Even the itinerary of his trip hinted that things were going to get tough. On her way to Greece and Turkey, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock passed through a diplomatic minefield.
Putting it mildly, his trip was to the southeastern flank of the Western defense alliance, NATO. And the German foreign minister never tired of emphasizing the importance of solidarity among allies in response to the Russian war against Ukraine.
The reality here, however, is different. The Greek-Turkish relationship, fractured for decades, recently hit rock bottom again. This is reminiscent of the 2020 crisis, when Ankara and Athens nearly went to war over their dispute over maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean.
At that time, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel helped out of the crisis, alongside other European leaders.
New government, new opinions
But two years later, the world is a different place.
Merkel is no longer chancellor. Berlin’s new government has a Green party foreign minister, who has different ideas — i.e. more critical — views on Turkey.
Ronald Meinardus of Athens-based think tank ELIAMEP
Berlin’s policy towards Ankara is always guided by the goal of preventing Turkey from drifting further away from Europe. The war in Ukraine has confirmed Turkey’s important and in some ways unique position.
The Turkish government is aware of its geostrategic weight in this situation and it is pushing the political limits. This is reflected in an aggressive new tone of Ankara’s foreign policy. This is directed against Syria and also towards neighboring Greece.
Baerbock has seen firsthand just how poor Greek-Turkish relations currently are. The joint press conference with his Turkish colleague Mevlut Cavusoglu offered many examples, and all in front of the television cameras as well.
Human rights violations and the continued harassment of activist Osman Kavala by the Turkish judiciary have become a minor topic. Instead, the Greek-Turkish question was at the center of tensions.
Much to the delight of his Greek hosts, Baerbock left no doubt about Berlin’s stance on the dispute over Ankara’s eastern Aegean islands.
“The Greek Islands — Lesbos, Chios, Rhodes and many more — are Greek territory, and no one has the right to raise questions about it,” Baerbock told reporters.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Baerbock held a joint press conference
Germany has fallen into “Greek propaganda”
The Turkish Foreign Minister made his point in a different way. At the joint press conference, he ignored diplomatic etiquette and praised former Chancellor Merkel. Under his leadership, Germany had been an “honest mediator” with a “balanced attitude”. Today, he said, Germany and the EU have fallen into the trap of Greek propaganda.
Clearly something has changed and it goes beyond rhetoric and etiquette.
However, this is less about Germany and more about Ankara’s new, more aggressive stance towards Greece.
When members of the Turkish government and their allies openly question the territorial sovereignty of an EU member state, then any member of the German government really has no choice: they support Greece. In reality, Baerbock only said what made political and diplomatic sense.
However, it is wrong to accuse the German foreign minister of being uncritical of Greece. In Athens, Baerbock also found frank words for Greek refugee and asylum policy.
The minister also rejected Athens’ request for reparations for the period of German occupation during World War II. Regarding the delivery of modern German submarines to Turkey, which is a thorn in Greece’s side, Baerbock made it clear that Athens and Berlin have “differing opinions” on the matter.
Interestingly, there is one thing Athens and Ankara agree on. Neither Greece nor Turkey are particularly interested in Berlin mediating their dispute. This is something that was different in Merkel’s time.
Ronald Meinardus is Head of the Mediterranean Program at the Athens-based think tank, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
This article was originally published in German.