An unprecedented visit

Costas Simitis’s visit to the United States was unprecedented, for it was the first time a Greek prime minister met an American president without raising the issue of Greek-Turkish relations, meaning Ankara’s unilateral claims in the Aegean, its unwillingness to appeal to the international court in The Hague, and its constant threats to declare war on Greece if it exercises its right to expand its territorial waters. This omission was an unprecedented element which was intended to demonstrate Greece’s weaning from US hegemony. Simitis does not wish to engage the USA in the Greek-Turkish dispute, as Greece, as the prime minister has often bragged, has since 1996 enhanced its self-confidence, and it is now a full EU member whose prime minister can converse with the US president on an equal footing. If all this was merely part of a tactic aimed at making an impression on Greek public opinion, there would be no major cause for concern. The real problem would be if Simitis truly believed that he is in charge of a different type of country than the one Greece really is, one faced with a different set of problems. Simitis’s current approach, of course, differs from that (in 1991) of then conservative Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis in his meeting with President George Bush, from that of late socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou with President Bill Clinton, but also from his own with Clinton after the 1996 Imia crisis. Ever since, there has been no change in Ankara’s official foreign policy and even though the obvious improvement in the climate of Greek-Turkish relations has been a very positive development, it’s far from adequate. On the contrary, the rapprochement between the two countries has rendered US intervention even more necessary, so as to encourage the Turkish political elite to make some safe steps on the path to joining the EU, thereby resolving many outstanding problems caused by Turkey’s policy on the Aegean and the Cyprus issue. Simitis chose not to burden the agenda of the Washington talks by referring to Greece’s purely national problems and tried to appear before the US president as the leader of an EU member state, hoping that this would enhance the country’s leverage. However, the issues which concern Washington’s relations with the EU are settled via the US president’s contacts with the leaders of Europe’s most powerful nations – Germany, Britain and, occasionally, France. Even the issue of relations between the EU’s nascent rapid reaction force and NATO – where differences between the two sides were openly admitted – the positions of Greece, a NATO and EU member, were not taken into account by the USA and Britain during the informal procedure which won Turkey’s consent. These do not mean, of course, that Simitis’s visit was a failure, as he did not intend to raise traditional Greek foreign policy issues on which Bush, as expected, only made some general remarks. However, there were concrete and significant developments and this concerns Simitis’s commitment that there will soon be progress on the issue of terrorism, that is, the disruption of the November 17 terrorist organization. It is needless to say that the outcome of government action in this area will also determine Simitis’s credibility in the eyes of US officials – and not only them.

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