It is a victory for diplomacy: The saber rattling on the southeast flank of the quarreling NATO allies had caused high tension for months. Now Turks and Greeks want to give politics a chance. The negotiators from the two sides want to meet in Istanbul for exploratory talks. It’s an important first step towards relaxation. But not any more.
Talks between Athens and Ankara: Complex issues
There have always been bilateral consultations between Athens and Ankara. Chroniclers report that the explorations that have now been agreed are the 61st round of the dialogue. The thread of the conversation was last torn in 2016. Since then there have been no systematic efforts to amicably settle the complex disputes between the Aegean neighbors.
The term “exploratory talks” shows that this is not initially about fundamental issues. The negotiators will discuss procedural issues. Athens and Ankara are already worlds apart in the process of conflict resolution. The Greeks want to talk about the limits of the continental shelf alone, the Turks have more far-reaching ideas: For them, the dispute over the sea borders and the raw materials presumed under the sea is just one of several points of contention; Ankara has currently put the militarization of Greek islands, which is not permissible from a Turkish perspective, on the agenda.
Merkel brings Erdogan and Mitsotakis together
It is largely thanks to the German Chancellor that Turks and Greeks are getting back into conversation. Angela Merkel (CDU) has made the mediation between the Turkish President Erdogan and the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis a top priority.
The timing of the breakthrough is no accident; it is linked to the special summit of EU heads of state and government. The Turkey issue will be high on the agenda there. In the run-up to the meeting, EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell found clear words: Relations with Turkey are at a “turning point”. “Developments in Turkey and Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond will determine how our relations will develop in the future,” said the Spaniard before the European Parliament.
EU Foreign Affairs Representative Borrell: “Full solidarity with Greece”
Once again, Europe’s chief diplomat emphasized “full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus”. This is a formula that top European politicians have put forward like a prayer wheel over the past few weeks. It did not stop at expressions of solidarity: At the end of August, the EU gave Turkey an ultimatum because of its gas exploration and threatened Ankara with sanctions.
All of this had an effect: in mid-September, Ankara announced the withdrawal of the research vessel Oruc Reis from the sea areas off the Greek islands. The decisive first step towards de-escalation was taken. At the same time, conciliatory vocabulary replaced martial rhetoric. Under the heading “Ankara urges dialogue to reduce tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean”, the pro-government “Daily Sabah” quotes Defense Minister Hulusi Akar: “We are for dialogue. We have always done what is good for good neighborly relations”.
Ankara has seldom been so alone
There is more than one explanation for the change of heart in the Turkish government. The extensive diplomatic isolation is one of them. It cannot have escaped Erdogan and his followers that not a single government in the wider region supports the Turkish positions in the dispute with Greece. Ankara has seldom been so alone politically as on this issue.
Economic factors also play a role. “The dizzying economic problems are one of the main reasons that the threatened EU sanctions have forced Erdogan to give in,” writes Amberin Zaman in the news portal “Al Monitor”. But the decisive factor – the expert continued – was the role of the Americans. “It is the pressure from the US that may have made the difference.”
US Secretary of State Pompeo supports the Greeks
Washington had largely held back in the Eastern Mediterranean – at least in public – and left the political stage to others, mainly the German Chancellor. At the height of the Turkish-Greek crisis, the US has now returned with a diplomatic bang. In the Republic of Cyprus, of all places, outlawed by Ankara, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed concern about the Turkish approach to the gas dispute and demonstratively stood behind the Greeks.
Washington had previously lifted an arms embargo against the Republic of Cyprus that had been in place for years. The new American alliance with Athens and Nicosia is matched by indications in the Turkish press that Washington is considering liquidating its air force base in Incilrik, Turkey and relocating the units stationed there to Greece and Cyprus.
NATO, the EU and Germany play an important role
Meanwhile, Turkish-Greek relations are on a fresh start. The coming weeks will show whether the willingness to dialogue on both sides is sufficient for lasting relaxation. External actors will continue to play an important role in Turkish-Greek politics. This includes NATO, which in the current situation is once again including the military from both sides in confidence-building measures, but above all the EU and Germany.
The heads of state and government will have to show great skill at their postponed special summit, on the one hand to defend the interests of the member states Greece and Cyprus and at the same time not to alienate Turkey. Because one thing is also clear: without Turkey’s cooperation, lasting relaxation in the region is inconceivable.