Europe

Greek-Turkish Relations and the “Biden Factor”

This past week has been bustling with diplomatic activity that, of course, ultimately culminated in a meeting between US President Joe Biden with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Apart from what could be termed “the summit of summits”, numerous other high-level political encounters took place over the last several days, first at the meeting of the G7, and then on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels.  

This is the start of a new phase of international relations and a return to diplomacy and predictability after the unpredictably turbulent years of the Trump era. The knock-on effect of this has impacted relations between Greece and Turkey. “The ice has broken”, a Greek official said following a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the NATO summit on June 14.

The tete-a-tete in Brussels was the third time that the two leaders have met since Mitsotakis took office in July 2019. Just ahead of their last encounter in December 2019, which took place in London, Turkey signed a highly controversial maritime deal with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya which claimed an exclusive economic sphere of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. The MOU ignores the existence of several Greek islands, including Crete and Rhodes. The agreement was, not surprisingly, rejected by Athens and the overwhelming majority of the international community who said it was both “invalid” and “geographically absurd”. 

Erdogan’s Libya-deal lead to a virtual breakdown of diplomatic interactions between Greece and Turkey. In the summer of 2020, the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean brought the two estranged NATO allies to the brink of a military confrontation. “We are now coming out of the most contentious situation”, says Mustafa Aydin, an expert on Greek-Turkish relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

A Greek government source termed the 50-minute meeting between Mitsotakis and Erdogan as “a step towards a quieter summer”, one which “highlighting the overall good climate” and a sense of understanding between the two sides that what occurred in 2020 should not happen again. A

At the same time, Athens and Ankara let it be known that while the mood may have improved, substantial differences remain. 

The list of disputes is long and includes conflicts of substance and, importantly, procedural issues pertaining to conflict resolution. Athens and Ankara do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to the question of what should be included in the agenda. While the Greek focus is the demarcation of the continental shelf, which would effectively also settle the issue of maritime zones, Turkey regularly brings up additional items. These include the situation of the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority in Western Thrace, the breath of the territorial waters and – increasingly in the past months – the militarization of Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean Sea. For Greek governments, the latter has been – and continues to be – a non-starter. 

Herculean Task

Reaching a compromise on these issues remains a Herculean task even under the most favorable conditions becomes clear if you see a freshly published survey of Turkish public opinion. According to the report, a majority of Turks consider the Aegean militarization issue the most important point of contention between the two neighbors – far ahead of the Cyprus issue, which traditionally has been at the top of public concerns.

The term “positive agenda” has become somewhat of a buzzword for Turkey’s foreign relations.  The European Union has offered Ankara a set of projects of cooperation under the heading of “positive agenda” under the condition that the Turkish government meets certain clearly defined criteria. The concept has now found entry into the vocabulary of Greek-Turkish relations. Ahead of the Brussels summit, Prime Minister Mitsotakis explained the concept of conditional cooperation using the wording of the conclusions of the EU-summit in March: “We are always open to a positive agenda, he said, but in a gradual, proportionate and reversible way… provided that the current de-escalation is maintained and that Turkey participates constructively in the dialogue and respects the conditions set by the EU.”

The synchronization of Greek and EU policies, vis-à-vis Turkey, is an important new element in Greek-Turkish relations. From a Greek perspective, this lockstep may be termed the most successful result of a systematic effort to internationalize the bilateral issues by seeking political – and increasingly also military – support in the international arena in the conflict with Turkey.

For Erdogan, Greece’s diplomatic maneuvers are a stick in the eye. Opposing the internationalization and seeking the “bilateralization” of the political process is a constant feature of Ankara’s strategy towards Greece. “Third parties should not be included in our relations”, Erdogan told the press after meeting Mitsotakis in Brussels. Meanwhile, Athens is pursuing a policy of expanding her political and diplomatic network with a deep outreach that includes the Arab world. It is an open secret that ultimately all these efforts aim at neutralizing what Greeks perceive as the “Turkish threat”.

Embodiment of Philhellenism

Arguably, the most important development with an impact on the dynamics of Greek-Turkish relations has been the “Biden Factor”. The world at large is beginning to witness the impact of the removal of Donald Trump from power in Washington. The wind of change is felt also in Greek-Turkish relations. Trump’s demonstrative laisser-faire approach came in handy for Erdogan’s revisionist schemes. Biden’s multilateralism and rules-based understanding of international relations make life much more difficult for the Turkish president. Commentators have rightly called Erdogan a political buddy of Trump. Joe Biden may be termed an embodiment of political Philhellenism. 

“If you need anything, I am here to help you”, the US President told the Greek Prime Minister earlier this year. Athens had been missing this kind of support for quite some time. With Washington – and Brussels – behind them, the Greeks are now engaging the Turks with a new sense of confidence.

File source

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button
Close