Foreign policy and defense
Greek foreign policy is mainly characterized
by relations with Turkey and the EU. After a period of
some relaxation in relation to the arch-rivals Turkey,
tensions have increased since the end of the 2010s.
Relations with the EU became a real thorn in the tough
negotiations on the terms of the Union's support loans
during the deep economic crisis, but in recent years the
cooperation has run more smoothly.
The mutual enmity between Greece and Turkey had long
historical roots (see Older History and Modern
History) and wars have been close on several
occasions in recent decades. The main contradictions
concern the boundary line in the Aegean Sea and the
future status of Cyprus.
Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Greece for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
In the conflict over the border crossing in the
Aegean Sea and the right to a number of islands, the
countries refer to different agreements. Both countries
have repeatedly accused each other of military
violations of territory. By 1996, war was threatened
when Greek soldiers landed on a disputed rock island to
take down a Turkish flag placed there. Following the
American mediation, the emergency crisis was resolved.
A turning point came in 1999 when the Greek
government declared that it no longer opposed a Turkish
EU membership. Prior to this, severe earthquakes in both
Greece and Turkey had contributed to the thawing
weather. The countries sent rescue teams to each other,
and the disasters led to feelings of belonging and
sympathy with the victims in both countries.
At the EU summit in Helsinki in December 1999, Greece
accepted that Turkey was granted candidate status. In
return, Turkey agreed that the dispute over the Aegean
Sea may be settled by the International Court of Justice
in The Hague if the countries themselves fail to resolve
In 2000, Giorgos Papandreou made the first official
visit to Turkey by a Greek foreign minister of almost 40
years. A decision was then taken to start military
relaxation negotiations in the Aegean. At the 2002 EU
summit in Copenhagen, Greece welcomed giving Turkey a
start date for negotiations with the EU on membership.
Greece and Turkey have since been able to develop good
relations in trade, diplomacy and military cooperation.
For the first time since 1959, a Greek Prime Minister,
Kostas Karamanlis, made an official visit to Turkey in
Relations were strained when opponents of Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought asylum in Greece
following the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Erdoğan
visited Greece 2017, as the first Turkish president in
65 years. He then advocated a review of the 1923 Treaty
of Lausanne, in which the borders of modern Turkey were
established, something his Greek hosts firmly opposed.
At the end of the 2010s, however, the border dispute
in the Aegean Sea was flared up again. There were
reports of screenings between the countries' coastguards
and Greece accused Turkey of violations of airspace and
territorial waters in the area. Basically, the conflict,
according to analysts, is also about the right to energy
resources that are believed to be in the continental
shelf under the sea.
Cyprus has since 1974 been divided into a Greek and a
Turkish Cypriot part. When the Greek military tried to
take power over the island in a coup attempt, Turkey
invaded the north to protect the Turkish-speaking
residents. Cyprus was divided and the two NATO
countries have since been in conflict over the island.
Greece left NATO in 1974 but rejoined the military
alliance in 1980.
Both Turkey and Greece advocate the reunification of
both parts of Cyprus, and talks on this have been
constantly held between the parties. When Kostas Simitis
became Prime Minister of Greece in 1996, a new, clear
will for relaxation was noticed. When the Greek Cypriot
government decided in 1997 to buy Russian anti-aircraft
robots, Turkey threatened military force to prevent them
from being placed on the island. After persuasion,
Greece took care of the robots and placed them on Crete
in 1999. Despite strong pressure from the EU and the UN
ahead of Cyprus's entry into the Union in 2004, however,
the Cyprus issue has remained unsolved.
Even in the eastern Mediterranean, the opportunities
for oil and natural gas extraction have contributed to
confrontations between Turkey and Greece. The discovery
of natural gas off the coast of Cyprus has led to
increasing tensions between the Greek Cypriot government
in Cyprus and Turkey, which has also affected relations
between Greece and Turkey. Turkey claims that the
exploitation of gas supplies will not benefit the
Turkish Cypriot minority. In the summer of 2019, Turkey
conducted test drilling for gas in Cyprus's economic sea
zone, despite threats of EU sanctions. At the end of
2019, the country also signed an agreement with Libya's
internationally supported government on sea borders that
would give Turkey the right to an economic sea zone east
of the island of Crete, which Greece already claims.
The Refugee Agreement with the EU
Another difficult issue between Greece and Turkey has
been the large influx of people from mainly Asia across
the border to Greece. In the fall of 2010, the influx
increased dramatically and the Greek government
requested assistance from the EU border control
authority Frontex. The refugee crisis escalated during
the first half of the 2010 to reach a peak in the fall
of 2015, when around a quarter of a million migrants
arrived from east to Greece.
The influx slowed down significantly since the EU
concluded an agreement with Turkey in March 2016, which
meant that the refugees were sent back to Turkey, as the
Union eased the visa rules for Turks and contributed to
the costs that handling migrants in Turkey would entail
(see further Current Policy and Calendar).
But the refugee issue has continued to strain
relations at times. In early 2020, Greece strengthened
the common border guard, accusing Turkey of contributing
to the illegal migration of migrants into the country.
Turkey had then announced that the border to Greece
would be opened, which was interpreted by analysts as
part of a negotiation game with the EU.
Tight relations with Northern Macedonia
The relationship with Northern Macedonia (the country
was called until February 2019 Macedonia) has
been strained since the area that made up historic
Macedonia was divided between mainly Greece and Serbia
in 1913. The Slavic speaking residents of the Greek
part were considered a threat to the country's cohesion.
When the former Yugoslav republic became independent in
the early 1990s under the name of Macedonia, Greece
refused to recognize it. The Greeks pointed out that the
name Macedonia belongs to the Greek cultural heritage.
The Greeks had the same claim on the symbol that the
Macedonians chose on their flag. Greece also objected to
the wording of the draft Macedonian constitution which
it believed could be interpreted as territorial claims
in parts of northern Greece.
A UN proposal to call the country the former Yugoslav
Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) helped calm the situation
and the new state agreed to change the flag symbol in
1994 after being pressured by an economic blockade from
Athens. Relations were subsequently improved through
trade exchanges, and the conflict was toned down. But
before the NATO summit in 2008, Greece stopped
Macedonian membership in the military alliance, citing
the name conflict. In 2011, the International Court of
Justice in The Hague declared that the Greek blockade
was a violation of an agreement negotiated by the UN in
1995. However, the Court did not order Greece to stop
blocking its neighboring membership in NATO or the EU.
After a period of negotiations, in June 2018, Greece
and Macedonia announced that the parties had reached a
solution to the name issue: The Republic of Macedonia
would change its name to the Republic of Northern
Macedonia (Republika Severna Makedonija). In January
2019, the Macedonian Parliament adopted the amendments
required by the Constitution to implement the change of
name and a few weeks later the Greek Parliament also
approved the agreement by a small margin. As a result,
the change of name was clear and the road free for
future membership in the EU and NATO for Northern
Macedonia (see also Northern Macedonia: Foreign
Policy and Defense).
Friendly relationship with Serbia and Russia
The relationship with Albania has also been
periodically sensitive. Until 1985, Greece claimed parts
of southern Albania. When the claim was abandoned, the
Greek-Albanian border, which had been closed since the
Second World War, was opened. In 1987, formal peace was
concluded between the countries. However, relations were
grim even during the 1990s. Greek extremist nationalists
continued to claim Albanian territory. In addition, the
Athens government protested against the treatment of
120,000 people in Albania's Greek minority. Prison
sentences against Greek nationalists in Albania in 1993
were countered by the Greek government with the mass
expulsion of Albanian refugees from Greece. It was not
until 1995 that tension eased, and several friendship
and collaboration agreements were concluded in the
During the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia, Greece was
one of the few countries with good relations with
Serbia. In 1999, Greece refused to participate actively
in NATO's flight offensive against Serbia. The UN
Criminal Tribunal found that former Serbian leader
Slobodan Milošević owned property in Greece and that
Greek companies supplied oil products to former
Yugoslavia in violation of UN sanctions. Greek
government companies must also have sent equipment to
the Bosnian Serb army.
Greece's relationship with the United States is
complicated, despite NATO membership (see below). The
United States' passive attitude to the 1967-1974
military junta contributed to anti-American currents
among the Greeks, to some extent living.
The Syriza-led government that took office in 2015
made closer contacts with Russia, probably due to
deteriorating relations with the EU. Russian relations
with the Union had also deteriorated significantly
following the Russian annexation of the Crimean
Peninsula in Ukraine in March 2014. Prime Minister
Tsipras visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in
Moscow in April 2015 and was reported to have received
moral support in the negotiations with the EU, but no
financial assistance.. At the meeting, Tsipra expressed
criticism of EU sanctions on Russia, which were
introduced following the Russian takeover of Crimea.
Influential defense force
The military has always had a central role in Greek
society. The Armed Forces are often described as one of
the most oversized in Europe and the country's large
arms purchases have partly been blamed for the state's
large budget deficit, although this has not been
discussed much during the emergency loan negotiations.
For a number of years, Greece was one of the world's
three, four largest arms importers, of which just over a
third came from Germany and France, the countries that
have pushed Greece most hard to lower wages and social
benefits and raise the retirement age. Greece has
traditionally spent large sums of money on its defense.
Not even during the crisis years in the 2010s did the
defense spending decline, on the contrary, they even
increased slightly during the period 2014 to 2018. In
2017, 2.5 percent of GDP was allocated to the defense,
In 2014, a gigantic corruption rage began to emerge
in the Greek defense, after a former employee of the
Ministry of Defense began to reveal how he has for many
years received or spent several million dollars in
bribes from weapons manufacturers in Germany, France,
Sweden and Russia. Often weapons purchases were about
equipment that Greece barely even needed.
The Greek governments and military leadership
motivate the need for new advanced weapons systems with
constant provocations from Turkey. Reference has also
been made to the pressure on the border guard from the
hundreds of thousands of migrants without an entry
permit who are trying to enter Greece.
Greece has been a member of the NATO Alliance of
Defense since 1951. The United States has, among other
things, a naval base in Crete and a naval and air base
is being built in the city of Alexandroupolis. Greek
soldiers are deployed to Cyprus as well as to UN service
in Lebanon and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for example.
Greece has a general military duty of up to nine months
for most men. The Armed Forces is one of the country's
largest employers, which has also explained the
government's unwillingness to cut back on the military.
Greece has plans to modernize the Air Force and its
FACTS - DEFENSE
93,500 men (2017)
The air Force
20,000 men (2017)
16 250 men (2017)
Military expenditure's share of GDP
2.5 percent (2017)
Military spending's share of the state budget
5.0 percent (2017)