An alliance which matters

The visit by Nicolas Sarkozy to Athens on Friday will mark the first trip by a French president to Greece for bilateral talks in 15 years. Fifteen years is quite a long time, considering the close (and at times decisive) relationship between the two states over the past 50 years. Sure, ties between the two Mediterranean countries were stronger when both were ruled by socialist parties or when there was good chemistry between their leaders. Nevertheless, even when these conditions did not apply, relations were not tense. The traditional relationship between Athens and Paris dates back to the 1960s. It has often shaped significant developments. Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Athens in 1963 confirmed the European bent of Constantine Karamanlis and of the country, but this did not go down well with Washington or the Greek king. The excellent relationship between Karamanlis and Valery Giscard d’Estaing was a decisive factor behind Greece’s membership in the then EEC. The former French president was able to overcome the last remaining reservations and finally managed to persuade Helmut Schmidt, then chancellor of West Germany. Greece would have never joined the EEC without German consent. In the 1980s, the late Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou had forged a strong alliance with Francois Mitterrand that was mainly targeted against the neoliberal policies of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. After all, we should not forget that the European Commission, an institution shaped by Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, with Jacques Delores as a frontman, was based on ideas that are resented by the British even today. In the years of Jacques Chirac, who was twice in Athens but both times within the framework of EU summits, bilateral ties remained steady even if they never really took off. Sarkozy’s term, given his good bilateral ties with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, provides an opportunity for spectacular improvement. The French president has so far backed Greece on a number of foreign policy matters, such as the Cyprus issue and the Macedonia name dispute, as shown by his country’s support for Greece’s Skopje veto at NATO’s Bucharest meeting. Similarly, France’s position on a special partnership between EU and Turkey in fact suits Greece’s interests despite Athens having to back Ankara’s EU ambitions. Greece, for its part, has fallen behind France on virtually all EU-related issues, from the plans for a Mediterranean Union to Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and the establishment of a European defense force. Politicians in Athens know that the strategic ties with France, as well as with Germany, are substantial and not superficial.