European Affairs

President Obama Goes to Greece     Print Email

katerinasokou.2016A week after Donald Trump’s upset victory, U.S. President Barack Obama is traveling to Greece, in the first stop of his last European trip of his Presidency. During his largely symbolic visit, President Obama is planning to deliver a legacy speech from the birthplace of democracy. He is expected to make an impassioned case for the merits of democracy, European unity and security, and regional stability; at a time when all three are being tested by the rise of extremist parties and rhetoric. Although he is expected to repeat these themes during his second stop in Germany, given that Greece is faced with the extra challenges of a debilitating economic crisis and an historic influx of migrants and refugees, President Obama’s stop in Athens is a particularly welcome sign of support to the country. 

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has stressed the geopolitical importance of Greece for the stability and security of the wider region. President Obama’s visit is a signal to Europe that the U.S. is putting a premium on keeping Greece as an integral part of the EU. He is also expected to make the case for an economic policy that puts Greece on the path of growth.

However, the visit will require careful diplomacy. As Paul Glastris, who wrote the historic speech that President Bill Clinton made in Athens in 1999, put it, President Obama “will have to thread a series of needles simultaneously. He will have to find words that express Washington’s support for Greek debt relief without alienating the Troika or discouraging further economic reform in Greece; that praise Greece’s exemplary handling of the refugee crisis without encouraging more refugees; and that signal solidarity with Greece over its very real Aegean security concerns without provoking the Turkish president into doing something stupid.”

Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdogan has publicly challenged the Treaty of Lausanne which set the modern-day borders of Turkey, including with Greece (Erdogan made particular emphasis to “our brothers” in Western Thrace, Cyprus., Crimea and Mosul). Worried, the Greeks hope to hear the U.S. president reiterate his support for the existing international treaties.

Indeed, the fact that president Obama is ending his presidency with a visit to Greece contrasts with how he started his first term, when he visited Turkey in the hope of anchoring the country to Western values and interests. But as President Erdogan is cracking down on seemingly all forms of domestic opposition after the failed coup, his rule is turning more authoritarian and relations with the U.S. are strained.

Almost eight years after that trip to Turkey, the U.S. president is expected to make the case that the experience of Greece over the last few years is a lesson for all. As the U.S. ambassador to Greece Jeffrey Pyatt put it last Monday, “Greece has faced enormous. challenges, but the democratic institutions of the country have functioned without interruption. This shows both the remarkable resilience of the Greek people, but it also demonstrates the enduring power of democracy.” No doubt, the U.S. president hopes that his message will also be heard across the Aegean, in Turkey.

Despite facing extraordinary economic challenges and a lack of infrastructure to host them, Greece has also welcomed an increasing number of refugees and migrants without major security incidents. To demonstrate the point and bring the attention of the international community to the refugee issue, the U.S. president is also expected to visit a Greek refugee camp.

Finally, President Obama is expected to support further debt relief for the Greek economy. For the most part, his administration has worked to deal with the Greek crisis and has weighed in at critical moments to ease austerity and keep Greece in the Eurozone. The White House has tried to manage Greek expectations about how much (or how publicly) he will press the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree on further debt easing for the country. As his press secretary Josh Earnest put it, “the president is not traveling to Athens to renegotiate the agreement between Greece and its creditors”.

However, he could act as a catalyst for a deal on Greek debt. This has taken greater urgency after the U.S. elections, as it is not clear if a Trump administration will have any interest in the matter, or what stance it will take. What is more, lately there are signs that Greece’s creditors may be ready to make a decision on further relief. The International Monetary Fund, which is the partner asking for more reforms from the Greeks and more debt measures from the Europeans, is showing some flexibility in its requests in order to join the program. Its’ participation is particularly important for the Germans ahead of their own elections next year.  But if there is no agreement on Greek debt, the Greek crisis will return as Greece runs out of money next spring.

Some more tangible economic support for Greece would also be welcome. More investment needs to flow into the country in order to kick-start the recovery, and the Greek economy needs to become more competitive and export more products and services in order to grow sustainably in the future. From its traditionally strong tourism and food sectors to start-ups and high tech industries, Greek businesses have much to benefit from the U.S. market, know-how and cooperation, not least with the wealthy Greek American community. This well-connected community has pressed hard for U.S. support to Greece, but it took the personal interest of a President to make this trip happen.

Katerina Sokou is Washington Correspondent for the Greek Daily Kathimerini and a member of the Board of Advisors of the European Institute’s European Affairs journal.

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