Annalena Baerbock – The new "Iron Lady" of the Mediterranean?

Annalena Baerbock steht beim Pressestatement neben ihrem griechischen Amtskollegen Nikos Dendias

Annalena Baerbock steht beim Pressestatement neben ihrem griechischen Amtskollegen Nikos Dendias

© picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Moments before German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, arrived in Athens, Ankara had just announced that it would resume disputed drilling in the Mediterranean. For many, this could have been perceived as an affront and would have made any mediating role more challenging. However, Annalena Baerbock made her mark in the Mediterranean and admittedly broke the mold of the Greeks' view of German Foreign Policy.

Baerbock's agenda for her trip to Greece included both long-standing links and newer developments of international significance. However, the pivot in German Foreign Policy towards the Greek-Turkish crisis was the central topic that swamped Greek media.

The diplomatic relationship between Germany and Greece has been the bullseye of a long-running, historical war of words. Considering the brief yet the intense history of the 21st Century, Germany and Greece did not lack diplomatic conflict lines. However, since Baerbock became Foreign Minister, she clarified that embodying a different generation in politics means moving forward from old patterns. Since stepping into office, her popularity rapidly swamped the polls with skyrocketing numbers, making her one of Germany's most popular politicians.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey increase

Aegean tensions between Greece and Turkey have been growing dangerously for months. Turkish fighter jets repeatedly fly over inhabited and uninhabited Greek islands in this contested region between Turkey and Greece. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterates that he does not wish to communicate with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the foreseeable future. Since Mitsotakis´ visit to the White House, Erdogan closed all communication lines after being denied the purchase of F-16 modernization kits from the US, declaring that the Greek Prime Minister “no longer exists for him”. Mevlüt Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, threatens to contest Athens' sovereignty over several Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean. And nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli, whose MHP party is in coalition with Erdogan's AKP, poses with maps that label large Greek islands such as Lesbos, Samos, and Crete as Turkish.

The timing of the German Foreign Minister could not have been more appropriate: With the aggressive declarations from Athens and Ankara, Annalena Baerbock was set to act as a purposeful mediator. In any case, her visit set the unofficial beginning of the campaigning period in the Mediterranean, which worked to Mitsotakis´ advantage because Foreign Policy, with a heavy narrative on Turkey, has once again become the most discussed pre-election topic.

Nonetheless, Baerbock's trip was a milestone for Greek-German relations and developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek side, as usual, anticipated Berlin's help against Turkish incitement. Up to this point, Merkel's conservative Government took care to keep the equilibrium, or as it is known, the technique of equivalent distances, altogether not to get involved straightforwardly and bring about additional strains. Nevertheless, the new Government, especially the Foreign Minister, seems to speak a different language and promotes an alternative way forward for German Foreign Policy.

Sharp criticism of Greek asylum and refugee policy

Annalena Baerbocks direct language and criticism during her public meeting with Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, impressed the Greek Media, gaining her more coverage than her predecessor and other high-ranking politicians. Compared to the visit of Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Finance Minister Christian Lindner, Annalena Baerbock received more media coverage than her coalition colleagues. The media effect in Greece regarding Baerbock was far more different than that of her German counterparts. Obviously, the significance of her visit was a sign of the times. Nonetheless, Greek Media did not shy away from promoting images of her visit from news to talk shows. Generally, Baerbocks visit was the first good step forward for the Traffic Light-Coalition to positively influence German-Greek relations.

Usually known for her figurative language, the German Foreign Minister chose clear and strict words in Greece and Turkey, emphasizing specific issues while wiping others off her agenda. Baerbock found harsh criticism of Greece's asylum and refugee policy in the city's media scene. The minister also dismissed Athens' call for compensation for Nazi atrocities during World War II, a regular refrain in the tense exchange of views between Berlin and Athens. She finally said, "We certainly differ on that." Greeks worry about the military balance with their large eastern neighbor, which is why the sale of cutting-edge German submarines to Turkey has been such a sore spot. Many criticized her approach, while others were surprised by her clear tone. Apparently, Baerbocks visit to the Mediterranean was a juncture of change for her usual strategy: A new understanding of how words work in different parts of the world. While Germany's Foreign Minister would rather talk freely than adhere to prefabricated banners and cliches, in diplomacy, every word matters, not only what was meant.

Her statements stirred the bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey, and the Turkish side's response was evident in Baerbock's visit. Thus, it is unclear whether this will benefit the bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey or if more tensions are coming soon. Germany, deeply affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seems to alter its foreign policy and the unmovable tactics of the former Government. Contrary to the German strategy until now, it leaves behind the policies of "equal distances" and now chooses not to leave room for any revisionist and provocative rhetoric, clarifying its position and intentions. Therefore, the statements of A. Baerbock, regarding the Greek territorial integrity and the integrity of the European Borders, proves this change of rhetoric in practice.

Times of provocation call for de-escalation

The factor of the energy crisis also plays an important role, and it is crucial for Germany's internal and foreign political landscape. Greece has upgraded the energy sector in the last two years by creating transshipment stations for liquefied natural gas and constructing new pipelines connecting Alexandroupoli with Bulgaria. At the same time, Berlin seems to search for alliances in the European South.

Generally, in Foreign Policy Strategy, times of provocation call for de-escalation. Annalena Baerbock was expected by the Greek Public to act as an assertive mediator between Turkey and Greece. With Erdogan providing daily aggression from the East, Greece expected ample support from Germany during this crisis. Nonetheless, many doubted that Baerbock would take a stern stance against Turkey.

Baerbock remained friendly yet determined in Athens, clearly stating that she took Greeces' side in the Turkish-Greek conflict by saying: "Greek islands are Greek territory, and no one has the right to question that." While this stance feeds the Greek Ego, it also leaves room for questions. When both Greece and Turkey are on the Eastern side "an indispensable partner" and on the Western "one of the most important partners in Europe," where does Baerbock draw the line since both Greece and Turkey have continuously been adding to the agenda of problems of the European Union?

Indeed, Baerbock found a different tone for negotiating in foreign policy; however, her expectations of handling affairs in the Mediterranean are far from what experts and her closest advisors recommend.

With her "value-based foreign policy," Baerbock aims to balance Dialogue and Toughness, a dance of fire and ice. Once again, the Green politician decided to set her own accents by choosing to take on the toughness instead of dialogue of her public agenda and hence becoming the "Iron Lady" of the Mediterranean. Could this dangerous dance lead to more tension in the Mediterranean instead of reconciliation between Greece and Turkey? 

Dimitra Papadopoulou is an intern at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Greece and Cyprus.