Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

Amidst crises, Greece finds time for renewed Balkan diplomacy

Many ask whether Greece can focus on this right now

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Despite the multiple crises Greece is currently facing – a continuing refugee deluge and massive public reaction on some islands, the spreading coronavirus threat, and provocative Turkish actions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean – Greek officials found time to engage in multiple rounds of Balkan diplomacy this week.  Time will tell whether any of this amounted to anything more than a diplomatic sideshow.
Thessaloniki Summit – EU Enlargement again in focus
On February 24, the Greek Foreign Ministry organised an event which passed almost unnoticed by international media entitled “Thessaloniki High-Level Conference on the European Perspective of the Western Balkans – From Thessaloniki to Zagreb.”  To numerous observers this event appeared to be a clumsy attempt to claim partial credit for Athens in advancing the EU Enlargement dialogue going back several decades, something historians know is a dubious claim at best.
The Thessaloniki session was chaired by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. Attending the meeting were Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, Ekaterina Zaharieva; Croatia (Presidency of the EU Council), Gordan Grlic Radman; Italy, Luigi Di Maio; Montenegro, Srdan Darmanovic; North Macedonia, Nikola Dimitrov; Serbia, Ivica Dacic; Slovenia, Miro Cerar, as well as Gent Cakaj in the capacity of Foreign Minister of Albania. Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Glauk Konjufca also participated.
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Josip Brkic and the Secretaries-General for European and Regional Affairs of the Romanian Foreign Ministry also participated.
Also attending were the Secretary-General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Helga Schmid, as well as the Deputy Director-General for Enlargement of the European Commission.
The joint statement can be found here:
https://www.mfa.gr/en/current-affairs/statements-speeches/thessaloniki-high-level-conference-on-the-european-perspective-of-the-western-balkans-from-thessaloniki-to-zagreb-24-february-2020.html 
This event’s linkage to Thessaloniki remains symbolic, at least to students of Balkan history, as it was at the tense 2003 Thessaloniki EU Summit, concluding the then-Greek EU Presidency, that the overall strategy of gradual EU Enlargement to include essentially all of the Balkan region was adopted.
Decades later, the legitimate question that needs to be asked is whether under the Commission’s new Enlargement procedures, substantially toughened by pressure from France, there is any need at all for EU member states such as Greece to “sponsor” EU membership candidates, or whether all of the reform effort now falls squarely on the aspirant countries in order to meet the EU’s rigorous membership standards and, more importantly, to continue to comply with those standards after a chapter in the negotiations is officially closed.
High-level Alexandroupolis meeting with Bulgaria
Again amidst several urgent domestic crises, a more traditional diplomatic encounter occurred on February 26, comprising the Fourth Greece-Bulgaria High-Level Cooperation Council meeting, this year set in Alexandroupolis, Greece. The sessions were chaired by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov.
Declaring that a “strategic partnership” now existed between the former enemies, both countries agreed to continue to enhance cooperation in defence, security, civil protection, economy, energy, transport, infrastructure, cross-border cooperation, culture, education, and sports.
As is standard in these encounters, a number of agreements were signed, along with a joint declaration. Energy, transport, and tourism cooperation were highlighted this year.
Alexandroupolis is the new energy nexus
On energy, the main focus in Alexandroupolis was the ongoing Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) project, and on ensuring the project would be completed in 2020.  In his remarks, PM Borissov explained the supply of pipes to the IGB project was contracted by “a completely transparent tender” to two Greek companies and asked Mitsotakis to take steps to press for rapid completion of the construction phase.
A key element of the new regional energy infrastructure is a planned floating LNG import facility (FSRU) to be built at Alexandroupolis and set to begin operation in 2022.
This project has attracted interest from major LNG producers and suppliers, both new and existing, including companies from the US, Israel, Qatar, and Algeria, as well as from large international LNG traders, according to Gastrade, the Greek-Bulgarian holding company managing the project.
The FSRU will be connected to the Greek gas transmission system through a 28 km pipeline that will allow the transportation of regasified LNG to the markets of Greece and the wider region, in particular Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Hungary, and Ukraine.  Washington has long been a supporter of this project which aims to boost the region’s energy independence.
Increasingly concerned about energy supply diversification, Bulgaria has also expressed interest recently in joining, where possible, the new and fast-moving East Mediterranean (East Med) Initiative comprised of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, with support from Washington, especially where energy development is concerned.
Transport interlinkages to be upgraded
On transportation, bilateral agreements were signed that reflect the steadily increasing demand from the citizens of both countries for improved transportation links and more border crossings.
In his remarks to the session, Mitsotakis noted the rail cross-border traffic agreement signed that day will also help “achieve our goal to connect the cities of Kavala, Alexandroupolis, Burgas and Varna by rail to the Danube.”  Similarly, the objective of connecting Greece’s Aegean ports to Bulgarian ports on the Danube with an improved road network was highlighted.
In his remarks, Mitsotakis explained that two major road networks will be built to better interconnect the two countries, “especially the one that will connect Alexandroupolis with Dimitrovgrad,” and these networks will support “a new commercial significance of all Greek ports in the Aegean, now connected with the Bulgarian port of Ruse on the Danube.”
A Joint Declaration on the promotion of cooperation in tourism was also signed. Greece is now the sixth-largest investor in Bulgaria, while some 1.5 million Greeks travelled there in 2019 and Greece remains the top European tourist destination for Bulgarians. There have been problems, however, with the large number of Greek businesses that set up shop in Bulgaria simply to avoid Greek tax rules on property and automobiles, generating a new set of challenges for Greek tax authorities.
Finally, the Enterprise Greece-Invest Bulgaria Agency Memorandum of Understanding signed in Alexandroupolis will provide for the exchange of information on investment opportunities in the two countries, market research and the provision of statistics.

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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