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On September 28th 2021, Greece and France concluded a defence treaty to aid each other in case of an armed attack on their territory. It is clear from the subtext that the Franco-Greek treaty is directed against Turkey and guarantees French support in case of an attack from Ankara against Athens. The agreement was made after a notable period of tensions in the second half of 2020 between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. This article, written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will first summarise the events in this region then examines the implications of the treaty for Greece and France.
What’s Been Happening in the Eastern Mediterranean?
The Eastern Mediterranean has recently witnessed prolonged tensions between Greece and Turkey. Notably, three intertwined elements help to explain this: energy, the delimitation of maritime zones, and Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” doctrine.
The relatively recent discovery of large reservoirs of natural gas in the area have certainly fuelled tensions.1 For several decades, Turkey has been using increasing amounts of gas, and since 2016 has been trying to secure a spot as a gas player in the region.2 Access to gas reserves is an important issue for Turkey, since it almost entirely dependent on imports.3
Greece and Turkey disagree on the delimitation of both their continental shelves and their territorial waters. The Greek perspective would prevent Turkey from accessing the high seas without entering Greek waters – which would be considered as a casus belli by Ankara.4 Furthermore, under the Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 – which is widely adopted by the international community as a whole, but not by Turkey – Ankara cannot claim the vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) it would like to possess.
Possessing a larger EEZ is important to Turkey to ensure access to exploitable gas reserves notably around Cyprus and Libya.5 Specifically, Ankara claims that some of the Greek islands rest on the Turkish continental shelf, and as such cannot create an EEZ of their own.6
Turkish action in the region can also be explained by a concept which has recently emerged: “Blue Homeland.” First seen during a naval exercise in March 2019 on the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, Blue Homeland seeks to reinforce the operational capabilities of the Turkish Navy. Beyond that, it seeks to defend Turkish rights in maritime spaces and to demonstrate Ankara’s will to intervene “well beyond” them, notably in the Persian Gulf or in East Africa.7 Specifically, it has three components: to defend what Turkey considers to be hers (in the maritime arena), to secure access to resources, and general security.
Ankara views the Eastern Mediterranean as part of its backwater, and considers it has a legitimate right to access this area. Moreover, it views the fact that other powers are active in the area as a reason to implement itself there.8 Finally, and more generally, Turkey is seeking to expand its political and economic actions in Asia and Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean is considered key to control the Europe-Asia-Africa line.9
It is in this general context that the 2020 clashes occurred between Greece and Turkey, the former refusing to concede anything to Turkey while the latter was embolden and was pursuing a geopolitically revisionist agenda. It is in this context that France and Greece concluded a defence treaty.
What’s in it for Greece?
Greece did not have many nations it could turn to for securing strong, determined assistance in this issue. Athens could not seek help from the United States because it has interests in Turkey, and it would be difficult for Washington to take a strong stance against Ankara. Turkey hosts an air base used by the United States at Incirlik, and locks down NATO’s southern flank against Russia and Iran.10 It is therefore unlikely that the United States would be willing to take such a strong stance against Turkey.
Greece also saw little hope in gaining support from the European Union (EU), which failed to take strong action to punish Turkey.11 Responses from individual EU Member States have been mixed. Some attempted to appease the situation through mediation – notably Germany – while others – notably France – opted for a harsher response and preferred to view the situation strategically.12
However, by concluding a defence treaty with France, Greece secures the support of a potent regional power willing to intervene. Indeed, France clearly sided with Greece on several occasions in this matter, including by holding a naval exercise with Greece, Cyprus, and Italy.
Greece had little reason not to accept French assistance: France is, from the own words of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, “the most powerful military on the continent.” It is the sole European Union power to possess nuclear weapons and the French armed forces are experienced and capable. The French leadership traditionally does not shy away from using its military to accomplish political goals. Last but not least, France is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Athens has recently been looking to renew and improve its military and this rapprochement with France enables Greece to modernise its military capabilities. The defence treaty coincides with a deal to buy three to four Belharra frigates.13 This contract could be beneficial to the Greek economy, since the Greek defence industry will seemingly participate in the construction of the frigates.
The purchase of French-made warships constitutes an element of the Greek military’s modernisation effort, and undoubtedly solidifies the defence relationship between the two European partners. This is not the first time that Greece has bought French materiel; having already bought a total of 24 Rafale warplanes in 2021, with the last order dating from September
All these elements indicate that by concluding this defence treaty (and the associated purchase), Greece gains one ally willing to stand by its side in case of conflict with Turkey.
Things are a bit less obvious on the French side. This defence treaty and its associated purchase deal have multiple implications for France.
Asserting a Potential Role of EU Leader?
France likely wants or needs to get involved in the region to pursue what arguably is its ultimate geopolitical goal: being the de facto leader of the European Union. Indeed, with Brexit, the departure of Angela Merkel, and the French EU presidency active for the first half of 2022, the stars are aligning for France to become the main geopolitical powerhouse of the European organization.
Positioning itself as the guarantor of EU security would help to accomplish this goal. Showing EU Member States that it is willing to defend their territorial integrity supports such a will. As a matter of fact, French President Emmanuel Macron had already offered in 2020 to start a “strategic dialogue” regarding the extension of the French nuclear umbrella to the territory of willing EU Member States. In short, by siding with Greece, France has shown that it is willing to defend not only Greek, but also EU territory.
The stance taken by France in the Eastern Mediterranean is also an opportunity to demonstrate EU leadership credentials. The gas reserves in this area are important to the European Union. They would allow for a much-needed energy diversification, and consequently energy security.14
The European Union largely imports its gas supplies, and one of its most important importers is Russia, which is arguably the organisation’s main geopolitical adversary. As a result, EU gas supplies can be affected by tensions stemming notably between the Kremlin and Ukraine, as was the case in the past.15 It is why gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean are important to the European Union. An EU report made for the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs specifically states that such reserves “seem to perfectly fit into the Energy Union strategy, most importantly into its energy security section, as it represents a potential diversification option for the EU gas security of supply architecture.”16
This element very likely entered the French strategic calculus. Positioning itself as the guarantor of Greek/European security in this area helps France support its claim for EU leadership, since it would help secure new sources of energy for the Union. Finally, in the energy arena, France also has stakes in the area since the French company Total operates there and is therefore in its interest that the region remains peaceful.17
Another obvious gain for France is the sale of three (and possibly four) Belharra frigates manufactured by French company Naval Group – the same company which recently lost a huge contract to AUKUS. While in terms of purely financial revenue, the contract with Greece is not nearly as profitable as the one which had been concluded with Australia (with a value of roughly $3.5 billion and $60 billion, respectively), this sale very likely constitutes a morale boost for France and Naval Group. Importantly, it shows that despite the cancellation of the contract, other states still trust the French defence industry and are willing to invest in its craft and expertise.
Gaining Support in the Sahel
While the defence treaty concerns the territory of the two parties, it naturally has wider geopolitical and strategic implications. Greece may, for example, be brought into the fray regarding France’s protracted conflict in the Sahel to fight terrorist insurgents. France has been pushing for a greater European involvement in the region, seeking to underline the strategic importance of this area to protect Europe from the consequences of a jihadist domination in this location.
Greek Defence minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos announced that the Greek government was considering sending troops to the Sahel, basically as part of the defence relationship with France. Greece has no legal obligation to do so, but as stated above, a defence treaty can naturally come with wider implications. With this agreement, France can legitimately request assistance from Greece in its fight against terrorism in the Sahel.
Towards a European Strategic Autonomy?
Some commentators observed that this defence treaty might be a push towards European strategic autonomy – which is one of the most important (grand) strategic and foreign policy goals of France, however difficult it might be. Both French and Greek leaders seem to support this statement but such a statement should be taken with a pinch of salt. The European Union repeatedly showed a critical lack of geopolitical and strategic sense as an organization. Indeed, its Member States, which define EU policy, have diverging interests and strategic views – like the Greek-Turkish tensions have demonstrated.
It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the Franco-Greek defence treaty remains circumscribed to being just that, and does not evolve into or spark something more integrated with other EU Member States – especially considering the fact that some are still very much attached to NATO and American protection.
Helping Greece defend its islands in a single theatre of operations against a state which does have a geopolitically revisionist agenda, but did not invade, is willing to back down, and remains a part of NATO is one thing. Helping Eastern European states defend their land against another geopolitically revisionist state but which is this time willing to invade and annex territory, is reluctant to back down, has power-projection capabilities, and could fight simultaneously on several theatres of operations is a totally different affair.
To defend their own against such an adversary as Russia, European states have traditionally preferred to rely on NATO/the United States. Both are more militarily powerful than France alone (in terms of numbers, available materiel and overall capabilities) and unlike France, they have sufficient numbers and materiel to face the Russian military.
It is therefore unlikely that France would be able to attract such European states in a similar defence relationship anytime soon. It is especially the case since France already has a legal obligation to intervene through Article 5 should Russia attack fellow NATO Member States, and that entering a more specific defence relationship with France alone might upset Washington and the American defence industry.
However, it is true that the Franco-Greek defence treaty and sales contract does promote European strategic autonomy, since one EU Member State – France – is clearly siding with another EU Member State – Greece – and that the former buys French-made – and therefore European – military hardware. If France delivers, it could at the very least encourage other EU Member States to consider French/European support in their own strategic conundrums instead of the traditional NATO/American one.
The Franco-Greek defence treaty clearly has wider implications than merely defending each other’s territories. It may signal on one hand a necessary step towards European strategic autonomy, or it may not evolve beyond a simple bilateral agreement. Either way, this treaty shows that France is asserting itself geopolitically and might in the future seek to increase its role in Europe, especially as a security guarantor. It also shows that Greece is unlikely to make any concessions to Turkey regarding the delimitation of its EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean – although it must be specified that the defence treaty only concerns Greek territory, not its EEZ. However, it is clear that France would side with Greece in case of further tensions with Turkey in this regard, like it has just already done.
Lorris Beverelli is a French national who holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies with a concentration in Military Operations from Georgetown University. He was published by The Strategy Bridge, Small Wars Journal, RealClearDefense, The National Interest and the Georgetown Security Studies Review (The Forum). He has two other articles published on the Wavell Room: The Submarine Affair: An American Strategic Paradox and Forgotten Power: France's Overseas Territories. He has also created the military history blog War Writers (https://warwriters.com/).
- Frédéric Pons, “La grande ambition d’Erdoğan,” Conflits, no. 30 (November-December 2020), 6
- Nicolas Mazzucchi, “Les ressources énergétiques de la Méditerranée orientale dans le grand jeu gazier international,” Diplomatie, no. 105 (September-October 2020), 46.
- Frédéric Pons, “La grande ambition,” 6.
- Johanna Ollier, “Les frontières maritimes, au cœur de la compétition en mer Egée et au Levant,” Diplomatie, no. 105 (September-October 2020), 51.
- Frédéric Pons, “La grande ambition,” 6.
- Aurélien Denizeau, “Entretien avec le contre-amiral Cihat Yaycı – « La patrie bleue » : quand la Turquie regarde la mer,” Conflits, no. 31 (January-February 2021), 65.
- Jean Marcou, “La Turquie en Méditerranée orientale : des revendications énergétiques aux ambitions stratégiques,” Diplomatie, no. 105, (September-October 2020), 54.
- Aurélien Denizeau, “Entretien avec le contre-amiral Cihat Yaycı,” 65.
- Frédéric Pons, “La grande ambition,” 6.
- Tigrane Yégevan, “Entretien avec Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos – La Grèce face à l’expansionnisme turc,” Conflits, no. 31 (January-February 2021), 52, 53.
- Delphine Deschaux-Dutard, “L’UE et le dilemme de sécurité en Méditerranée orientale : la médiation ou la menace ?,” DSI, no. 150 (November-December 2020), 39.
- Some media outlets initially reported that the sales also included three to four Gowind corvettes, which turned out not to be the case. The Greek government indeed wants to acquire corvettes by 2026, but has not yet decided from which manufacturer. See for instance https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/1173605/athens-seeks-to-buy-15-naval-ships-by-2026/.
- European Parliament, Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, Energy: a shaping factor for regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean?, 2017, 8.
- Charalambos Petinos, “Chypre dans l’œil du cyclone. Jusqu’où peut aller la Turquie ?,” Conflits, no. 31 (January-February 2021), 50.