What’s Next for Bilateral Relations Between Greece and Turkey?

Greek and Turkish flag
Greece and Turkey have a lot to gain from the recent rapprochement, but for how long is this improvement in bilateral relations going to last? Credit: DALLE for the Greek Reporter

You don’t have to be an expert to know that the relations between Greece and Turkey have been among the most turbulent in the diplomatic history of Europe.

Rooted in a history of disputes, the two Mediterranean nations have gone through wars and skirmishes to periods of calmness and even deep cooperation. However, the differences between the two NATO allies have been serious and profound. Ranging from maritime and airspace territorial claims to diplomatic clashes concerning ancient monuments and religious sites, these two nations continue to share a tumultuous journey.

It is worth mentioning here that the two countries cannot even agree on what they disagree. Greece has been declaring for decades that it has only one difference with Turkey, that of the delimitation of their maritime zones. However, Turkey has been raising a series of other issues too.

However, despite the longstanding issues that have been fueling tensions for decades, a glimmer of hope emerged last year. Following the devastating earthquake in southeastern Turkey and Greece’s immediate mobilisation to support its neighbour, a faded light of hope returned to those looking closely at the relations between these two nations.

The History Behind the Strained Relations of Greece and Turkey

The Greek-Turkish relations have been characterised by conflict and cooperation, stretching back over centuries. This history has been marked by key events that have left an indelible stain on the relationship between them. From the early 19th century, when Greece fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire to the Cyprus War in 1974, the two nations have faced each other on the military front many times in the 19th and 20th centuries.

More recently, the disputes between Greece and Turkey over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), airspace, and the casus belli declaration by Turkey are crucial to understanding the many layers and the dynamics of their relations.

These disputes find their roots in historical, geographical, as well as legal issues, with the Peace Treaty of Lausanne, for example, being at the forefront of Turkey’s claims against Greece. This situation has established a status quo in the Aegean that resembles that of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow before the fall of Communism.

The Greek EEZ
The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Greece that Turkey refuses to recognise. Credit: Flanders Marine Institute, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Dispute

The EEZ dispute revolves around the rights of Greece and Turkey to explore and exploit marine resources. These include oil and gas reserves beneath the seabed. Recent discoveries made in the Eastern Mediterranean by Israel, Cyprus and Egypt have placed additional pressure on the already tense relations of the two sides.

Greece, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), argues that its islands are entitled to their own EEZs, which would significantly extend Greece’s maritime jurisdiction, especially in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Seas. Turkey, on the other hand, has not ratified UNCLOS. This is why it claims that the presence of Greek islands near its coast unfairly limits its access to maritime areas and resources that –they believe– belong to them. Ankara argues that a fair solution would be for a delimitation that considers the size of the continental shelf of mainland Turkey as the primary basis for maritime boundaries. This disagreement has led to continuous heightened tensions, especially around energy exploration activities conducted by Turkey in waters that, according to UNCLOS, should be considered part of the Greek EEZ.

Rafale Greece
The Rafale is a French twin-engine multirole fighter aircraft. Greece received its first six Rafale jets from France in January 2022 as part of a larger order for 24 aircraft. Credit: Hellenic Air Force (HAF)

Airspace Dispute

The airspace dispute is another point of contention between Athens and Ankara. Greece claims a 10-mile airspace zone around its territory, extending beyond its 6-mile territorial waters. This is a peculiarity on the global stage, as the norm is that countries exercise sovereignty in the same length both in water and in the air. Turkey, therefore, does not recognise Greece’s claim and argues that the airspace should correspond directly with the territorial waters.

This is another major reason behind frequent incursions by Turkish aircraft into Greek airspace. Up until recently, Turkey not only violated Greece’s 10-mile airspace but engaged in practising dangerous flights of fighter jets above inhabited Greek islands, provoking Greece’s strong response in multiple instances. These incursions very often resulted in military standoffs, with both Greek and Turkish fighter jets engaging in mock dogfights, something that should have not been the case between two NATO allies.

The Turkish Casus Belli Declaration

Perhaps one of the most contentious issues between the two countries is Turkey’s casus belli (cause for war) declaration against Greece. In 1995, the Turkish Grand National Assembly issued a declaration that Turkey would consider it an act of war (casus belli) if Greece extended its territorial waters beyond 6 miles in the Aegean Sea.

Grand National Assembly of Turkey
The Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Credit: Yildiz Yazicioglu, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

This declaration was made in response to potential Greek moves to extend its territorial waters under UNCLOS. This UN convention allows nations to extend their territorial waters up to 12 miles. Greece remains one of the very few –if not the only– nations in the world that has not exercised this right yet, apart from its western shores in the Ionian Sea, facing Italy.

This Turkish stance has effectively placed a legal and diplomatic minefield in the Aegean Sea. A declared threat of war from one NATO ally to another not only undermines the southeastern flank of the Alliance but also poses a great danger to the stability of the broader area. The Turkish casus belli also hinders efforts to resolve maritime disputes, contributing to the ever-growing militarisation of the region.

Recent Attempts to Improve Relations Between Greece and Turkey

However, in recent months, a series of diplomatic gestures and high-level meetings have signalled a thaw in Greek-Turkish relations. Following Greece’s rapid assistance to Turkey after the devastating earthquake of early 2023, both the public mood and the political priorities of the leadership of the two nations changed very quickly.

The Turkish people were moved not only by the amount of humanitarian aid that ordinary Greeks sent to Turkey but also by the efforts of the Greek rescuers who rushed to the epicentre of the destruction, saving lives.

This shift in the public mood was sealed by following meetings between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Greek Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The two men signed a friendship declaration between Greece and Turkey in Athens last December, in a symbolic move that confirms the warming of relations between the two nations.

The declaration committed both countries ”to refrain from any statement, initiative, or act likely to undermine or discredit the letter and spirit of this Declaration or endanger the maintenance of peace and stability in their region”

Erdogan and Mitsotakis
Turkey’s President Erdogan (left) and Greek PM Mitsotakis laughing during a signing ceremony of the ”Athens Agreement” in December 2023. Credit: Greek PM’s office

In addition, it called on both countries ”to resolve any dispute amicably arising between them through direct consultations between them or through other means as provided for in the United Nations Charter.” US President Joe Biden expressed his endorsement of the “constructive steps” between Greece and Turkey too, a few days after the meeting in Athens.

Factors Influencing the Diplomatic Rapprochement

This recent improvement in Greek-Turkish relations can be attributed to many external and internal factors, apart from the ”diplomacy of the earthquakes”. Externally, the European Union’s under-the-radar diplomatic efforts pushed primarily Ankara to a more relaxed stance towards Greece.

Germany was at the forefront of this nearly-undercover effort, as Berlin wants Turkey to remain a strategic economic partner of the EU. Additionally, regional security concerns, such as the strategic importance of NATO unity at a time when Russia wages war against Ukraine, also played a crucial role in the recent rapprochement.

As for internal factors that helped the amelioration of the relations, these were mainly the victory of President Erdogan in Turkey’s elections in 2023. This caused a shift in the economic priorities of his government. Because of this and due to a growing recognition of the benefits of cooperation over confrontation, Erdogan chose to ease the tensions between the two nations. The mutual interest in energy exploration and addressing migration issues were crucial factors after all.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the positive momentum, significant obstacles remain on the horizon. The unresolved maritime dispute in the Aegean Sea and the nations’ differing views on Cyprus continue to be crucial flashpoints.

Military build-ups, especially with the recent US approval of Greece’s intention to purchase F-35 fighter jets and equally Turkey’s demand to procure upgraded F-16 jets, demonstrate that the difficult days are far from over. This, along with rising nationalism on both sides and historical grievances can easily reignite tensions. This could undermine efforts towards reconciliation at any time. This is why the challenge now lies in addressing these issues in a constructive and measured way.

An example of how fragile things remain is that tensions between the two countries escalated again recently following the announcement from Greece of plans to establish two brand new marine parks in the Aegean and Ionian seas.

The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement recently and warned that it would “not accept fait accompli” and that some of the proposed protected areas that Greece had announced lie in what it called ”disputed waters”. Turkey also claimed that the initiative on behalf of Greece was not environmentally but instead “politically motivated”. According to the Greek plans, the country aims to ban completely activities such as bottom trawling, which is a destructive fishing practice, in all its marine protected areas by 2030. The plan said that this would start with the new parks as early as 2026.

This move would make Greece the first European country to implement such a ban, putting it at the forefront of environmental protection in marine areas. Despite the projected environmental benefits, the decision has led to yet another point of disagreement between Athens and Ankara.

Nonetheless, high-level diplomatic and military meetings between Greek and Turkish officials are scheduled to take place in the next few weeks. This will culminate with the leaders of Greece and Turkey meeting on May 13 in Ankara. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that he would meet his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan next month at the culmination of a two-day summit of the European Council in Brussels.

Greek and Turkish flag
Credit: Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Opportunities for Cooperation Between Greece and Turkey

The two leaders now believe that economic partnerships, particularly in tourism and trade, can yield substantial benefits for both nations.

Greece’s careful work in Brussels to finalise an agreement that now sees Turkish citizens being able to go to the Greek islands of the Eastern Aegean for 7 days with a quick visa upon arrival was warmly welcomed by the Turkish public. This also brings hopes of further economic development on these islands, which have suffered considerably from the recent refugee and migrant crises.

Collaborating on energy exploration and renewable energy projects, including the potential for nuclear energy cooperation, presents another promising opportunity for the two countries. Additionally, joint efforts to manage migration flows and combat human trafficking can put the tensions of 2020 aside and enhance regional stability.

The recent amelioration in Greek-Turkish relations does represent a new, hopeful chapter in the long and contentious history of the two nations. Although the shadows of history loom large, the potential for a guided and carefully delivered improvement in relations is still possible. This, of course, provided that Turkey will continue its path of establishing better relations with its Western partners, away from the dangerous rhetoric and actions of the past several years. 2020 is not too far after all, and the two countries remember very well how close to war they were back then.

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