The Anger Of Alexis Tsipras Could Tear Europe Apart

A German take on new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who looks ready to peddle his sense of alienation beyond Greece's borders? If so, Europe itself is at risk.

Tsipras after the election.
Tsipras after the election.
Stefan Kornelius


MUNICH — It's understandable that Alexis Tsipras wants to savor the revolutionary frenzy a little while longer after his impressive electoral victory in Greece.

But in his exuberance, the new prime minister seems to want to pull not only his own country into a subversive undertow, but carry all of Europe with it. His tone can be seen as alienating, brazen. But the real cause for worry is the way Tsipras seems to envision the political future of the European Union.

It has become clear in just three days that the new Greek government sees the EU as a hand-to-hand combatant in a fight in which there are only winners and losers with nobody prepared to compromise. There are no prisoners taken, and the enemy is always the other. National resentments are aired openly during interviews. The favored style is the public snub, while rhetoric is belted out in which victim and perpetrator roles are clearly defined.

It is a pattern that looks to be fixed for the near future. Tsipras doesn't see the EU as a highly complex system for balancing interests. The EU and its members, instead, are his opponents. And because Tsipras also awakens and encourages populist feelings in other EU countries, he is contributing to an erosion of reason and common sense across the continent. Should this style start to make significant inroads outside Greece, then the deeper problem isn't Athens' debt, but Tsipras' anger.

The Russian case

He's just offered proof of this in aligning with Russia on the subject of EU sanctions against Moscow for its incursion in Ukraine. Along with Greece, other EU countries have been looking at the situation disintegrating in Ukraine, and wondered if the current sanctions aren't tough enough. Some even support sending weapons to Ukraine. An open debate has ensued, but in the end, there was a joint EU policy, which is ultimately an example of the strength of the European Union. If this unity is destroyed, then Tsipras is giving the Kremlin and others much-longed-for proof of Europe's weakness.

With his incendiary words, Tsipras and his squad of populists have the power to undermine the EU. There are easily excitable populations in other countries. Not without reason do the placating words of the European Commission or German federal government always carry a warning to Tsipras: Don't overdo it.

The European Union is a rule-of-law community that exists with an acknowledged agreement that no partner burdens another with unacceptable conditions. Tsipras owes his success to the feeling of many Greeks that just such an unacceptable situation has been imposed on them. The majority in the EU don't see it that way.

So this leaves the new prime minister with a choice: Either he creates a bridge between the two worlds — or he prepares for a perilous showdown.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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