Detente between Greece and Turkey?

Ever since natural gas deposits were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean, Greece and Turkey have been mired in a fierce dispute over their exploitation. Now both sides are making a new attempt to resolve the conflict diplomatically. However, deep-seated enmity and age-old stereotypes make political rapprochement difficult, reports Ronald Meinardus from Istanbul

By Ronald Meinardus

When it comes to Turkish politics and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, Josep Borrell believes that the new year will simply continue where the old one left off. For the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, this issue was one of the greatest challenges faced by the European Union last year. According to the Spaniard, that is unlikely to change much in 2021.

Turkey's relations with the EU reached a new low this past year. More than once, Borrell spoke of a historic crossroads and the danger of a break with the difficult partner to the south-east.

How to deal with Erdogan's Turkey? This issue has repeatedly been high on the agenda for heads of government in the Member States. At the last EU summit, in December 2020, it was mainly Berlin's objections that prevented tough economic sanctions against Ankara. The measures that were finally resolved were dismissed in the press as "tiny sanctions".

The unmistakable message was that the Europeans wanted to give Turkey yet another chance to reconsider its conduct.

The renunciation of the harsher measures that had been advocated in particular by Greece, Cyprus and their allies was accompanied in December by a warning: if Turkey did not bring its behaviour into line with international standards by the next EU summit in March 2021, the EU would step up its sanctions against Ankara.

This tough stance was however accompanied by a proposal for greater cooperation. If Ankara was prepared to enter into a "genuine partnership" and dialogue with Greece in accordance with international law, the EU could offer a more "positive agenda on Turkey".

This is a classic case of carrot and stick. It comes as no surprise that the first part, i.e. the carrot, is particularly popular in Ankara.

Europe-friendly rhetoric from Ankara

"We see ourselves nowhere else but in Europe. We contemplate to build our future together with Europe," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked recently. And his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, chimed in with the pro-European canon: "Turkey is in Europe, and Europe is part of our destiny. The same thing applies to Europe," noted the president's close ally.

This grandiose verbiage was in keeping with the surge of diplomatic travel between Turkey and Europe at the beginning of the year. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas set the tone by travelling to Ankara in mid-January. Given Berlin's importance in Turkish-European relations, Germany's trail-blazing role is no coincidence.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas meets his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Turkey (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Turkish Foreign Ministry)
Entspannung im Konflikt zwischen der Türkei und der EU. Bei seinem Besuch in Ankara im Januar 2021 lobte der deutsche Außenminister Heiko Maas den „konstruktiven Kurs“ der Türkei. „Wir begrüßen, dass die Türkei seit Jahresbeginn Signale der Entspannung gesetzt hat – nicht nur mit Worten, sondern auch mit Taten.“ Die Ankündigung, dass Athen und Ankara ihre seit 2016 unterbrochenen Sondierungsgespräche wiederaufnehmen wollen, kommentierte der Minister besonders wohlwollend.

In Ankara, the German politician praised Turkey's "constructive course". Then, without much preamble, he got down to the core issue: Turkish-Greek tensions, which have long since escalated into a rift in relations between Ankara and the EU. "We therefore welcome the fact that signs of detente have been coming from Turkey since the beginning of the year – not only in the form of words, but also deeds." The minister commented particularly favourably on the announcement that Athens and Ankara intended to resume their exploratory talks, which had been suspended since 2016.

The German minister knows what he is talking about. As president of the EU Council, he has had to mediate more than once over the last six months between the conflicting parties in the south-east, who came within a hair's breadth of a military incident. "Such playing with fire must not happen again," the minister now cautioned.

Only time will tell whether Ankara's new, demonstratively pro-European rhetoric signals a true change of heart in foreign policy, or whether it is merely a political PR campaign. The German foreign minister seems impressed, regarding the early termination of seismic exploration off Cyprus brought about by the withdrawal of the research vessel "Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa" as "a positive signal from Ankara". As the well-informed information platform Al Monitor reports, the research vessel "Oruc Reis", which had been surveying off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, was also withdrawn by the government and moored in Antalya until mid-June.

Nevertheless, critics – and there are many of them – do not trust the Turkish regime. President Erdogan has mainly his own rhetorical antics to thank for this scepticism. Because in parallel with the dulcet tones directed toward Brussels, there have also been some aggressive verbal salvos coming from Ankara that point in a different direction. Erdogan has for example accused the EU of "strategic blindness", complained of "imperialist expansionism" that threatens Turkey, and commented on the dispute over maritime sovereignty: "We are not after exploiting anyone’s rights but are only taking a firm stance against pirates that try to take our rights away."

Age-old enmity and stereotypes

The pointed words against the "arch and hereditary enemy" Greece go down well with sections of the Turkish population. The poisonous rhetoric has a domestic policy dimension. But all the hostile political speeches can only be toxic for foreign relations. They nurture and consolidate deep-seated hostility and negative stereotypes on both sides. And this climate then stands in the way of any policy aiming at compromise.

"For the Greek state, the Turks mean never-ending threat, centuries-old occupation, while for the Turkish state, the Greeks are the enemy within, starter of revolts against the Ottomans, constant expansion against the Turks since then, and willing collaborators of international conspiracies against Turkey." These words were written by  Mustafa Aydin of Kadir Has University in Istanbul. A professor of international relations, he has worked for years to promote understanding between the two neighbouring countries and is a leading member of the Greek-Turkish Forum created for this purpose.

All this historical baggage, aptly summed up by the Turkish scholar, is a major reason why diverse efforts to resolve the conflict have come to nothing. When the Turkish and Greek negotiators meet for their first exploratory talks in Istanbul on 25 January 2021, these entrenched perceptions of the other side will play a role, at least subconsciously.

EEZ agreements in the Mediterranean (source: DW)
Overlaps in the division of economic zones in the Mediterranean: were the Greeks to have their way, the delimitation of the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the sea would be the only topics of discussion in the latest round of negotiations. Ankara, however, insists on a much longer agenda. These include maritime borders, sovereign rights in the airspace over the Aegean, the Greek military presence on some islands off the Anatolian mainland and, finally, the status of a number of uninhabited rocks

Even the agenda is disputed

On the surface, the two parties are meeting to resolve tangible conflicts of interest. But any rapprochement, let alone a solution, is made even more difficult by the fact that Athens and Ankara are at loggerheads not only on substantive issues but also when it comes to procedure. It starts with the agenda: If the Greeks have their way, the only topics of discussion will be demarcating the borders of the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the sea. Ankara, however, insists on a much broader agenda. The issues it wants to address include maritime borders, sovereign rights in the airspace over the Aegean, the Greek military presence on certain islands off the Anatolian mainland, and, finally, the status of a number of uninhabited rocks.

And that's not all: the Turkish-Greek dispute extends far beyond the points of contention in the Aegean. A comprehensive settlement between the nations is scarcely conceivable without a resolution of the Cyprus conflict and the differences of opinion regarding the respective minorities in the neighbouring countries. And yet Athens and Ankara are light years away from the kind of "package solution" that is repeatedly being proposed. It would be a true political sensation even if the negotiators were to merely make progress in settling the dispute over maritime rights.

Athens is pushing for a referral to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to resolve the differences. But this variant presupposes the consent of Turkey, which, in view of its comparatively weak position under international law, is hesitating to bring the case before the neutral court.

When the diplomats now meet on the Bosphorus, they will not be starting from square one. In the run-up to the meeting, the Turkish foreign minister recalled the preparatory work that went into previous diplomatic overtures. In the 60 rounds thus far, he said, the negotiators had produced 5,000 pages.

What was actually negotiated or even agreed behind closed doors in all these rounds of talks is virtually unknown to the public. There is no firm evidence pointing to which of the issues Athens and Ankara have even come close to resolving or where they reached a stalemate.

Rumour has it, however, that significant progress has been made over the years. Mustafa Aydin, for example, who is presumably well-informed, writes: "We know that the two countries have moved beyond their starting positions through open – or sometimes secret – negotiations over the years and have closed the gap substantially for a general settlement."

The negotiators have evidently worked out possible agreements on all the major issues. But what is still missing – according to the Turkish political scientist – is the political will on the part of the decision-makers to give their blessing to a compromise solution that deviates from the maximalist initial positions.

And there is no evidence that this fundamental problem has changed.

Ronald Meinardus

© 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor