Foreign policy and defense
Greece is a nation in Southern Europe. Its capital city is Athens. Greek foreign policy is mainly characterized by relations with Turkey and the EU. After a period of some relaxation in relation to the arch-rivals Turkey, tensions have increased since the end of the 2010s.
Relations with the EU became a real thorn in the tough negotiations on the terms of the Union’s support loans during the deep economic crisis, but in recent years the cooperation has run more smoothly.
The mutual enmity between Greece and Turkey had long historical roots (see Older History and Modern History) and wars have been close on several occasions in recent decades. The main contradictions concern the boundary line in the Aegean Sea and the future status of Cyprus.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Greece for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
In the conflict over the border crossing in the Aegean Sea and the right to a number of islands, the countries refer to different agreements. Both countries have repeatedly accused each other of military violations of territory. By 1996, war was threatened when Greek soldiers landed on a disputed rock island to take down a Turkish flag placed there. Following the American mediation, the emergency crisis was resolved.
A turning point came in 1999 when the Greek government declared that it no longer opposed a Turkish EU membership. Prior to this, severe earthquakes in both Greece and Turkey had contributed to the thawing weather. The countries sent rescue teams to each other, and the disasters led to feelings of belonging and sympathy with the victims in both countries.
At the EU summit in Helsinki in December 1999, Greece accepted that Turkey was granted candidate status. In return, Turkey agreed that the dispute over the Aegean Sea may be settled by the International Court of Justice in The Hague if the countries themselves fail to resolve the problem.
In 2000, Giorgos Papandreou made the first official visit to Turkey by a Greek foreign minister of almost 40 years. A decision was then taken to start military relaxation negotiations in the Aegean. At the 2002 EU summit in Copenhagen, Greece welcomed giving Turkey a start date for negotiations with the EU on membership. Greece and Turkey have since been able to develop good relations in trade, diplomacy and military cooperation. For the first time since 1959, a Greek Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, made an official visit to Turkey in January 2008.
Relations were strained when opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought asylum in Greece following the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Erdoğan visited Greece 2017, as the first Turkish president in 65 years. He then advocated a review of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, in which the borders of modern Turkey were established, something his Greek hosts firmly opposed.
At the end of the 2010s, however, the border dispute in the Aegean Sea was flared up again. There were reports of screenings between the countries’ coastguards and Greece accused Turkey of violations of airspace and territorial waters in the area. Basically, the conflict, according to analysts, is also about the right to energy resources that are believed to be in the continental shelf under the sea.
Cyprus has since 1974 been divided into a Greek and a Turkish Cypriot part. When the Greek military tried to take power over the island in a coup attempt, Turkey invaded the north to protect the Turkish-speaking residents. Cyprus was divided and the two NATO countries have since been in conflict over the island. Greece left NATO in 1974 but rejoined the military alliance in 1980.
Both Turkey and Greece advocate the reunification of both parts of Cyprus, and talks on this have been constantly held between the parties. When Kostas Simitis became Prime Minister of Greece in 1996, a new, clear will for relaxation was noticed. When the Greek Cypriot government decided in 1997 to buy Russian anti-aircraft robots, Turkey threatened military force to prevent them from being placed on the island. After persuasion, Greece took care of the robots and placed them on Crete in 1999. Despite strong pressure from the EU and the UN ahead of Cyprus’s entry into the Union in 2004, however, the Cyprus issue has remained unsolved.
Even in the eastern Mediterranean, the opportunities for oil and natural gas extraction have contributed to confrontations between Turkey and Greece. The discovery of natural gas off the coast of Cyprus has led to increasing tensions between the Greek Cypriot government in Cyprus and Turkey, which has also affected relations between Greece and Turkey. Turkey claims that the exploitation of gas supplies will not benefit the Turkish Cypriot minority. In the summer of 2019, Turkey conducted test drilling for gas in Cyprus’s economic sea zone, despite threats of EU sanctions. At the end of 2019, the country also signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally supported government on sea borders that would give Turkey the right to an economic sea zone east of the island of Crete, which Greece already claims.
The Refugee Agreement with the EU
Another difficult issue between Greece and Turkey has been the large influx of people from mainly Asia across the border to Greece. In the fall of 2010, the influx increased dramatically and the Greek government requested assistance from the EU border control authority Frontex. The refugee crisis escalated during the first half of the 2010 to reach a peak in the fall of 2015, when around a quarter of a million migrants arrived from east to Greece.
The influx slowed down significantly since the EU concluded an agreement with Turkey in March 2016, which meant that the refugees were sent back to Turkey, as the Union eased the visa rules for Turks and contributed to the costs that handling migrants in Turkey would entail (see further Current Policy and Calendar).
But the refugee issue has continued to strain relations at times. In early 2020, Greece strengthened the common border guard, accusing Turkey of contributing to the illegal migration of migrants into the country. Turkey had then announced that the border to Greece would be opened, which was interpreted by analysts as part of a negotiation game with the EU.
Tight relations with Northern Macedonia
The relationship with Northern Macedonia (the country was called until February 2019 Macedonia) has been strained since the area that made up historic Macedonia was divided between mainly Greece and Serbia in 1913. The Slavic speaking residents of the Greek part were considered a threat to the country’s cohesion. When the former Yugoslav republic became independent in the early 1990s under the name of Macedonia, Greece refused to recognize it. The Greeks pointed out that the name Macedonia belongs to the Greek cultural heritage. The Greeks had the same claim on the symbol that the Macedonians chose on their flag. Greece also objected to the wording of the draft Macedonian constitution which it believed could be interpreted as territorial claims in parts of northern Greece.
A UN proposal to call the country the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) helped calm the situation and the new state agreed to change the flag symbol in 1994 after being pressured by an economic blockade from Athens. Relations were subsequently improved through trade exchanges, and the conflict was toned down. But before the NATO summit in 2008, Greece stopped Macedonian membership in the military alliance, citing the name conflict. In 2011, the International Court of Justice in The Hague declared that the Greek blockade was a violation of an agreement negotiated by the UN in 1995. However, the Court did not order Greece to stop blocking its neighboring membership in NATO or the EU.
After a period of negotiations, in June 2018, Greece and Macedonia announced that the parties had reached a solution to the name issue: The Republic of Macedonia would change its name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia (Republika Severna Makedonija). In January 2019, the Macedonian Parliament adopted the amendments required by the Constitution to implement the change of name and a few weeks later the Greek Parliament also approved the agreement by a small margin. As a result, the change of name was clear and the road free for future membership in the EU and NATO for Northern Macedonia (see also Northern Macedonia: Foreign Policy and Defense).
Friendly relationship with Serbia and Russia
The relationship with Albania has also been periodically sensitive. Until 1985, Greece claimed parts of southern Albania. When the claim was abandoned, the Greek-Albanian border, which had been closed since the Second World War, was opened. In 1987, formal peace was concluded between the countries. However, relations were grim even during the 1990s. Greek extremist nationalists continued to claim Albanian territory. In addition, the Athens government protested against the treatment of 120,000 people in Albania’s Greek minority. Prison sentences against Greek nationalists in Albania in 1993 were countered by the Greek government with the mass expulsion of Albanian refugees from Greece. It was not until 1995 that tension eased, and several friendship and collaboration agreements were concluded in the following years.
During the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia, Greece was one of the few countries with good relations with Serbia. In 1999, Greece refused to participate actively in NATO’s flight offensive against Serbia. The UN Criminal Tribunal found that former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević owned property in Greece and that Greek companies supplied oil products to former Yugoslavia in violation of UN sanctions. Greek government companies must also have sent equipment to the Bosnian Serb army.
Greece’s relationship with the United States is complicated, despite NATO membership (see below). The United States’ passive attitude to the 1967-1974 military junta contributed to anti-American currents among the Greeks, to some extent living.
The Syriza-led government that took office in 2015 made closer contacts with Russia, probably due to deteriorating relations with the EU. Russian relations with the Union had also deteriorated significantly following the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine in March 2014. Prime Minister Tsipras visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in April 2015 and was reported to have received moral support in the negotiations with the EU, but no financial assistance.. At the meeting, Tsipra expressed criticism of EU sanctions on Russia, which were introduced following the Russian takeover of Crimea.
Influential defense force
The military has always had a central role in Greek society. The Armed Forces are often described as one of the most oversized in Europe and the country’s large arms purchases have partly been blamed for the state’s large budget deficit, although this has not been discussed much during the emergency loan negotiations. For a number of years, Greece was one of the world’s three, four largest arms importers, of which just over a third came from Germany and France, the countries that have pushed Greece most hard to lower wages and social benefits and raise the retirement age. Greece has traditionally spent large sums of money on its defense. Not even during the crisis years in the 2010s did the defense spending decline, on the contrary, they even increased slightly during the period 2014 to 2018. In 2017, 2.5 percent of GDP was allocated to the defense,
In 2014, a gigantic corruption rage began to emerge in the Greek defense, after a former employee of the Ministry of Defense began to reveal how he has for many years received or spent several million dollars in bribes from weapons manufacturers in Germany, France, Sweden and Russia. Often weapons purchases were about equipment that Greece barely even needed.
The Greek governments and military leadership motivate the need for new advanced weapons systems with constant provocations from Turkey. Reference has also been made to the pressure on the border guard from the hundreds of thousands of migrants without an entry permit who are trying to enter Greece.
Greece has been a member of the NATO Alliance of Defense since 1951. The United States has, among other things, a naval base in Crete and a naval and air base is being built in the city of Alexandroupolis. Greek soldiers are deployed to Cyprus as well as to UN service in Lebanon and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for example. Greece has a general military duty of up to nine months for most men. The Armed Forces is one of the country’s largest employers, which has also explained the government’s unwillingness to cut back on the military. Greece has plans to modernize the Air Force and its fleet.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 93,500 men (2017)
The air Force: 20,000 men (2017)
The fleet: 16 250 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 2.5 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 5.0 percent (2017)