The grinding geopolitics of a Grexit
1 Jul 2015|

Greece’s economic woes feature daily on the British broadsheets. The high drama negotiations between Greece and Europe have evoked a narrative akin to that of David and Goliath. Yet as Europe’s politicians attempt to balance party politics with economic reform, the fear of a Grexit is real. While such a move has obvious financial implications for the Eurozone, Europe needs to consider the geopolitical consequences of a Grexit with equal vigour.

Nobody is quite sure what a Grexit would look like, but let’s presuppose a breakdown of negotiations did occur whereby Greece was economically and politically ostracized from the EU. Who would Greece turn to for international credibility and support? Would it, for instance, shift completely away from Europe, and seek a new era of solace with Russia?

It’s no secret that PM Alexis Tsipras is fond of Greece’s Christian Orthodox partner. His proactive engagement of Russia over the past 6 months hasn’t been well received by his European counterparts. But Tsipras is no fool. He knows that using Russia as a bargaining chip requires more diplomatic maneuvering than simply playing Europe off against Russia. In geopolitical terms, there’s little Russia can offer to help redress either the Greek economy or Greece’s international standing. While the planned extension of a Russian gas pipeline through Greece is something to watch with interest, we shouldn’t assume that the recent MoU premeditates a general Greek realignment from Europe to Russia. This planned extension has in itself become a protracted process of diplomatic negotiations and delayed timelines. Greece doesn’t stand to benefit from this MoU anytime soon.

More broadly, Greece is hardly in a position of power in its dealings with Russia. Unsustainable levels of debt have placed the state in a vulnerable position, and risk of economic exploitation by Russia for immediate financial remedy seems shortsighted at best. We also shouldn’t underestimate the political realism of Putin and his calculated antagonism of the West. Putin is no doubt aware that overplaying his relationship with Greece may compel the West to inflict harsher sanctions and stricter policy positions on Russia. That being said, recent history demonstrates Putin’s unpredictability—a strategic practitioner guided as much by realpolitik logic as his cloudy nationalist rhetoric.

By considering the Greece–Russia scenario, we’re able to uncover the key geopolitical consequence of a Grexit: the fear of non-Western power penetration. Could China, for instance, enhance relations with Greece as a means for establishing a firm diplomatic and economic footing in the region? Of course, such scenarios need to take into account the reality of Greece’s standing security arrangements. The key point to remember here is that regardless of whether a Grexit occurs, Greece will still remain a member of NATO. That Greece is unlikely to risk its membership of this security alliance is something of a reassurance.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Grexit possibility has become the latest in a series of headaches the US has had to endure as a consequence of European disunity. While America isn’t directly and widely exposed to the Greek economy, the potential effects of a Grexit are already being felt: Monday saw US stocks fall sharply following a heavy sell off of equities. On top of this, the US is also concerned by the regional security implications of a Grexit as it seeks a strong Europe that’s no longer heavily dependent on the US as its security guarantor.

The transatlantic relationship has become something reminiscent of a tired marriage dominated by growing frustrations and misplaced expectations. Frustrated by the decline of European defence spending, the US has made it clear that Europe must be both capable and prepared to defend its foreign and security interests. A Grexit is an unnecessary obstacle that hampers the likelihood of such a situation materialising anytime soon. This could even provoke individual EU states to reassess their approach to defence spending and procurement should cooperative European defence be realised as a failed dream. In any case, the US can’t retreat from Europe. Prolonged instability in both Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa have global security implications that play into America’s global interests. The last thing the US wants is a weak and disunited Europe unable to protect its own security interests. A Grexit is a step in the wrong direction.

As the drama in Europe unfolds, the geopolitical implications of an isolated Greece don’t bode well for European security. And beyond security and economic implications, it’s crucial that we also give pause to consider how a Grexit would affect migration, security and energy pressures, particularly in the Western Balkans and Turkey.

What we must remember about a Grexit is that there are no certainties but rather a multitude of different scenarios. What is clear, however, is that such a move undermines European solidarity and Europe’s ability to be a force of consequence on the international stage. As the liberal dream of Western-centric order is replaced by a multipolar order of competing interests, the symbolic consequences of a Grexit set a dangerous precedent for the future. Europe needs to stand united.