opn 190711 Kyriakos Mitsotakis-1562843573491
Greece's new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis addresses the government's first cabinet meeting following general elections at the Greek parliament in Athens on July 10, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

With Kyriakos Mitsotakis now firmly ensconced in the classic surroundings of the Maximos Mansion in central Athens just down from Syntagma Square, one of the most pressing files the new prime minister will have to deal with is just how hard to press the European Union on that age-old question that dominates the politics of the Hellenic Republic: Turkey. Or, more exactly, Turkey and its decision to have two drilling ships exploring in what the EU holds to be Cyprus’ territorial waters.

For starters, Mitsotakis has the benefit of winning last Sunday’s election by a landslide. His New Democracy party won 39.85 per cent of the votes, claiming 158 of the parliament’s 300 seats. Syriza, under former prime minister Alexis Tsipras, won 31.53 per cent leaving them with 86 seats.

The result marked a remarkable turnaround for New Democracy, long viewed as the establishment party that played no small part in the crippling debt crisis that results now in Greece owing €1.82 for every €1 in circulation in its national economy and needing €242 billion in bailout funds — never mind the hangover on the nation’s psyche.

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Greek voters, it seems, have short memories and bought into Mitsotakis’ message of tax cuts across the board and relief for a struggling middle class to kick-start the economy again.

But he also tapped into a general feeling of resentment among Greek nationalists who objected to Tsipras’ handling of the name change from the unwieldy former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the far simpler North Macedonia. The deal was heavily criticised and Mitsotakis says he’ll veto any attempt by North Macedonia to join the EU even though that’s not likely until 2023 or later.

Unacceptable escalation

Mitsotakis is going to do everything he can to ensure the EU remains firmly on the side of Cyprus and Greece when it comes to Turkey. If the name change for North Macedonia can get Greek nationalists riled up, then Turkey is a red rag to a bull. On Monday, with Mitsotakis’ election victory still sinking it, the Turks began sinking drill holes from a second ship looking for gas deposits off Cyprus.

Brussels issued an immediate statement, calling the new drilling an “unacceptable escalation” — and warned Ankara to stop its “illegal” activities or face sanctions. In early June, Turkey began exploring for oil and gas from a first ship, and that led the EU to issue an initial cease and desist order to Ankara, warning that it would face “targeted and appropriate” sanctions if it didn’t stop. Stop? No — Turkey sent a second ship, which began work on Monday.

The issue is centred on international recognition of the economic exclusion zone around Cyprus. Since 1974, following an invasion by Turkish paratroopers, the island has been divided between south and north. Few recognise the north’s legitimacy. Attempts to reconcile differences between Turkish-Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have stalled.

The Greek side has long demanded that all Turkish forces withdraw as part of any putative deal, which would create a federally administered European Union member state, most likely with a revolving Turkish and Greek presidency. Alternatively, the Turks want rid of British forces stationed in the south, and the questions of compensation and land transfer have yet to be settled.

Now the prospect of sizeable gas deposits in the disputed waters off the island are adding a new dimension of complications for all sides as both Ankara and Nicosia ramp up exploration activities. Ankara says its actions abide by international law and that it is drilling inside its continental shelf.

Perfect foil

Before his election loss, Tsipras warned that Ankara had also threatened to drill off the Aegean island Kastellorizo, thereby risking a Greek military response. Turkey and Greece, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, have had their gunboats and jets locked on to each other in a tense war of nerves.

Mitsotakis will be waiting with great interest to see what measures the EU’s External Action Service — its foreign and security policy arm — will come up with in the way of sanctions. Either way, it’s the perfect foil for him to make a very firm impression with all those who backed him at the ballot box last week.