Turkey and Greece resume talks on maritime disputes after five-year hiatus

A handout photo made available by Turkish Foreign Ministery Press Office shows, members of the Turkey and Greece committee during the 61th exploratory meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, 25 January 2021. [Handout photo/EPA/EFE]

Turkey and Greece resumed talks aimed at addressing long-standing maritime disputes on Monday (25 January), ending a five-year hiatus after months of tension in the eastern Mediterranean.

The neighbouring NATO members are at odds over claims to Mediterranean waters and energy rights, air space and the status of some islands in the Aegean Sea. They made little progress in 60 rounds of talks from 2002 to 2016.

Plans for resuming talks foundered last year over Turkey’s deployment of a seismic survey vessel in contested waters and disagreements over which topics they would cover. The vessel was withdrawn to Turkish shores last year.

Ankara and Athens agreed this month to resume the talks in Istanbul, in a test of Turkey’s hopes of improving its relations with the European Union, which has supported EU-member Greece and threatened sanctions on Turkey.

As the talks resumed, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said France will present proposals to Greece for the renewal of its fleet of frigates, and had finalised a €2.5-billion deal for Greece’s purchase of 18 Dassault-made Rafale fighter jets.

“Under the strong leadership of our president, the solution to all problems, including the Aegean, is possible and our will for this is strong,” said Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who was part of Monday’s talks.

Washington welcomed the talks, saying it backed efforts to reduce tension in the eastern Mediterranean. “The United States welcomes…the commitment of both governments to this process,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Twitter.

The exploratory talks are meant to reach common ground on disputed issues to allow for formal negotiations. But, despite agreeing to resume talks, Ankara and Athens still appeared to disagree over the topics to be covered in the run-up to Monday’s meeting.

Athens has said it will discuss only the demarcation of exclusive economic zones and continental shelf in the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean, not issues of “national sovereignty”, while Ankara has said it wants all issues, including air space and the Aegean islands, on the table.

Greek government spokesman Christos Tarantilis said on Monday Greece was “attending the talks in good faith and expects Turkey to act similarly”, reiterating the Greek position that the talks are unofficial and focused on maritime zones only.

The agenda for Monday’s talks, which lasted more than three hours, was not disclosed. Another round of talks is expected to be held in Athens, a Greek diplomatic source said, without providing any further details.

Despite the technical disagreements, both sides voiced guarded optimism, though they were still trading barbs in the days leading up to Monday’s meetings.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last week Greece would approach the talks with optimism but “zero naivety”, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he hoped the resumption of talks would herald a new era.

According to analysts, Erdoğan is trying to break his isolation facing a hostile US administration by mending EU relations.

Turkish FM on charm offensive in Brussels

The European Union will on Thursday (21 January) press Turkey to make good on recent gestures from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to calm tensions, as Ankara’s foreign minister visits Brussels.

Analysts have said an immediate breakthrough is unlikely given decades-old policy differences, but that resuming dialogue is an important first step after EU pressure on Ankara.

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With the visit of Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu to Brussels, Turkey is attempting to change tack vis-à-vis the EU.

Former PM makes trouble in Athens 

Meanwhile, the foreign policy developments have had an impact on Greek internal politics and particularly on the ruling New Democracy party (EPP).

Former PM Antonis Samaras, a hardliner politician who fiercely opposed the name-change deal between Athens and Skopje, has opposed the exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey, causing headaches to Mitsotakis.

Samaras, who is currently an influential lawmaker, said the exploratory talks with Turkey  in practice cancel any possibility of EU sanctions against Ankara.

“Everyone can understand that the international community does not ‘punish’ a country when it is formally negotiating,” he told Kathimerini journal.

The conservative politician also lashed out against the EU and Germany saying they did not defend Greece and Cyprus sufficiently.

“It is inconceivable that European countries, such as Germany or Spain, supply Turkey, which threatens EU member states with European weapons,” he said.

Asked about Samara’s stance on the issue, the government gave an evasive answer, saying that the former PM’s positions are well-known.

But Samaras’s next steps are unpredictable and he could likely put the unity of the party on power to the test.

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