Athens, Greece – Greece on Thursday ratified a mutual defence pact with France, the first between two NATO members.
The two countries are already bound to help each other from an attack originating outside the alliance. But the Strategic Partnership on Defence and Security for the first time joins two NATO members to support one another from an attack originating inside the alliance.
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Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hailed the agreement as the cornerstone of an independent European defence policy.
“The defence of European interests in the Mediterranean now acquires new substance,” Mitsotakis told parliament. “If attacked, our country will have at its side the most powerful military on the continent, the sole European nuclear power.”
Article 2 of the Partnership states that the pair will assist each other “with all the means at their disposal, in the event that armed force is needed, if they both ascertain that an attack is taking place against the territory of either.”
Greece’s main security threat comes from fellow NATO member Turkey.
The two nearly came to open hostilities in August last year as they battled over their conflicting claims to the Eastern Mediterranean.
They nearly went to war over the Imia islets in the Aegean in 1996, and over oil and gas exploration in 1987. The greatest threat of war during the last century came in 1974, when Turkey militarily intervened in Cyprus, in response to a brief Greek-backed coup.
“We’ve lived with NATO’s unwillingness [to deal with Turkey] since the 1950s, because Article 5 doesn’t cover threats among alliance members,” said Athanasios Platias, professor of strategy at the University of Piraeus.
According to Mitsotakis, Greece “has been negotiating since 1974 … for such a treaty,”
The pact is Greece’s second formal security guarantee against Turkey. It signed a mutual defence pact with the United Arab Emirates last November.
Turkish-French relations have also deteriorated since Ankara assumed a military role in the Libyan civil war in October 2019. France sees Turkey as a rival for influence in North Africa.
Mitsotakis and French president Emmanuel Macron oversaw the signing of the Partnership on September 28.
They also announced Greece will buy up to four French-built Belharra frigates and up to four French GoWind corvettes with state-of-the-art radar and hypersonic missiles for up to $5bn. Greece has also committed to buy 24 French Rafale fighter jets for $2.5bn.
There has been no official reaction about the Partnership from Turkey.
Oil and gas dispute
Greece and Turkey have increasingly clashed over rights to undersea oil and gas.
This year they resumed exploratory talks to delimit their continental shelf, which bestows a form of commercial sovereignty over mineral wealth under the sea bed. But while those talks drag on, this is the space where Greek and Turkish clashes are most likely to occur.
Last month, Greece filed a formal complaint with Turkey over the alleged harassment of the Nautical Geo, a Maltese-flagged survey vessel.
It was mapping the seafloor southeast of Crete to plot the course of East Med, a natural gas pipeline Greece, Cyprus and Israel agreed to build in January last year to carry Israeli gas to Europe.
Greek diplomatic sources, speaking to Al Jazeera, alleged a Turkish naval ship harassed the Nautical Geo “repeatedly, for a period of 4-5 days”.
The Greek-French Partnership refers to an attack on the “territory” of either.
Strictly interpreted, this would mean sovereign soil, territorial water and national airspace, where the full body of a country’s laws applies.
It is unclear whether the Partnership could be enforced if Greek and Turkish naval vessels fired upon each other in the broader space of the continental shelf, where the Nautical Geo incident occurred.
If such a confrontation came to a gunfight between Greek and Turkish navy vessels, “this amounts to an armed attack. Greece and France would then enter consultations about French military involvement,” the Greek diplomatic sources said.
Whoever fired first in such a situation would be breaking international law, experts said.
“Neither Greece nor Turkey has the right to prevent surveys by each other in a non-delimited area,” said Petros Liakouras, professor of international law at the University of Piraeus. “You can’t, under international law, attack someone,” in such an area, he said.
The East Med pipeline has irritated Turkey, which has its own energy ambitions in the East Mediterranean. Since 2018, it has sent survey ships to find gas deposits in what Greece and Cyprus regard as their maritime jurisdiction.
“We kept telling the Greeks, the Greek-Cypriots, the US and anyone who would listen that the East Mediterranean is not yet delimited in accordance with international law,” Turkish ambassador to Greece Burak Özügergin told Al Jazeera.
“Therefore, we strongly advised waiting until delimitation, or some sort of agreement, before pursuing energy ambitions. The Greek-Cypriots deliberately started meddling in the East Med knowing we would react.”
Greece and Cyprus have delimited their continental shelf with other neighbours in accordance with the UN Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Greece and Turkey started exploratory talks to delimit their continental shelf officially in 2001.
Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS, and seeks a discretionary settlement Greece rejects.
A far-reaching pact
Greece and France will be able to use each other’s military ports and airports for a renewable period of five years.
They may launch common expeditionary forces, including in the Sahel, where France has maintained more than 5,000 troops to fight armed groups for almost a decade. Those expeditions could also happen in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.
The Partnership calls on them to start an annual strategic dialogue and align their foreign and defence policies, focusing on energy, terrorism, migration, armaments, WMD and maritime security in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and the Mediterranean.
The two countries’ defence industries will draw closer.
Experts said the partnership, if successful, can have far-reaching significance, forming the kernel of a European defence and foreign policy.
“The European Union has difficulty in making a security and defence policy, so we will go to a model of a group of willing countries doing more than others,” said Platias. “This is a nucleus of defence cooperation in the EU. Others will be able to join, and that means an independent strategic prospect is beginning to form.”
Greece and Cyprus have repeatedly topped Eurobarometer polls in favour of a common foreign and defence policy.
“I agree with President Macron that we Europeans have to stop naively accepting the tectonic shifts in the global geopolitical chessboard,” Mitsotakis said on Thursday. “Greece is the last Western garrison in the east. Geography dictates it, history confirms it, and civilisation seals it.”