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Sep 28, 2023

EU Enlargement and Reform (III): Greece’s “Duty to Guide”? A View from Athens

Greece has historically perceived the EU enlargement policy as an enabling framework for the advancement of its national preferences. This is likely to remain the case today.

Members of the Presidential Guard raise the Greek flag in front of the Parthenon temple atop the Acropolis during celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou attend the ceremony in Athens, Greece, March 25, 2021.
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Upon Greece’s initiative, a high-level summit on EU enlargement was recently organized in Athens. On August 21, 2023, the leaders of four European Union member states (Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania), were joined by their counterparts from the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova to discuss the prospects of EU enlargement policy, in the presence of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. The summit discussed “the way forward,” in order to make the EU accession of interested countries a reality. The Athens Summit Declaration also underscored “the need for a re-energized and re-focused enlargement process that is tangible and credible, without shortcuts to the set conditions.”

Greece and EU Enlargement

The non-seasoned observer may find it strange that such an initiative was not launched (or openly endorsed) by any of the large European powers. However, Greece has a long track record of taking initiatives in the realm of EU enlargement policy. The Greek EU Presidency of 2003 was marked by the adoption of the Thessaloniki Declaration, where it was for the first time stated unequivocally that the future of the Western Balkans is in the EU. In 2009, the then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed the “Agenda 2014” that ambitiously set 2014 as the target date for the completion of the Western Balkans’ accession in the EU. And, in June 2022, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis argued in a Politicoarticle that the EU should offer membership to Western Balkan countries by 2033. Being the “older” EU member from Southeastern Europe, Athens believes that it has a “duty to guide” the (wider) region’s European integration.

Greece’s unwavering and enthusiastic rhetorical support for EU enlargement has not always been matched by deeds. Until 1999, Athens had been among the most vocal critics of Turkey’s European potential accession. From 2009 to 2018, Greece obstructed the opening of accession talks with (now named) North Macedonia. And on several occasions (including the current period), Athens has, more or less, explicitly conditioned giving its consent to the advancement of Albania’s EU accession on the latter’s respect of the rights of the country’s Greek minority. As far as Greek society is concerned, it displays the same attitude toward enlargement as other Europeans. According to the Eurobarometer surveyof January 2023, 51 percent of Greeks are in favor of “further enlargement of the EU to include other countries in the future years” (the EU average is 52 percent).

The fluctuation of Greek foreign policy from the launch of very ambitious initiatives, to the real or threatened obstruction to the accession path of specific countries does not reveal a tension in Greek policy thinking between privileging European and national priorities. Greece has historically perceived the EU enlargement policy as an enabling framework for the advancement of its national preferences.  Policy shifts have instead demonstrated that Athens has sought to exploit all aspects of EU accession conditionality to promote its national interests, from the carrot of EU membership to the stick of blocking a country’s progress.

Mixed Feelings about Ukraine

The accession of Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries to the EU has not been a priority for Athens. Greece was among the least enthusiastic supporters of EaP when the policy was initiated in the aftermath of the Russian war against Georgia in 2008. Athens preferred instead the framework of the Black Sea Synergy that was launched just a year earlier. Greece viewed the EaP as an instrument for promoting European norms and exerting geopolitical influence rather than as a pre-accession tool. However, the EU’s influence on Ukraine and the EaP region is important to Greece as a counterbalance to the potential influence of other competing regional actors. Greece has also demonstrated an interest in the protection of the collective rights of the over 100,000 Ukrainian citizens of Greek origin that resided in Ukraine prior to war, many of them in Mariupol, a harbor city almost completely destroyed by Russian forces. However, overall, EU enlargement with EaP countries does not feature high in the Greek national agenda.

Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Athens had kept a low profile on Ukraine’s Euro-atlantic ambitions following a Moscow-first stance. Since then, however, there has been a U-turn in Greek policy with regard to both Ukraine’s EU and NATO accession as the recent Greek-Ukrainian joint declaration on the latter’s NATO membership “when allies agree and conditions are met” indicates. Although the Greek government has clearly prioritized enlargement with Western Balkan countries, it has also been supportive of Ukraine’s and Moldova’s membership bids, though since the beginning it has been in the camp of those opposing the fast-track process suggested by some Eastern EU member states. Greek society was not enthusiastic about Ukraine’s potential EU accession in the early days of the war. According to a Eurobarometer survey of April 2022, 54 percent of respondents in Greece were supportive of Ukraine’s EU membership “when it is ready” compared to 66 percent in EU.

CAP Tensions

Previous rounds of enlargement have shown that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the regional policy have traditionally been at the center of negotiations as they are directly linked to EU budget and have political repercussions in member states. The current ban on Ukrainian grain imports by some EU member states, which Greece did not support, is indicative of the tensions that Ukraine’s accession would bring given the size of its agricultural sector. Farmers in Greece have not, however, felt threated by Ukrainian agricultural products entering the European market as the profiles of agricultural production in the two countries differ, with Greek production being rather diverse, consisting of a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables, olives, dairy products, and so on, beyond wheat and corn.

Still, if Ukraine were to join the EU, it would require massive money transfers from the EU budget to large Ukrainian agricultural conglomerates and that would presuppose a comprehensive reform of the CAP. Greece, whose production is based on small farms, and which is a beneficiary, so far, of direct payments through CAP, would receive much lower transfers of funds. That would have a significant political impact. According to a study on a reformed CAP, Greece holds 7th place in terms of the share in total CAP expenditure. But calculated in relative terms, as a percentage of Gross National Income, Greece ranked second after Bulgaria in 2020 in terms of the EU funds that go to agriculture. The same is true when it comes to regional policy as funds would have to be drastically redirected to newcomers away from old members like Greece with a higher GDP per capita. Calculating the exact budgetary impact of Ukraine’s accession is not possible at the moment given the fact that the country is currently at war and its reconstruction needs are unknown.

Reform of Enlargement Policy

Athens has acknowledged the need to reinvigorate EU’s enlargement policy. As Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis put it, Greece will “endorse any idea or proposal aimed at revitalizing the enlargement process, making it more concrete, consistent, and reliable.” Indeed, in response to an invitation to all EU member states by Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, to advance their ideas on EU enlargement reform, Greece (together with Croatia) proposed in mid-2021 the adoption of several measures. It concerned some policy prescriptions that have been publicly discussed for some time, such as the increase in frequency of intergovernmental meetings with interested countries, and the gradual phasing in of candidate countries in EU policies. Athens also argued for a greater engagement with civil society organizations in candidate countries.

Greece is not among those EU member states that see the reform of EU institutions and decision-making procedures as a condition for the advancement of EU enlargement. It believes that the deepening and widening processes may run in parallel. However, with respect to the substance of reforms (whose enactment is a sine qua non for countries such as France and Germany) Athens does not look eager to support a move away from unanimity toward qualified majority when it comes to foreign policy and security policy issues. Greece worries about the possibility that its security concerns (e.g., with respect to the perceived Turkish revisionism) may be downplayed in a European Council or a Council operating according to qualified majority rule.

Enlargement Beyond “Absorption” Concerns

So far, economic and institutional considerations have been outweighed by geopolitical considerations in the Greek thinking over future EU enlargement, also when Ukraine’s accession is concerned. Greece has traditionally been among the EU member states that have supported EU solidarity and safeguard clauses, and stands for a strong Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). In this regard, Ukraine’s accession would be positively assessed by Athens as Kyiv, once in the EU, would be expected to be in favor of strengthening CFSP as well as the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). On the other hand, the emergence of a strong eastern flank at the expense of the southern one within the EU may raise concerns for Athens. After all, despite Greece’s strong support for Ukraine, the security priorities and perceptions of the two capitals differ, with Athens prioritizing threats emanating from the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Europe.

EU enlargement has traditionally been instrumentalized by Athens in pursuing its foreign policy and security goals. This is also the case today. Athens has attempted to engage in pace-setting or in pushing forward enlargement primarily regarding the Western Balkans, which lie in its close vicinity, as the recent Athens Summit of August 2023 made clear. However, it is expected to negotiate hard with regard to reforms of EU policies (e.g., CAP and regional policy) and decision-making procedures (especially on dropping unanimity in CFSP). The opening of discussions on how EU will be better governed in view of its the next historical enlargement will surely be a window of opportunity for Athens to pursue two goals: First, to serve its national security and foreign policy agenda and, second, to ensure that the EU common policies are strengthened, and that Athens remains in the inner circle of the integration process.

Nikolaos Tzifakis is Jean Monnet Chair in EU Foreign Policy and the Western Balkans and Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of the Peloponnese.

Panagiota Manoli is Associate Professor for the Political Economy of International Relations at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of the Peloponnese, and an ELIAMEP (The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy) Research Fellow.