is pursuing a loose strategy involving the use of flexible diplomatic approaches which, as revealed by Turkey, touch on the core of the disputes and not just procedural questions. More alarmingly, Simitis appears to be pushing for an Aegean dialogue at a time when he is clearly unable to tackle relatively minor domestic issues like social security reform, tangled political and business relations, or privatization of public corporations. The legitimate worry, then, is whether a constitutionally all-powerful prime minister unable to confront some trade unions or state-dependent entrepreneurs can possibly inspire confidence among citizens and political parties in order to undertake successful trans-Aegean negotiations on sensitive questions. There would be no fear of entering such a dialogue with a strong government and a reliable military force, and provided that the dialogue was being conducted by a solid group of senior diplomatic officials, in regular consultation with other political groups, particularly the main opposition party. But when Simitis insists on negotiating on such issues after displaying a unique inability to tackle internal challenges, there is legitimate cause for concern. A prime minister and a government which is, halfway through its term, already scheming to win the elections subsequent to the coming ones, is clearly unsuited to handle issues such as the Aegean Sea disputes with Turkey.

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