Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his German counterpart Olaf Scholz are due to meet for dinner on Friday in the northern city of Thessaloniki. Just recently, Mitsotakis and Scholz met at a summit in Brussels, where they agreed to an arms swap to help beleaguered Ukraine. Specifically, Athens will deliver Soviet-era weapons to Kyiv to help Ukraine fend off Russian troops.
In return, Germany will deliver some of its own armored personnel carriers to Athens, which Greece had already expressed interest in. The deal helps Chancellor Scholz deflect some of the criticism leveled at him for dragging his feet on arms supplies to Ukraine. The arms exchange is mutually beneficial for Germany and Greece. It also comes at a time of geopolitical uncertainty.
It is no coincidence that the two leaders meet in Thessaloniki. The second largest city in the country is located near the border with Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania. Thessaloniki, unlike the capital Athens, is historically a Balkan city.
Alongside Mitsotakis and Scholz, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and key government officials from various southeastern European countries will also attend Friday’s dinner. The countries of this region have often found themselves at odds. The South East European Cooperation Process, launched in 1996, has sought to help resolve some of the tensions.
Athens and Turkey, both members of the SEECP, have seen their relations deteriorate. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called on Greece to demilitarize the Aegean islands near the Turkish coast. Erdogan also questioned Greek sovereignty over the Dodecanese islands in the eastern Aegean.
The abundant gas deposits in this region have sparked a fierce dispute between Greece and Turkey. As Europe seeks to wean itself off Russian gas imports, these fields will only grow in importance. Greece, after all, wants to make its energy sector a key economic pillar and aims to assume a leading position in southeastern Europe in this area.
Before going to Thessaloniki, German Chancellor Scholz will have visited Pristina and Belgrade. While Serbia tops the list of candidates for EU membership, serious problems remain before membership can take place.
Serbian President Aleksander Vucic has shown autocratic tendencies, and observers hope that Scholz can finally get Vucic to agree to Kosovo’s independence. Vucic also has close ties to Russian President Putin – a fact Berlin and Brussels accepted, albeit reluctantly, until Moscow invaded Ukraine. From now on, Belgrade will have to clearly state that it is looking West towards the EU.
Scholz (right) and other European leaders are eyeing more commitments from Serbian Aleksandar Vucic (left) FILE PHOTO
Professor Yorgos Christidis, a Balkan expert and professor at the University of Macedonia, said Scholz’s visit to Greece was linked to Turkish threats against the country. Germany, which had sought to remain neutral in the Greek-Turkish dispute, is throwing its weight behind Athens, he said.
Christidis added that German diplomatic efforts are aimed at preventing a regional escalation: “The last thing we need in Europe is another war in this region. I think it is very important that Germany – which occupies a place particular in the EU relationship with Turkey – mediates here.”
A new economic pole?
After visiting Thessaloniki, Scholz will travel to Bulgaria and North Macedonia. And here too, he will have to engage in crisis management.
Bulgaria is currently blocking accession negotiations between Brussels and Skopje, as Bulgaria refuses to recognize the Macedonian language.
Athens, meanwhile, resolved its name dispute with North Macedonia in 2018 and now plans to cooperate closely with Skopje. Greece plans to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Alexandroupolis, not far from the Turkish border. The gas could be imported through pipelines from countries like Qatar or Azerbaijan and then transported to neighboring countries.
Several European leaders will travel to Thessaloniki for talks
In May, the heads of government of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and North Macedonia gathered in Alexandroupolis to inaugurate the terminal. All countries aim to strengthen their economic independence but also to promote closer cooperation. Greece and Bulgaria are already deepening their ties: Sofia is building a nuclear power plant which will be connected to the Greek electricity grid. Bulgaria, in return, will have access to the strategically important Eastern Aegean Sea.
On top of that, the port of Thessaloniki could become a major trading hub for oil and gas if political alliances continue to shift.
Brussels needs Southern Europe
It is clear, once again, that the EU aims to stabilize south-eastern Europe – but not only in terms of energy supply, says Michalis Goudis, who heads the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Thessaloniki.
As countries like Russia, China and Turkey vie to increase their influence in the region, the EU’s engagement with southeastern Europe is of great importance, according to Goudis. “At a time when the consequences of the Russian invasion and the ongoing war against Ukraine are painfully felt, the stabilization of NATO’s southern flank becomes a transatlantic necessity to strengthen international security.
Promoting cooperation in the energy sector could strengthen ties between southeastern European countries, Goudis said. In light of the climate crisis, he added, Greece should not neglect the development of renewable wind and solar power, a plan it has not pursued with determination.
Fossil fuels should only be a “temporary, short-term” option, says Goudis. The slow progress in terms of developing the renewable energy sector, he said, stems in part from a lack of cooperation with Greek municipalities – and that Greek citizens should be involved in setting up networks. green energy and be entitled to a share of the revenue.
Stabilizing the region — both politically and economically — is only possible when lawmakers and citizens work together, Goudis said.
This article was originally written in German.