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Σάββατο, 17 Μαρτίου 2018
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Searching for Meaning in Greek PM Tsipras’ Planned Washington Visit

Since the announcement of a White House meeting for Greek PM Alexis Tsipras last July, issued by the Office of Vice President Pence, observers have been trying to fathom a compelling purpose for such a meeting. We now have a time frame for the meeting with President Trump in Washington, sometime in mid-October (October 17 is rumored), and this timing explains why PM Tsipras skipped his normal New York UN General Assembly visit last month.

Certainly in Athens and possibly elsewhere in Europe, observers are asking “where’s the beef?” since there is very little of true urgency driving this meeting, and because any contact with senior US leadership is automatically translated into a major political lifeline for whichever Greek government is involved. In the last few days much has been made about the protocol aspects of the visit, including the fact that space has been found at the Blair House in Washington for PM Tsipras to utilize during his Washington stay.

More details will emerge in the coming days as the Greek government’s media machine engages in the standard pre-visit build up, and as Washington officials release select pieces of the puzzle. Let us review what we know today about potential discussion topics and themes. Remember that this visit would normally have been processed through the State Department and National Security Council (NSC), as the standard process involves the State Department forwarding the NSC a list of proposed high-level meetings every quarter or so for potential scheduling. This system may have changed under the Trump Administration and particularly in Secretary Tillerson’s downsized State Department, but we do know the visit in principle was announced in July when a host of senior policy positions at State were still vacant, (a few have since been filled) thus career diplomats at State clearly played a larger role than Trump Administration political appointees in getting this visit set up.

Allies managing a tough neighborhood

Regional issues are the traditionally the bread and butter of these high-level meetings, and they almost always have been at the top of the agenda, considering Greece’s strategic location. In fact, it is rare when bilateral issues trump regional concerns in these Greece – U.S. encounters because there is always something more urgent festering in Greece’s immediate neighborhood. It appears likely that the Greece-FYROM name dispute will head the list of discussion topics although it could just as easily be the regional refugee crisis and concerns with Turkey or even the Cyprus issue. Time will be found to discuss the Middle East as well. Both sides will have extensive checklists and presumably both sides will have their top diplomats there, because the White House meeting presents an important opportunity to lock-in (or bless) agreed policies. If one had to hazard a guess, right now the situation in the Balkans and discussions with FYROM on the Macedonia name issue will be the primary focus of the regional issues discussion. After the meeting, we should be able to discern how active a role Washington is willing to take in pushing for a mutually acceptable solution that allows for the prospect of NATO expansion to include Skopje after a name issue deal is reached.

It’s all about Souda Bay

The excellent U.S.-Greece defense relationship leaves very little room for improvement on an operational basis, save one subject. Both sides have consistently expressed interest in moving towards an even better arrangement regarding the strategic Naval Support Facility (NSF) at Souda Bay, Crete. The U.S. side and the currently-embattled Greek Minister of Defense are interested in transforming the current Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) into a multi-year arrangement to move past the current regime which requires renewal annually. This allows the U.S. to program new infrastructure upgrades at the base confidently, boosting regional security and NATO alliance capabilities. This seems like a clear win-win and incidentally provides Washington an incentive to quietly support PM Tsipras’ desire to complete his term until elections take place in 2019. What is needed is the commitment now from PM Tsipras to tackle his SYRIZA party’s lingering mistrust of U.S. intentions and to get amendments to the MDCA, or a new deal altogether, through the Greek Parliament. The prospect of movement on this issue undoubtedly helped secure the Pentagon’s support to schedule a White House meeting for PM Tsipras. We shall see how far things progress, and it is also important to note a significant number of potential U.S. defense sales to Greece are under discussion.

The narrative of Greek economic recovery – is it believable?

Although many in Greece dispute this, the Tsipras government and a few allies have been working hard to share the narrative that “the crisis has ended/economic recovery is starting” wherever possible. This will certainly be a major topic at the White House meeting and the key for the Greek side will be whether President Trump can be convinced to acknowledge this publicly. Hopefully some of the ideas President Trump has shared about lowering taxes and other reforms will resonate with PM Tsipras and yield tax relief for the hard-pressed Greek private sector. It is also interesting to note that the IMF/World Bank Annual meetings will be underway around the same time (October 13-15) in Washington, which may allow the Greeks to insert several of their “visiting” economic ministers into the White House meeting and thus raise the issue of Greek debt relief directly with President Trump and possibly Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. That would be an important communications success for PM Tsipras, so we must monitor closely the official delegation accompanying PM Tsipras to get a hint at what the Greek side is hoping for. Regional energy issues and the progress of the (non-American) TAP pipeline construction across northern Greece will certainly come up in this meeting as well. Finally, one should recall the Greek media will do their utmost to portray the economic discussions as far more substantive than they actually are, with suggestions of major new investments and other benefits. On this topic, it is also worth noting that PM Tsipras has planned to visit Chicago on his upcoming U.S. trip instead of New York, sending a somewhat mixed signal about his intentions to pursue the largest American investors and banks. There is of course a strong case for visiting Chicago, a city with a large Greek-American population, since an energetic Greek-American investor (billionaire John Calamos) is based there, as well as the recently upgraded National Hellenic Museum. Still, New York seems a more important target if investment promotion and the debt issue are the top Greek objectives.


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