At Last: A Chance At Improved Relations Between Greece And Turkey?

Greece and Turkey have endured a turbulent relationship for centuries. Since Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, the two countries have opposed each other in four major wars. They came close to entering their fifth just last summer during a naval standoff in disputed Mediterranean waters. In the last year, reconciliation efforts have been repeatedly interrupted by sudden periods of hostility⁠—a pattern that has long-characterized Greco-Turkish relations.

Last month, direct talks finally resumed between the two NATO allies after a five-year hiatus. However, discussions between Greece and Turkey’s foreign ministers ultimately descended into a public spat during the press conference over their countries’ grievances.

Yet on Monday, May 31, the countries vowed to smooth over differences – a pledge which was consolidated by a planned meeting between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the NATO summit in Brussels. 

Set to take place on June 14, it marks only the second meeting between Mitsotakis and Erdoğan since the Greek prime minister took office nearly two years ago. “We have issues that have been awaiting resolution for a long time,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu ahead of the conference after talks with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias. “Our dialogue must continue uninterrupted. On this subject both sides are willing, we’ve reestablished that today,” he added.

With both foreign ministers careful to avoid a flare-up like last month’s, Dendias described their meeting as the beginning of “a gradual normalization of the situation over time.” This is hardly the first push to resume formal negotiations, however; according to Al Jazeera, the two countries have held more than 60 rounds of meetings since 2002. Little progress has been made, however, since the bordering nations have repeatedly failed to even agree upon what issues to discuss. Will this latest attempt at rapprochement prove any more productive? Given the weakening economic positions of Greece and Turkey and the strengthening political positions of the U.S. and E.U., there is hope that it might be.

The hot-button issues dividing Greece and Turkey include contested territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean, the crossing of migrant boats from Turkey into Greece, and the longstanding contest over ethnically-split Cyprus. In the last few years, disagreement over the island’s rightful maritime boundaries has been the main source of conflict. This was prompted by the recent discovery of large gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, as Greece and Turkey are in a race to develop energy resources in the region, says the BBC.

In November 2019, Turkey signed a deal with Libya that, according to Turkey, created an exclusive economic zone between their coasts. Greece argued that the redrawn maritime boundaries violated its sovereignty and retaliated by signing a competing deal with Egypt, which it said cancelled out Turkey’s agreement with Libya.

Tensions reached their peak last summer when Turkey sent a drilling ship into the contested waters, prompting a naval standoff that nearly resulted in an all-out war. This propelled France into the conflict too, whose government condemned Turkey’s actions and offered military support to Greece.

The decision by other nations to take sides has only added fuel to the fire. Yet Turkey’s increasingly-confrontational foreign policy has gone largely unchecked by its most powerful allies⁠: the United States and the European Union⁠. “The last four years under the Trump administration were really characterized by, on the one hand, very erratic U.S. behaviour and, on the other…a profound disconnect between the European Union and the United States,” said Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Institute of International Affairs, during an interview with Al Jazeera.

Tocci believes the bifurcated attitude helped manifest the conditions necessary for increased Turkish aggression. While Donald Trump was in office, the U.S. also withdrew troops from the region and virtually abandoned its historical role as arbiter in Greco-Turkish conflicts. Thanks to Trump’s hands-off approach and his affinity for Erdoğan, Turkey has faced little pressure to end its gunboat diplomacy in favour of peaceful negotiations.

Having Joe Biden in office changes things, however. “Now all the regional parties⁠, beginning with Greece and Turkey⁠, know that there is transatlantic sync,” says Tocci. “The Biden factor is certainly crucial,” agrees Konstantinos Filis, the executive director of the Institute of International Relations at Athens’s Panteion University. “[Biden’s] insistence on human rights and democracy renders it imperative that the Europeans follow.” With the United States and the European Union in greater alignment, Turkey’s two most powerful allies must take a more united stance towards its provocations. 

In recent years, the E.U. has accomplished little in promoting diplomacy between Turkey and Greece, as the bloc’s relations with Turkey have continued to deteriorate. While Turkey is technically still a contender for E.U. membership, accession talks have stalled due to concerns over backsliding on human rights and democratic values, Al Jazeera reports. Both the U.S. and E.U. have repeatedly condemned provocations in the region and have appealed for talks between Greece and Turkey but have neglected to take more positive action until now. However, with Greece and Turkey’s domestic economies in dire straits, the E.U. and U.S. are each in a position to play a more active role at the negotiating table. 

Both Greece and Turkey’s economies have been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Case numbers still rank among the highest in the world in Turkey, which was already struggling to combat spiralling poverty rates and surging unemployment numbers. The country has also been battling high inflation rates and a depreciating currency since its 2018 debt crisis began. According to Reuters, the Turkish lira has lost half of its value since then, and Turkey is quickly running out of foreign currency reserves needed to prop up the economy. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation by hitting Turkey’s tourism industry, which it relies heavily upon for foreign currency inflows. This puts Turkey in a severely weakened bargaining position with the E.U. and U.S., as it must rely on tourism and trade to keep its economy afloat. 

Greece has similar motivations for reconciliation since tourism accounts for 20 percent of its GDP and directly employs a fifth of its workforce. European affairs analyst Yannis Koutsomitis told Ahval News that Greece’s economic recovery has been the primary incentive to strengthen its ties with Turkey. “The prolonged conflict with Turkey has been undermining the economic prospects of Greece,” Koutsomitis said.  With neither country in any position to alienate itself from its economic partners, the E.U. and U.S. have a rare opportunity to push for diplomacy between the two foes on the basis of common interests.

Given the recent announcement that Greek and Turkish leaders will meet at the NATO summit, it seems that both countries are willing. After talks with his Greek counterpart last month about strengthening economic ties, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that concrete steps had already been taken on 25 articles in various sectors – including transport, energy, trade, and the environment. He also announced that the countries would recognize each other’s COVID-19 vaccination certificates to boost their respective tourist industries this summer.

It is crucial that the E.U. and U.S. each do their part to ensure that diplomatic talks between the two rivals continue. This means shifting from a policy that merely provides disincentives for confrontation to one that actively provides incentives for cooperation. In the past year, both the E.U. and the U.S. have imposed sanctions on Turkey, though Çavuşoğlu warned in January that sanctions will only worsen the prospects for reconciliation. In light of Turkey’s economic woes, the best method for de-escalating tensions is one that rewards peaceful diplomacy by strengthening the economic ties Turkey so badly needs.

For the European Union, this likely means upgrading the Customs Union and perhaps considering a more liberal visa policy for Turkish citizens. These represent two of Turkey’s foremost priorities according to Al Jazeera and are the likely motivation behind their restraint in the eastern Mediterranean in recent months.

For the United States, this means leveraging its position in NATO. Turkey relies heavily upon the alliance for its economic and military security, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.

In either case, if the E.U. and the U.S. hope to bring lasting peace to the region, they must focus more on cooperative rather than punitive efforts. Finding common ground between Greece and Turkey in the form of economic incentives is the best way forward.

While the fundamental issues that divide Greece and Turkey are political rather than economic, the countries’ shared economic woes provide a politically-uncharged basis for cooperation. It would be a dangerous mistake to dismiss any modest attempts at improving relations gradually based on the assumption that tackling hot-button issues immediately is the only way forward. In the wake of last year’s naval standoff, which nearly ended in war, de-escalation is a necessary intermediate step towards reconciliation. That both Turkey and Greece seem willing to cooperate on economic matters, given their shared vulnerabilities, marks a rare opportunity to build enough momentum to push resolution regarding thornier issues. 

Caleb Loughrin

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