EU and NATO Look on at Greece's Pampered Armed Forces

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One would have imagined that the Greek government would have taken a sledgehammer to the defense budget back in 2009 when the debt crisis first took hold of this small country in the south east of Europe.

But no.

One would have thought too that the European Union and NATO might have used the euro crisis as an ideal opportunity to encourage countries to share defense equipment and cut back on wasteless duplication.

But no.

Greece went on a buying spree, purchasing submarines, fighter jets, and tanks from Germany and France. Not that they needed them. The region was stable. In 2009, almost 28 percent of its then €10 billion budget was spent on military equipment—higher than in the United States or any other NATO country.

Greece’s defense budget was 3.2 percent of gross domestic product. What a luxury for the Greek military establishment.

Some cuts were made during 2010 and again last year. Salaries for the 136,000 army personnel have been reduced and the shopping spree has come to an end.

Remarkably, however, Greek defense spending still accounts for 2.1 percent of gross domestic product, according to NATO. After the United States, Greece is the second biggest defense spender among the 27 NATO countries in relation to its GDP. That is astonishing for a country in a deep economic crisis.

Why then has the Greek government been so slow and reluctant in using the economic crisis to overhaul its armed forces?

After all, it can no longer justify that it needs all this expensive equipment and soldiers to see off any attack by Turkey. Relations with Turkey have become stable.

And if you look at Greece’s involvement in EU or NATO missions, its participation has been negligible. It has only 122 troops in Afghanistan. They are based, not out in the provinces but in the compound of Kabul International Airport.

Greece’s record in supporting EU missions has been weak too. So clearly, it is not using its soldiers to boost either EU or NATO operations.

Ironically, one reason for the delay in restructuring the armed forces has to do with the debt crisis.

The Greek government still has to pay off its contracts for the expensive equipment it purchased over the past few years. In the current situation, it does not want to anger Germany and France by leaving their bills unpaid.

The second reason is political. The Greek military has 500 military bases and 17 training centers, many of which are under-used. But their mere presence means jobs for the locals as well as political influence and patronage for the army officers and regional politicians. Closing bases and barracks, difficult at the best of times, would now particularly provoke local anger and despair.

The third reason is social. Of the 136,000 personnel, 90,000 are soldiers. That’s a huge army for a country of under 11 million people. Last year alone, with equipment expenses down, personnel costs accounted for 73.9 percent of the defense budget.

It is easier said than done to take soldiers and the supporting army personnel off the books.

And in Greece right now, it is particularly difficult. “What do you do with young men with a military training? It’s not a good idea making then unemployed,” said Samuel Pelo-Freeman, military analyst at SIPRI

In other words, in these difficult times, the government is not prepared to introduce such radical defense cuts. The risks could be high.

It is not that the government fears a rebellion by the army, were that to happen. No defense analyst in Greece fears a return of the junta that was finally ousted in 1974.

But what they do say is that the system of patronage, a generous pension system, and consistently high defense spending is difficult to dismantle.

But is it really easier—and more just—to further cut welfare benefits and pensions for the old and the poor?

And is it really understandable that neither the EU nor NATO has eased the path for Greece to cut its defense budget in a way that would benefit both organizations?

 

Comments (23)

 
 
  • @npEUaffairs
    4 Recommends
     
    1) "Relations with Turkey have become stable" - Who says so?
    2) Only when/if the EU becomes the United States of Europe with its own army will Greece be able to cut its defense spending (main beneficiaries of which include US, UK, German and French industries/jobs/tax revenues)
    3) How many of the 80,000 troops you mention are actually on salary and how many are doing their (virtually unpaid) obligatory military service?
     
     
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    • ZinZane replies...
       
      Thank you!
       
       
    • Brute replies...
       
      NATO says so.. the've both been members for ages.
       
       
  • Dan Allen
    5 Recommends 7 Conversation Recommends
     
    How could you have missed the biggest reason?

    Buying military weaponry from France and Germany is a quid pro quo for the so-called bailout.
     
     
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    • ZinZane replies...
      2 Recommends
       
      Exactly!
       
       
  • TheTruthShinesOut
    4 Recommends
     
    WikiLeaks published an article relevant to the bilateral relationship between Greece and Turkey.
    According to leaked documents, the American embassy in Ankara insists that Turkey planned to cause a convulsion at the Greek abuttals in order to invade the north side of Evros.
    After its publication, the U.S. CONFIRMED AN ATTACK WAS ABOUT TO BE CONDUCTED against Greece in 2003. In addition they imply that the Turkish Army WILL CONTINUE to cause such convulsions in their relationship with Greece.

    Therefore the author of this article has NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT when they state that quote:
    "After all, it (Greece) can no longer justify that it needs all this expensive equipment and soldiers to see off any attack by Turkey. Relations with Turkey have become stable."
     
     
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  • A. Hamilton
    7 Recommends
     
    Agree with the other commentors here that the author has no clue about the "stability" of the neighborhood in which Greece resides. Even forgeting the prickly relationship it "enjoys" with its so-called NATO ally, Turkey, did the author completely forget about the Libyan uprising and the fact that Greece provided the logistical support for the air campaign against Qadafi from its base in Crete, or, until recently, its naval deployments in the Indian Ocean protecting ships against Somali pirates? Then you have Turkey making crazy claims on the Aegean and some Greek islands, violating territorial waters and airspace, and bullying Greek ally Cyprus in its own EEZ. Question: If Greece and Turkey are "allies", then why does Turkey maintain its amphibious assualt units on its border with Greece, opposite the Greek islands?
     
     
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  • Peter Kirk
    5 Recommends
     
    Greece's defense budget is punishing and absolutely necessary. Greece is the only European country which faces threats to its borders. On an almost daily basis, armed Turkish fighters fly low over Greek territory like the island of Farmakonisi, challenging Greece's sovereignty. Turkey, NATO's second largest military, claims dozens of Greek islands, many of them inhabited. At a much lower level, the fledgling and presently harmless nation of Slav Macedonia claims the northern region of Greece with the same name.

    There is no useful insight or knowledge in this article. The real pity is that EU member country Greece even needs such a large defense budget.
     
     
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  • BASIL
    1 Recommend
     
    REGRETFULLY, THIS IS AN ARTICLE BASED ON IGNORANCE, TOTALLY NEGATING THE REALITY OF RELIGION AND ETHNICITY. ONE HAS TO RECOGNIZE THAT SO-CALLED STABLE RELATIONS ARE NOTHING BUT WINDOW DRESSING. SINCE TURKEY IS MAINTAINING TERRITORIAL AMBITION IN THE AEGEAN, THE SLIGHTEST SPARK CAN CAUSE AN IRREVERSIBLE CONFLAGRATION.
    THINK OF IMIA. THINK OF THE SEAT OF THE GREEK ORTHODOX FAITH AND THE FREEDOM OF RELIGION.
    JUST THINK AND JUDGE REALITY RATHER THAN IDEALISTIC OPPORTUNIS.
     
     
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  • Matt
    3 Recommends
     
    @TheTruthShinesOut
    The embassy didn't insist on any such thing and the US didn't confirm it. The embassy used the word "alleged", because these were allegations, not proven facts. What's at issue is an alleged military coup plot called Operation Sledgehammer. But the documentary evidence of this coup are widely believed to be forgeries because they are full of inconsistencies, anachronisms, and facts known to be false. They were probably created by Turkey's ruling party AKP for a show trial that would neuter the army's influence. Among the unlikely claims of what the alleged coup plotters were up to was a border incident with Greece.
     
     
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  • Euro Revelations
    5 Recommends
     
    The French government held Greece ransom over the second bailout in 2011, refusing to ratify the bailout until Greece agreed to purchase six new French built navy frigates! What does that tell you about the true nature of the EU financial situation?
     
     
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  • European
    3 Recommends 7 Conversation Recommends
     
    Greece lied to get into the EU. After their admission the Greek government lied for years about their deficit and budget figures. Greece proved itself to be a totally unreliable partner and should be expelled from the EU in order to regain trust and stability within the Union.
     
     
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    • Bystander replies...
      4 Recommends
       
      Yes and all the financial analysts from the big banks with their tax-exempt holiday homes on the Greek islands had no clue the books were cooked.

      Now they don't just buy the home, they can buy the island. Thank God we have professional analysts and politicians to fix our problems and to teach those cheating Greeks a lesson or two....
       
       
  • Sceptus
    6 Recommends 7 Conversation Recommends
     
    It seems that the Greek government uses the century old trick which always works: Let you voters believe that there is an outside enemy, this diverts the attention from the internal problems (read corruption, handing out jobs to friends and family once you are in power, no need to pay taxes once you know the right people, officials which look the other way when you slip them some euros, etc, etc, etc.)
     
     
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    • Sparta replies...
      1 Recommend
       
      This is exactly what it is all about. Hide your incompetence with tales of external enemies. It's not as if Greece would stand a chance if the Turkish army, which is bigger in size, made a move. Furthermore, Turkey would fear the EU and United States and never even dream of going that far...
       
       
  • Better Utilization
    3 Recommends
     
    Why not have the idle Greek military troops secure the border? I hear time and time again about Greeks complaining about "undocumented migrants", but if they are so concerned, they could just have all these servicemen who normally just sit around in their barracks guard the border, give them walkie talkies, or heck, have them use their own cell phones and just call for help if they see "undocumented migrants" trying to sneak in.
     
     
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  • Athan Giokezas
    2 Recommends 5 Conversation Recommends
     
    It is highly questionable why a serious institute is hosting such an article, blaming Greece for its military expenditures and ignoring the existing geopolitical situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and particularly the actions of the Turkish goverment regarding Greece's territorial rights. Instead of analyzing the situation, I just remind the author that the Turkish parliament maintains valid its resolution of CASUS BELLI if Greece declares its rights according to International Laws to increase its territorial waters up to 12 miles. And that is not the only threat of the Turkish political elite against Greece.
     
     
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    • el perro replies...
      3 Recommends
       
      Great. Greek people with no jobs, no houses, no food, and the Greek politicians getting their cut/bribes by awarding contracts to the German and French industrial complex for goods that are not needed.

      It's all a scam, shame on Europe.
       
       
  • Heraclitus 500 BC
    Talk sense to fools and they think you foolish.
     
     
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  • Judy Dempsey
    2 Recommends
     
    Thank you all for your comments! Please see my response in my new blog piece: http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=49307
     
     
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  • Puntius
    1 Recommend
     
    The Greek contribution to NATO consists mainly of hammering on the Greek formal name for Macedonia in all official NATO documents. Any other controbution to the NATO operation has been negligible. It has something to do with a region in Greece with the same name.
     
     
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  • Truth.
    If Greece only spends two percent of GDP on defence it is certainly not the second highest in NATO (nowhere near). Also Greek GDP is very small—so 2 percent of Greek GDP is tiny.
     
     
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  • sp1
    There is a simple solution to this: The EU declares that "an attack on one is an attack on all". This would mean Greek troops would be required to fight in the Falklands if needed and British in Cyprus(which btw is EU soil still under occupation by a third party. Would the US even speak to Japan if it were occupying Hawaii?) Why has this not happened? It would increase security and drastically cut costs. You can find the answer in the comments. So we now have the insane EU policy of 'do as we say', but we take no responsibility for the outcome.
     
     
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