Europe and the Middle East: The Greek Juncture
Event Summary -
The Southeast Europe Project, in conjunction with the Middle East Program, held a forum to highlight the current project of Dr. Athanasios Moulakis, Southeast Europe Policy Scholar for the Project, working on "Greece in the Middle East and North Africa." The project dovetails with the recent initiative by the Greek Foreign Ministry, starting with a succession of visits by Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis to Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, to promote Greece's active interests in the region. Dr. Moulakis referred to Greece not only as the front country for the European Union, vis-a vis MENA, but as a trusted broker between the two.
The question Moulakis looks to focus on, in his research over the next few months, is to what extent Greece could act as such a connector, drawing from and building on its historical and cultural ties in the region. Moulakis provided a timeline of historically relevant events leading up to the current renewed and newly empowered Greek state and civil society. Since the collapse of the Junta, in 1974, a great strategic choice was made to integrate into the European Union and overcome a foreign policy fixated on Turkey as a threat. In the process Greece substituted its traditional dependence on the "Great Powers," namely Great Britain and the United States, with the pattern of mutually supportive interdependence fostered by Brussels. This helped move Greece, which had been limited to reflexive or passive policies, to becoming an autonomous actor as a modernized state with a new frame of mind. Once the recipient of foreign aid, under the Truman Doctrine, it is now able to provide aid to other countries. It was the first county to respond to the Lebanon crisis, for instance, and provided substantial aid to Lebanese refugees. Besides ad hoc emergency aid Greece has a program of structural development aid to developing countries which, as a proportion of the country's GDP, amounts to one and one half times that provided by the United States. Greece is twenty-second, just in front of Great Britain and France, on the Economist's Democracy Index, which measures pluralism, political participation, and elections, among others categories.
Moulakis moved on to discuss the cultural, economic, political and security issues that tie Greece to the Middle Eastern region. Greece is seen as a vector of modernization by the Arab world where it enjoys considerable goodwill. It is a small country, respected but not feared, free from any colonial past and hence of corresponding resentment toward it. It embodies an ancient culture with which Middle Eastern nations with ancient traditions of their own can readily identify in a relationship of mutual respect. Greeks, whose country was never self-sufficient, also have an outward looking entrepreneurial attitude to trade and the experience of international exchanges. Their particular familiarity with the region is linked not least with the history of successful expatriate communities.
Significant steps have already been taken in the field of formal cultural exchanges. There are already active associations of Lebanese Greek university alumni, for example as a Modern Greek studies program at the Institute of Haifa and exchanges with other countries. The library of Alexandria provides a symbolically and substantially visible instance of Greek cultural presence in the region. Greek archeologists are conducting excavations in Jordan and Oman, not concentrating on vestiges of Greek culture as in the past but to understanding the cultures of the regions in their variety.
Greece has commercial exchanges with Egypt ranging around a mere 200 million dollars each way, which could easily be raised. There are various joint business ventures with Libya and other instances of Greek business in the region. Moulakis posits that there is potential for greater cooperation that at present is underexploited.
Greece is an importer of oil and gas. More importantly in terms of potential improvements there is a long history of cooperation between Greek shipping and the oil producing countries of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, that provides valuable familiarity and contacts. Greek shipping is a dynamic and internationally competitive sector of Greek economic activity, carrying about 1/3 of world trade and approximately 60% of oil shipments.
Diplomatic relations between Greece and Arab countries can be characterized as good to excellent. Greece was the first to recognize emerging countries in the region and to condemn the Suez expedition. At the same there is a constructive relationship with Israel.
Greece is concerned with developments in the region in terms of international terrorism, organized crime, trafficking of drugs, weapons and people, and illegal immigration. It is therefore eager but also well placed to engage its neighbors in constructive efforts to contain these problems.
Moulakis commented that the attempt to liberalize the Middle East by force of arms has clearly failed. Greece could play a role in a policy of small steps to lace things back together. He speculated on the possible outcomes of French President Sarkozy's proposal of a Mediterranean Union as an organization that would encompass North Africa, Southern Europe, and countries of the Eastern seaboard separate from and complementing the EU. The internal balance within the EU and the Southern countries seeking to compensate for the weight given eastward expansion by the North needs to be taken into consideration. The effective failure of the EU's Barcelona Process and the relative success of the Neighborhood policy, suggests modes of constructive multilateralism that allow northern and NATO interests to be considered alongside more narrowly "Euro-Mediterranean perspectives.
Greece's effectiveness as an intermediary, helping to mitigate the stark contrasts between a rich North and poor South, and encouraging positive political and social developments in MENA requires a happy coordination of the regional roles of the EU, and the United States, which remains the major player in the eastern Mediterranean. In the field of economic exchanges and hence indirectly of social development much can be done, in which Greece can act as a positive catalyst even while the present polarities obtain. Politically, however, any progress in that spirit, involving an active mediating developmental role of the EU goaded in some measure by Greek initiative, will depend on a mitigation of the current unilateralist conduct of the United States.