Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 7 minutes

Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Aegean waters dividing Turkey and Greece have seen unusual calm for a year, a welcome turnaround after a long, threatening row over maritime sovereignty claims exacerbated by hydrocarbon finds in the eastern Mediterranean.

Now, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are to hold a summit in Athens on Dec. 7; it is the best chance since 2016 for the two NATO allies to improve relations and look into relaunching talks on the Aegean dispute.

Despite other disagreements over military build-ups in the region and over Cyprus, they should seize this rare opportunity, not least as their shared neighborhood’s fate – troubled by wars in Ukraine and Gaza – is ever more uncertain.

The tide turned

The summit itself is a triumph of intense diplomacy, which revived the bilateral High Level Cooperation Council from a seven-year sleep. Established in 2010, this aims to boost cooperation in trade, tourism and other areas. The diplomacy leading here was a silver lining born of tragedy. Turkish earthquakes killed over 50,000 people in February 2023, then wildfires and floods swept Greece, prompting mutual offers of help and a diplomatic thaw.

In mid-2023, Erdoğan and Mitsotakis were re-elected. With campaigning out of the way, both have sought better relations. They appointed pragmatist foreign ministers, Hakan Fidan in Turkey and Giorgos Gerapetritis in Greece, who officials say get on well. This, a need to reduce tensions after Russia invaded Ukraine and a desire to improve relations with other neighbors, appears to have nudged the sides closer.

“Remaining locked in the previous cycle of tensions will only produce lose-lose outcomes,” a senior Turkish official said. “We want to make a clean break from frictional ties with Greece.”

Climbing out of a hole

This progress to a summit followed years of reverses, with relations sinking to a rock-bottom for recent decades in summer 2020. Both countries put their militaries on high alert when Turkey sent a hydrocarbon exploration ship into disputed waters near Greek islands. Ankara had just struck a maritime delimitation deal with Libya’s UN-recognized government, through which it claimed southern Aegean waters that Greece also claims. In response, Athens signed its own maritime deal with Egypt, formed a trilateral partnership with Israel and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) and rallied European Union partners to impose limited sanctions on Ankara.

The sides stepped back (encouraged by NATO and Germany) when two of their naval vessels collided in 2020, heightening the risk of military confrontation. Fitful diplomacy followed and in 2021, Greece and Turkey resumed “exploratory talks” about the Aegean dispute.

Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With war on their doorstep, Erdoğan and Mitsotakis wanted to ease tensions, met in İstanbul in March 2022 and acknowledged their “special responsibility in the changing European security architecture.” They vowed to keep communication channels open and foster ties, and have in principle kept to that since, despite another setback weeks later.

This time, tensions flared over weapons sales. On a US visit in May 2022, Mitsotakis lobbied for Greece to buy F-35 jets and reportedly for Ankara not to be sold more F-16 jets. An enraged Erdoğan said Mitsotakis “no longer exists” for him, and the Aegean talks collapsed. Exacerbated by nationalist hype on electoral trails in both countries, a war of words and military maneuvers ensued – until the earthquakes struck.


Today, with general elections out of the way, Greece and Turkey can more easily keep hardliners at arm’s length. Pragmatist officials agree talks should focus first on areas of mutual interest unrelated to national security.

“We have a window of two to three years when we can achieve real progress in our bilateral relations,” a Turkish official said. Greek officials made similar noises, but say they were stung by Ankara’s hostile rhetoric and military posturing in the past, so overcoming doubt will not be easy. “We hope Erdoğan will not change his mind again,” a senior Greek diplomat noted.

The summit – which also brings together government ministers – will focus on trade, tourism, migration, energy, and transport. The sides have, for instance, considered a “visa at the door” scheme letting Turkish nationals visit nearby eastern Aegean Greek islands more easily. Work next year on border crossing upgrades including a second bridge should also improve the main Thessaloniki-İstanbul route. Other initiatives are to extend electricity links and natural-disaster response.

Whether all that will lead to negotiations on the Aegean dispute is unclear. “It is an opportunity to try and establish a long-term relationship of calmness and tranquillity in our neighborhood,” Greece’s Gerapetritis said in mid-November. “We are going to take this step by step.” Similarly, a senior Turkish official told Crisis Group: “We are not rushing into discussing thorny issues, but first will focus on areas of mutual benefit. … We will see where that gets us.” The influence of hardliners still limits the two leaders’ room to maneuvre, particularly over substantial concessions.

Ahead of the summit, Erdoğan, Mitsotakis and their foreign ministers – as well as their deputies – met several times, and discussed the so-called “positive agenda” about better cooperation. In May, both sides cancelled military exercises to show good faith. They relaunched military-to-military talks and agreed in November to revive military confidence-building measures along with a monitoring mechanism.

A seasoned Greek analyst said they could extend such measures to other areas, by addressing the needs of minorities and protecting cultural sites. “They could work on restoring Greek Orthodox churches in Turkey and mosques in Greece, initiatives the EU could fund,” he said. “This would not only carry strong symbolism but also generate more public buy-in for what otherwise is a diplomatic process rather detached from people’s daily lives.”

The trickier issues

Those would be the easy wins. More trickily, the countries have argued for decades over the Aegean Sea that separates them, with competing sovereignty claims for seas and skies. Cyprus is another enormous obstacle, joined more recently by an arms build-up and now the Gaza war, where Athens strongly backs Israel while Ankara has been a vocal critic.

Years of tension have spurred an arms race. Greece has gradually raised defense spending, bought new ships and warplanes, and expanded military bases. Its US and French arms deals have irked Ankara, which has faced some Western arms restrictions. “Mr. Prime Minister [Mitsotakis] it is time to halt the armament efforts. Where do you intend to go with these armaments?” Erdoğan asked in June. Some Turkish officials fear proliferating arms deals between Greece and other NATO members may upset the Aegean security balance.

Ankara says Greece has gradually stationed troops and military equipment on eastern Aegean islands. “We are seeing a weaponization of islands a few kilometers from our coast,” a senior Turkish official said. Ankara argues Athens should have demilitarized these islands under 20th-century international treaties.

Ankara holds that Greece’s potential extension of territorial waters from six to twelve nautical miles would be a cause for war.

Greece disputes this, considering its military presence a deterrence against Turkey. Ankara holds that Greece’s potential extension of territorial waters from six to twelve nautical miles would be a cause for war and worries that large continental shelf areas claimed by Greece could box it in. Athens says it is its “sovereign right” to extend under international law, but has so far not done so.

The conflict over divided Cyprus still looms. Tensions soared over hydrocarbon prospecting by the RoC, without Turkish Cypriots having a say. Attempts to relaunch formal negotiations between the sides are stuck. The RoC (admitted as an EU member in 2004 despite rejecting a UN-brokered plan to reunify the island which Turkish Cypriots had approved) insists talks must lead to a federation. Ankara and the de facto Turkish Cypriot government want negotiations around a two-state solution. Talks continue, without consensus yet, on appointing a UN envoy to explore resuming formal negotiations.

Greek and Turkish officials keen for progress in bilateral ties would like Cyprus to be somehow put to one side, but hardliners on both sides are unlikely to agree. “The Greek public is sensitive to what happens in Cyprus,” a Greek diplomat said. “It’s not easy to imagine substantial progress in the Aegean dispute while tensions on the island fester.” In August, skirmishes briefly flared over Turkish Cypriot roadworks in the UN buffer zone.

The war in Gaza adds unpredictability to rapprochement. Turkey condemned as disproportionate Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas (which Turkey – unlike Greece and most Western countries – does not designate a terrorist organization). Turkish-Israeli normalization is now on ice. Ankara had pursued this, not least to break out of its regional isolation in the eastern Mediterranean, and full diplomatic relations were restored last year after a five-year suspension. In one of many scenarios, a growing rift with Israel may heighten Ankara’s fears of regional isolation once again and in turn strain ties with Greece, which has strongly backed Israel. Greece and Israel are both members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, a Western-backed platform, and of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, a new trade initiative. Both exclude Turkey.

Where there’s a will

These differences need not impede progress, as long as the Aegean neighbors are committed. The summit is a chance for them to reaffirm that, build trust and pave the way to tackling thornier issues. They should keep at it. Should diplomacy falter again, they may face a riskier deadlock in an increasingly volatile region. Especially with wars in Gaza and Ukraine, neither Turkey nor Greece – nor the EU or the US, seeking to calm the eastern Mediterranean – want a repeat of the 2020 crisis, still less a worse one. The reassuring news: such a possibility is still distant.

This article was originally published in Turkey Recap.

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