Barely two weeks after the humiliating loss of a submarine deal with Australia – after the unexpected Aukus defence pact between Australia, the UK and US – Paris on Tuesday announced the landmark accord with Athens.
“Europeans must come out of their naivety,” said the French president, Emmanuel Macron, describing the pact as part of a deeper “strategic partnership” between the two nations to defend shared interests in the Mediterranean.
“When we are under pressure … showing that we also have power and the capacity to defend ourselves … is simply making ourselves be respected.”
The agreement was not only a sign of confidence in French production but “an audacious first step towards European strategic autonomy”, he said.
Under the terms of the deal, which Greek media are reporting to be worth €5bn, France will deliver three state-of-the art Belharra frigates to Greece by 2025, with the option of a fourth warship also on offer – seeing off bids from the UK and other Nato countries.
Bidding was competitive. A UK bid from Babcock International to build the warships was sweetened with the offer of two Royal Navy warships to be given to Greece while the frigates were built.
Although a far cry from the €56bn submarine contract France had signed with Australia, prior to Canberra reneging on the purchase, the Greek deal is a major boost for Macron, who has long advocated that Europe bolster its own defence capabilities and not be so reliant on the US.
In the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Macron has found a willing ally. Mitsotakis has called the idea of a European army “a mature proposal” and is a vigorous proponent of the continent “reconciling” its geopolitical heft with its economic power.
Standing next to the French leader at the Élysée Palace, Mitsotakis agreed that beyond Athens’ own military needs, the accord could be seen as a first step towards sealing Europe’s defence ambitions.
“Today is a historic day for Greece and France,” he said. “With President Macron we share a common vision for the development of the necessary defence capabilities and for Europe’s ability to respond autonomously to the challenges laying ahead.”
The agreement also had a “Euro-Atlantic character,” the Greek prime minister added, emphasising that it was the creation of two EU partners and members of the western alliance.
“Our agreement paves the way for an autonomous and strong future Europe. A Europe that can defend its interests in its wider neighbourhood, in the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, in the Sahel,” he said. “A Europe that strengthens its defence ultimately strengthens the transatlantic alliance itself.”
Despite being among the continent’s smaller countries, at roughly 2.2% of GDP, Greek military spending far exceeds that of fellow states, not least because of longstanding differences with nominal Nato ally Turkey. Tensions between the two neighbours reached boiling point last year, with both being placed on a war footing over rival claims to offshore gas reserves in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
Mitsotakis’s centre-right government responded by announcing a major weapons programme aimed at modernising Greece’s armed forces with the acquisition of fighter planes, frigates, helicopters and missile systems. The €6.8bn defence plan already included the purchase of 18 French-made Rafale jets – since increased to 24.
Ahead of Tuesday’s signing ceremony, Mitsotakis told the country’s state-run broadcaster, ERT, that Greece had no intention of entering an arms race with Turkey, instead claiming the upgrade was essential after almost a decade of economic crisis and persistent cuts in the sector.
However, on Tuesday, he also said Athens had not forgotten the military assistance Paris had given Greece when it dispatched warships and fighter jets to the region last year. “We have not forgotten that France stood by us during difficult times in the summer of 2020.”
The Greek navy, which had overseen the deal, had taken stock of tenders from countries that included France, the US and UK. Although the French bid was costlier, it was subsequently improved in the aftermath of the collapse of the submarine sale to Australia, according to Greek media, which reported that under the accord France had also agreed to offer military assistance if necessary.
Equipped with far-reaching radar capabilities, the three frigates will be built by the state controlled Naval Group in Lorient in north-west France, the same company behind the failed submarine deal.
Both leaders insisted the deal was “not directed” at anyone else. In an effort to underline that Greece’s deepening defence ties with the US would not be affected, Mitsotakis said Athens would soon be renewing a defence cooperation accord with Washington on a five-year basis rather than the annual extension that usually takes place.