Nearly a year ago, the Eastern Mediterranean was simmering with disputes over maritime borders between its historical rivals Greece and Turkey.
In the wake of recent military progress in Libya, Ankara has sent drilling vessels to the disputed waters of the Mediterranean, while Greece has enlisted the support of Turkey’s local rivals – Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates – to push back on what it calls Turkish excursions in his lawful excursions. waters.
As tensions escalated, a military build-up took place in the Mediterranean when Greece sent frigates to shade the Turkish vessels, and in August two warships collided as they tried to pass each other.
In April, foreign ministers accusations exchanged on a wide range of issues during a volatile press conference in Ankara at the end of their first meeting in more than a year.
Fast forward six weeks and that may explain why both countries regarded the quiet visit of Turkey’s foreign minister to Athens on Monday as a small victory.
“The aim of our meeting today was to initially establish a common ground and then, if possible, to pursue the gradual normalization of the situation in the longer term,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said after following a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut. Cavusoglu.
Prevention of flare-ups
During their joint press conference, the two top diplomats in the countries made a concerted effort to prevent a flare-up on issues such as Cyprus, maritime borders or sovereignty claims.
“It is in the interest of both countries to keep tensions low,” Panayotis Tsakonas, head of the security program at the ELIAMEP think tank in Athens, told Al Jazeera.
Greece has been pushing the European Council for sanctions against Turkey during the high tensions last summer, and Athens wanted to emphasize that its disputes with Ankara, whether over migration or maritime rights, are linked to the EU as a whole.
“I had the opportunity to discuss all my issues regarding our bilateral relations with my friend and counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, but also the relations between the EU and Turkey,” Dendias said in his opening speech.
But the European Council, and Germany in particular, has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Turkey, but has focused on promising greater cooperation with Ankara rather than easing tensions.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, in a nod to Greece’s efforts to gain EU support. said in an interview on Monday that a positive agenda between the EU and Turkey will be ‘only implemented if there is progress in different areas’, especially the Greek-Turkish relations.
The European Council will meet in June to discuss its relationship with Turkey.
Ankara wants the EU to update the customs union agreement with the bloc and calls for a more liberal visa policy for Turkish citizens.
In 2020, Turkey was the sixth largest trading partner of the EU with a total trade in goods of 132.4 billion euros ($ 161 billion).
Although technically still a contender for EU membership, talks on Turkey’s ascension have come to a standstill.
Earlier in May, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to end Turkey’s accession process due to a decline in human rights and democratic values.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting the text and blaming Greece in part for the deteriorating relations.
‘[It] “reflects the completely unfair and biased Greek and Greek Cypriot arguments regarding the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus issues,” it said.
Tsakanos said Turkey’s self-control in the eastern Mediterranean in recent months and the Foreign Minister’s visit were a recognition of the poor state of EU-Turkish affairs and the paramount importance of the forthcoming European Council meeting.
“This visit was in view of the relations with the US and mostly the EU,” he said. “There is an understanding in Turkey that their relationship with the West is going through Athens.”
Although tensions have cooled in particular, both parties have limited confidence.
Murat Aslan, an analyst at the SETA Foundation, a think tank in Ankara close to the Erdogan government, told Al Jazeera: “There is an intense perception in Turkish thinking that Greeks are motivated to leave. entices to make Turkey make a mistake. ‘
The main purpose of Cavusoglu’s visit on Monday was to prepare the groundwork for a meeting between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of a NATO summit on 14 June.
The leaders last met at a NATO rally in December 2019.
Their tense meeting took place a month after the announcement of the Maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya that Athens claims to be illegal under UN maritime law for violating Greek rights to exclusive economic zones via islands in the Mediterranean.
Aslan said the forthcoming meeting would be influenced in part by how Mitsotakis received Erdogan and pressure from Greece’s partners.
‘The US and the EU were the determining factors in the Greek strategy. “If they encourage the Greek leadership to weaken, Mitsotakis should be expected to be more moderate,” he said.
On Monday, both parties seemed more willing to focus on positive aspects of the bilateral relationship.
They announced about 25 articles to improve economic ties, saying they would mutually recognize the COVID-19 vaccination certificate of each country to improve the journey.
Both Greece and Turkey are looking forward to the summer of 2021 to restart their battered tourism sectors.
Tourism accounts for about 20 percent of Greece’s GDP and uses one in five Greeks directly, while in Turkey it is a major source of foreign exchange.
The Turkish economy has come under increasing pressure in recent months, and Erdogan recently a second high profile official cleared at the country’s central bank.
Last week, the Turkish lira hit the lowest level of the dollar.
Asked about the pressure Turkey is experiencing economically and how it could affect tensions with Greece in the summer, Aslan said: “Erdogan has no personality to sacrifice national interest for the value of the Turkish lira.”