Turkey and Greece are discussing maritime tensions in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and also the Cyprus issue after 5-year hiatus

Turkey and Greece are discussing maritime tensions in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and also the Cyprus issue after 5-year hiatus

In the diplomatic parlance, exploratory talks are referred to as negotiations aimed at seeking permanent solutions, or at the very least, avoiding the worsening of problems in the political, economic or other spheres.

The fundamental principle of these talks is to solve problems between the parties by diplomatic means, i.e., on the table instead of on the ground. To achieve this, various dialogue mechanisms are established, in which the parties actively participate. Technical committees usually led by respective foreign ministers hold face-to-face meetings and discuss how issues can be solved by meeting at regular intervals. Thus, it is hoped that, in time, the problems will get resolved through dialogue.

The exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece are being held to address the long-standing chronic political issues plaguing their bilateral relations, in particular the Aegean dispute, as well as the acute crises that occur from time to time. This mechanism was first started in 2002 to implement the process of dialogue initiated based on a particular diplomatic format by the political leaders of the time, following the Imia/Kardak crisis that had taken the two countries to the brink of war.

The last time the two sides met under this mechanism was on March 1, 2016 in Athens. The meeting was attended by officials from their foreign offices. Due to the confrontation between the two countries, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, no new meetings have been held since then. Greek-Turkish relations are already afflicted by such deep political problems that there has not been a single tangible positive outcome from the 60 meetings held so far. However, as the relations between the two neighboring countries were getting worse by the day, on Jan. 25, the parties decided to come back to the table at least not to allow the already-high tension to escalate further.

On the other hand, Germany, which held the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for the last six months of the last year, made an intensive effort to restart of the exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece. Nevertheless, while there was an optimistic atmosphere for the resumption of the exploratory talks, all of the efforts of the German government went in vain after the signing by Athens of an agreement with Egypt in August on the delimitation of the exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

NATO, which includes both Turkey and Greece as members, also held meetings between the military committees of the two countries to lower the tension and bring the two parties to the table. We may therefore assume that the exploratory talks, due to take place on Jan. 25, did not come out of nowhere and that the preliminary arrangements for these negotiations had been ongoing for a long time.

- Predictable agenda

Moreover, while the agendas of these exploratory talks between the Turkish and the Greek committees are often kept secret, it should not be too difficult to guess what issues are on the table. The two countries have also been facing each other in the Aegean (also known as the Sea of Islands) for a long time because Greece wants to unilaterally extend its maritime and air zones. Likewise, both countries began to face each other in the Eastern Mediterranean as well, particularly since the second half of 2010 due to similar problems. Naturally, these issues are expected to be on the agenda of the Turkish and Greek committees, which will meet in Istanbul on Jan. 25, 2021.

There is no question that the chain of problems in the Aegean Sea tops the list of profound problems in Turkish-Greek relations. The first of these concerns the delimitation of maritime boundaries, which include territorial waters and continental shelves on both sides. In this regard, the width of the territorial waters of these countries in the Aegean Sea is accepted to be at six nautical miles each, as the maritime boundary between Greece and Turkey is not determined by any agreement. Conversely, Greece wants to expand the width of its territorial waters to 12 nm on account of the islands and even the islets that it has in the region.

Since the islands used by Greece to claim rights are so close to the Turkish coastline that they can be seen with the naked eye, the realization of this demand would diminish and compromise Turkey’s rights. This is why Turkey has emphasized since 1995 that the implementation of such a decision would be openly considered a casus belli -- an act or incident that provokes, or is used to justify, war.

In parallel with the situation about the maritime boundaries, Greece has a similar stance towards its air sovereignty over the Aegean and wants to expand its national airspace from 6 miles to 10 miles. Thus, Turkey opposes both requests of the Greek government and wants the current regulations to continue as they are.
Violations of the treaties of Paris (1947) and Lausanne (1923) regarding the demilitarized status of the Eastern Aegean islands is another issue that frequently pits Turkey and Greece against each other.

-Greece violating agreements

Although Greece had promised to disarm the islands under these treaties, in recent years it has begun to pursue openly violative policies by arming the islands. According to a document released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, in Sept. 2020 alone, the Greek government deployed military elements on the island of Megisti (Kastellorizo or Meis), held military exercises on the island of Chios, conducted shooting training on the island of Lemnos, and also conducted air exercises on the island of Rhodes, in violation of the aforementioned treaties.

Turkey, on the other hand, is aiming at deterrence by directing its military elements in the region to respond to Greece’s policy of violation on the basis of the principle of reciprocity.

In view of these three issues alone, it appears that the priority of Turkey in the region is to avoid a situation that could be detrimental to Turkey’s sovereignty. In addition, Turkey states that the articles of the 1982 Agreement frequently referred to and acceded to by Greece, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), do not bind Turkey since Turkey has not acceded to the agreement. On the other hand, Greece is both violating international law and is seeking to undermine Turkey’s right to sovereignty by making unacceptable demands through this agreement.

This, therefore, inevitably draws the attention of Turkey. As a result, unless the Athens administration gives up its general attitude towards escalating the persistent tension in the Aegean and provoking Ankara, establishing sustainable peace in Turkey-Greece relations is out of the question.

The long-standing tension between the two countries in the Aegean has spread to the Eastern Mediterranean as of the second half of the 2010s. The hydrocarbon deposits discovered in the region, which are estimated to have high economic value, have whetted the appetite of both Greece and its collaborator in the region, the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus (GCA).

Indeed, the Cypriot administration, openly supported by Greece, granted authority to international energy companies for carrying out exploration and drilling operations on unilaterally claimed parcels in the Eastern Mediterranean, in violation of the international legal rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). In this regard, the GCA has further complicated the problem by turning what was a bilateral issue that should have remained in the Eastern Mediterranean into a global, multilateral one.

Cyprus dispute

However, in 2019, the two countries pioneered a regional formation under the name of EastMed Gas Forum to fully alienate Turkey from the regional equation. Although the purpose of its formation, which has evolved into a regional organization with the participation of many countries such as Israel, Italy and Egypt, has been touted as “strengthening regional cooperation” in the Eastern Mediterranean, the fact that Turkey, one of the key actors in the region, was not invited to join reveals the true intent behind it.

The Cyprus conflict is another problem that has been waiting for a solution in Turkish-Greek relations in the Eastern Mediterranean for years. Turkey and Greece, which both have certain responsibilities on the island as they are both guaranteeing powers alongside the UK, currently have completely opposing views on the solution of the Cyprus issue. On that note, Turkey no longer supports the federation model, which came to a standstill due to the uncompromising attitude of the GCA, with the last initiative taking place in 2017 in Crans-Montana.

Instead, Turkey now supports the quest for newer solution models, such as a two-state solution, instead of a federation. The rejection by the Greek Cypriots of the 2004 Annan Plan (which was accepted by the Turkish Cypriots and candidly backed by Turkey) and the GCA’s attempts to single-handedly utilize the hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean in the last few years, despite the obvious division of the island, strongly justify Turkey’s decision to change its position.

On the contrary, Greece, which is positioned as the political guardian of the Greek Cypriots on the island of Cyprus, insists on the federation model and rejects alternative models. Therefore, even if the Cyprus issue was to be brought into the agenda during the talks on Jan. 25, it seems improbable that the parties could reach a consensus.

Opposition to Turkey’s accession with EU

In addition, Greece and its political collaborator in the Eastern Mediterranean, the GCA, have been impeding Turkey’s EU accession process for a long time, leveraging the problems they have had with Turkey. The two countries, under the guise of “solidarity between members”, have been running an intense propaganda campaign within EU institutions for a long time, trying to get those institutions to take decisions against Turkey.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council’s decisions to impose certain sanctions against Turkey due to its operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the frequent calls for sanctions made on Turkey by the European Parliament can be seen as the fruition of this joint effort. On the other hand, the solution to this problem in bilateral relations directly hinges on the settlement of the Cyprus issue.

In conclusion, in order to find a realistic solution to the long-standing problems in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, and to build lasting peace in both regions, Greece needs to give up its unfair attitude, which is based solely on its own interests. Otherwise, these talks will not go beyond preventing a further intensification of the issues in question, regardless of how often the two sides meet each other, rather than bringing permanent solutions to the existing problems in their bilateral relations.

Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay AA

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