The US and Greece have agreed on the text of a new document which will modify the existing bilateral Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) dating from 1990. The current plan is to have this document signed during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s early October visit to Athens.
Mitsotakis government brings rapid progress
Over the past week, the Greek media has reported rapid progress in the ongoing bilateral MDCA negotiations which appear to have accelerated dramatically when Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias assumed office in early July as part of the New Democracy government headed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
News of a so-called “agreed text” of the upcoming agreement appeared in the Greek daily Kathimerini late on 25 September, less than 24 hours after the Greek public was surprised to learn US President Donald J. Trump had cancelled his planned 24 September introductory bilateral meeting with Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly following the news that impeachment hearings had been called for by the leadership of the Democratic Party in the United States. There is some speculation that an announcement of the new agreement was specifically timed for that meeting, but announcing it anyway in the press serves to shift attention to October.
The US defence relationship with Greece is based on the 1990 MDCA which will be amended next month, as well as the mainly administrative/legal Comprehensive Technical Agreement (CTA) signed in 2001 by both countries as well the NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) regulating personnel using the important NATO facilities around Greece, primarily Souda Bay in Crete.
New package, new facilities
The new agreement will in almost all eventualities require full parliamentary ratification, which has been problematic in earlier years when anti-Americanism in Greece was at higher levels. It is assumed that the main opposition party, SYRIZA, headed by former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who worked energetically at times to improve ties with Washington, will not move to reject the deal. It is, however, possible that his party will not vote unanimously to approve it.
We do not yet have the full text of the new deal but what is known at this point about the new arrangements is impressive. These provisions will serve to increase Greece’s strategic importance to both the US and NATO.
The deal will lay out the operational framework of the US presence at the northern Greek port of Alexandroupolis on the border with Turkey; it is not clear if this is a year-round US deployment or seasonal. This city is a highly strategic pipeline transit point and significantly closer than other US facilities to the vitally important Bosporus Strait, which separates Europe from the Asia Minor.
The deal also approves the establishment of “high-technology installations” on Greek soil and within Greek bases and camps in central Greece. New Europe understands this refers to the long-term installation of certain US drone facilities that initially came to Greece while other operational bases were under repair, as well as a helicopter training facility near the port city of Volos, which has been used on a rotating seasonal basis up to now.
Perhaps most important is the provision reportedly included in the text that keeps the MDCA in force until one side formally requests termination. Currently, annual extensions are required, which are routinely handled through diplomatic channels. The US has been reluctant to invest in costly upgrades, specifically at the Souda Bay facility (i.e. a major runway expansion) without the longer timeframe the new agreement provides.
While these new provisions are a far cry from the wild promises made by the former Defence Minister Panos Kammenos of the now-almost-vanished Independent Greeks party (ANEL) that was in power for almost four years during its coalition with SYRIZA, and who talked frequently of American bases and missile placements on the Aegean islands to deter Turkish aggression, the MDCA provisions we have seen are impressive and certainly a major step forward.