In remarks published in The New York Times on Monday, Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union talks, Egemen Bağış, criticized Germany and France for seeking to sell military equipment to Greece while pressing the government in Athens to make drastic cuts in public spending as a result of its dire financial crisis.
Bağış, speaking with the paper in Brussels last week, also said that to help Greece escape its “economic disaster” and reduce regional tensions, Ankara would reciprocate if the Greeks froze or cut defense procurement. “One of the reasons for the economic crisis in Greece is because of their attempt to compete with Turkey in terms of defense expenditures,” Bağış said.
The interview, which came around 10 days before a visit to Turkey by Greece’s alternate foreign minister, has sparked high interest in the Greek media as one of the top stories on Internet news portals and a leading story in news bulletins on both private and public television channels.
“Athens is giving the green light to Turkey’s proposal for reducing defense expenditure. However, it wants to see deeds more than words,” was the common message from the Greek media, reflecting their government’s stance vis-a-vis Bağış’s remarks.
Greece spends more of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military than any other EU country, largely due to the long-standing tension with its neighbor, historic rival and NATO ally Turkey.
Last December, when the EU told Athens that it should reduce its arms expenditure to get its budget deficit under control, Greek officials responded by saying they could only start such a significant reduction after three years due to tension with Turkey in the Aegean Sea. Athens also says it cannot abandon the previous government’s order for six French FREMM multipurpose frigates worth 2.5 billion euros, despite its budget woes.
The issue is likely to be on the agenda of talks between Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas and Turkish officials during the former’s one-day working visit to Turkey on April 8.
While announcing the visit in a written statement released on Wednesday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry highlighted that a joint political desire to bring a new acceleration to Turkish-Greek bilateral relations has already been confirmed via an exchange of letters between the prime ministers of the Aegean neighbors.
In January, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had responded to a letter sent by his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Oct. 30, the same month Papandreou’s Socialist Party came to power.
In his letter, Erdoğan had expressed Turkey’s readiness to resolve problems with Greece as part of his government’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” and outlined a set of proposals for a settlement of Turkish-Greek disputes, including complicated territorial problems in the Aegean and Cyprus.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Droutsas have already had two bilateral meetings on the sidelines of international meetings; the first took place in January in London on the sidelines of an international conference on Afghanistan and the second took place in Cordoba last month during an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers hosted by EU term president Spain.
In January, Papandreou publicly invited Erdoğan to pay an official visit to Athens. In a recent interview, Droutsas said Erdoğan’s visit might take place in late May or early June.