5th Mar 2024


'Europe needs Greece for its own security'

  • Joint drill by Greek and Israeli navies in July 2012 (Photo: Israel Defense Forces)

What’s at stake in Sunday's (5 July) referendum is no less than Greece's place in Europe and European security, a former Greek army chief has told EUobserver.

A No vote could sever Greece from its EU and Nato allies and create instability in the region, general Christos Manolas said in an interview.

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  • Manolas was the Greek army chief from February 2014 to February 2015 (Photo: Greek Foreign ministry)

Much of the debate has been about austerity, the irreversibility of the euro, or even the integrity of the European Union.

But the future of Greece is also a geostrategic issue, said Manolas, who was the Greek army's commander-in-chief for one year from February 2014.

He underlined that military meddling in the vote is “not even in question”.

But he added: “Greece needs Europe and Europe needs Greece”.

“Greece is the only country in the region that has been in the EU since the '80s and in Nato since the '50s. It is a security provider rather than a security consumer”.

Buffer country

In recent weeks, the US made clear that Greek stability is in America’s national interest and German media said chancellor Angela Merkel's is concerned that Greece might turn to other partners.

“We need to stabilise the southern front and I would ask for more solidarity from our northern partners”, Manolas noted.

According to the general, Greece, the EU, and the US need each other more than ever due to conflicts in the Middle East conflicts and north Africa and due to the migrant crisis.

“The region of Thessaloniki and Crete can be used to launch operations in the Middle-East and in north Africa”, he explained.

“Both areas control - alongside the Greek islands, the sea line from north to south, and the horizontal axis from Gibraltar to Cyprus, which affect traffic through the Suez canal - what we call a choke point”.

He also said “Greece is used as a buffer country by our partners" on migration. “If Greece remained isolated with no funding, the overall security system would be negatively affected".

Balkan tinderbox

The Balkans are also a concern, the general added.

“Fyrom [the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia], Serbia, and Bosnia are neither EU nor Nato members. There is a security vacuum and the Balkans can easily export their instability. It’s a region which needs just a spark to catch fire”.

On the eastern border, relations with Turkey have become shakier, with an increase of Turkish violations of Greek territorial waters and airspace.

“The big issue with Turkey is the administration of the Aegean sea, which we consider is our vital space. Turkey wants to co-administrate the Aegean waters and it is something that leads to friction”, Manolas said.

Since prime minister Alexis Tsipras came to power in January, he went to Russia three times and signed a gas deal with Russia's Gazprom, prompting European worries that he might switch allegiance.

But Manolas says fear of a Greek turn to Russia is overblown.

“Some may have beliefs and ideas at individual levels, but the government policy on the country's orientation is crystal clear. Greece is a member of the European Union and of Nato”, he said.

“We have good cultural and trade relations, mainly because of religion, and Russians come as tourists and spend money here. But this is as far as it goes.”

“Everybody knows it, even the Russians”.

Keep tension low

After five years of economic crisis, Greece’s internal stability is also under scrutiny.

"People become slowly indignant and exasperated. They feel like cats pushed in a corner”, Manolas said.

The heated nature of the debate between Yes and No supporters has prompted repeated calls for Greek unity no matter what the referendum outcome.

The calls have come from ordinary Greeks and from VIPs, including Tsipras, the Greek president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and the defence minister, Panos Kammenos.

Greek far-left and far-right extremist groups have a track record of violence.

For some, the referendum campaign has even revived memories of the 1940s civil war, which pitted Communists against nationalists.

"Radicalism may rise when the social situation worsens," Manolas said. "When one has nothing to lose, it's easy to become radical. All kind of scenarios are possible”.

The general categorically excluded the possibility that the army could intervene, either to stop civil unrest or to topple a radical government.

"The [Greek] army is a law abiding institution," Manolas said.

"As in every Western society, there is political control of the armed forces in Greece. It’s not in the mindset of the officers to think of any constitutional divergences. That is not even in question.”

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