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Greece and Turkey resume talks to try to avert military escalation

Helena Smith in Athens
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Greek defence ministry/AP</span>
Photograph: Greek defence ministry/AP

After a five-year hiatus marked by increasingly heated relations, sabre-rattling and near conflict, Greece and Turkey have taken a tentative step towards reconciliation, agreeing to resume talks in an attempt to avert further military escalation in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.

Following a three-hour meeting of delegations from both sides in Istanbul on Monday, diplomatic sources confirmed the high-level contacts would continue, with a second round of talks taking place in Athens.

The news was greeted with relief, with Germany’s foreign ministry expressing hope that the decision would enable the historic foes to “once again establish a mutual confidence and trust” after protracted tensions that had pushed them to the brink of war over offshore energy exploitation rights.

“We are happy that the direct talks … are starting again today,” said the ministry’s spokesperson Maria Adebahr. “We hope it will be possible to once again establish a mutual confidence and trust between the two sides … in order for a solution to be found jointly in the framework of international law.”

Ahead of the talks, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, voiced hope that progress could be made on resolving what Athens regards as the neighbours’ biggest difference: delimitation of contested maritime borders.

“We will attend with optimism … but zero naivety,” he told parliament as MPs voted to extend Greece’s western territorial waters from six to 12 nautical miles off its coast last week after a landmark accord with Italy.

Much remains at stake. The talks come amid heightened mutual mistrust, aggressive rhetoric and an arms race that has prompted Greece to embark on a massive upgrade of its military capabilities in the face of the perceived threat of confrontation from Turkey.

Tellingly, as the discussions got under way, the Greek defence minister met his French counterpart in Athens to sign off on a €2.5bn (£2.2bn) deal to acquire 18 Rafale fighter jets from Paris as part of the overhaul.

“A lot hangs on these talks,” said Prof Kostas Ifantis, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens who specialises in Turkish affairs. “If there’s no breakthrough, we’ll return to a state of play where the potential for violence is high, not only because of dangers posed by the lack of trust but the proximity in such a small geographic area of military hardware that is so advanced.”

The discussions, described as exploratory rather than official, were the 61st time since 2002 that Greek and Turkish diplomats have met in closed session.

Since stalling in March 2016, bilateral relations had deteriorated to the point where even communication between the countries’ foreign ministers had broken down. Against that backdrop any movement towards resolving differences is welcome, EU diplomats say.

Tensions between the Nato rivals reached new levels of animosity last year after the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced he was opening the gates to Europe and encouraged hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross into Greece.

Chaotic scenes ensued at the land border as desperate people tried to breach the frontier and guards on either side responded by firing teargas indiscriminately. As the crisis worsened Athens rushed to reinforce its land and sea borders with help from the EU amid criticism of Erdoğan “weaponising” refugees to pursue his own policy goals.

By the summer, competing claims over potentially lucrative deep-sea gas reserves had strained ties further. Turkey raised the stakes by deploying the Oruc Reis research vessel, escorted by navy ships, to search for the resources in contested waters on the edge of Greece’s continental shelf.

In a standoff that lasted close to three months, Greek armed forces were placed on high alert, with gunboats from both sides fanning across the Aegean as combat aircraft patrolled the skies above.

With tensions also running high over exploration rights off Cyprus, where Ankara had previously dispatched drill ships, western officials sounded the alarm due to concerns of an accident or a miscalculated move provoking armed conflict – a scenario that almost came to pass when Greek and Turkish warships rammed into each other as they shadowed the Oruc Reis. Not since 1996 when the two came close to conflict over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean had tensions been as high.

The EU responded with the threat of sanctions, prompting Turkey to call back the Oruc Reis. Greece and Cyprus, strongly backed by France, say Ankara should be punished for its “provocative actions”, accusing it of engaging in “a game of cat and mouse” with the bloc whenever talk of sanctions emerges. Despite last year’s unprecedented souring of relations with Brussels, Turkey remains an official EU candidate member.

In recent weeks there has been a noticeable shift in the mood music. Since Donald Trump’s electoral defeat in the US, Erdoğan has waged a charm offensive with the EU, attributed, in part, to the dawn of a new era in the White House and Ankara seeking to reset its relations with the west.

Related: EU leaders approve sanctions on Turkish officials over gas drilling

But last Friday Turkey’s foreign minister warned of all-out war if Greece elected to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean, saying other issues that divided the countries, including airspace and demilitarisation of Greek isles, should also be brought to the table.

His words elicited a tart rebuke from Nikos Dendias, the Greek foreign minister, at the weekend. “I want to be clear, that the topic [under discussion] is solely the demarcation of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean,” he told the Efimerida Ton Syntakton newspaper. “In the exploratory talks there will be no discussion on demilitarising islands. No discussion on an issue that has to do with national sovereignty.”