Greece, Turkey bow to EU pressure, hold first talks since 2016

The talks were held behind closed doors in Istanbul while the Greek and French defence ministers met in Athens to sign a diplomatically-charged deal for Greece to buy 18 Rafale fighter jets.

Tuesday 26/01/2021
Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis (2L), Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (2R), Turkish President’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin (3R) and their delegation meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul, January 25, 2021. (AFP)
Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis (2L), Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (2R), Turkish President’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin (3R) and their delegation meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul, January 25, 2021. (AFP)

ISTANBUL – Greece and Turkey bowed to EU pressure on Monday and engaged in their first direct talks in nearly five years over an explosive standoff about Eastern Mediterranean borders and energy rights.

The three-and-a-half hour meeting produced no breakthrough except for an agreement for the talks to continue in Athens at an undisclosed date.

The talks were held behind closed doors in Istanbul while the Greek and French defence ministers met in Athens to sign a diplomatically-charged deal for Greece to buy 18 Rafale fighter jets.

Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos said the 2.5-billion-euro ($3 billion) purchase “sends a clear message in several directions” — particularly Ankara.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent the past few months trying to cool the rhetoric and repair damaged relations with Europe in the face of a potentially more hostile US administration under President Joe Biden.

The dispute set off alarm bells across EU capitals and in Washington when Greek and Turkish gunboats collided while shadowing each other in disputed water in August.

“A solution to all problems… is possible and we have full will to this end,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted as the talks broke up.

The United States said it “welcomes” the resumption of contacts while EU diplomatic powerhouse Germany called them the “positive (sign) we have been waiting for, for some time.”

Disputed agenda

Athens and Ankara held 60 rounds of talks between 2002 and 2016 without resolving a dispute that has lingered for much of the past century and nearly led to war in 1996.

Hostilities flared anew last year when Ankara sent a research ship accompanied by a navy flotilla into waters near the Turkish coast that Greece claims, with EU support.

Turkey is furious that Greece is using its web of islands to lay claim to huge swathes of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

Both sides cite a range of decades-old treaties and international agreements to support their conflicting claims.

NATO has set up a hotline to stave off a military conflict and Berlin has spearheaded efforts to solve the dispute through negotiations that do not further isolate the mercurial Erdogan.

These will not be easy as Athens and Ankara clashed over their agenda last week.

Athens wants to limit the discussions — attended by retired Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal as well as Kalin — to continental shelf borders and the size of exclusive economic zones.

But Ankara also accuses Athens of illegally stationing troops on some of its islands and wants to discuss aerial zones — a separate dispute that saw a Greek pilot killed when his jet collided with a Turkish one in 2006.

Sanctions relief

Anthony Skinner of Britain’s Verisk Maplecroft risk consultancy said the talks stood a chance of “gaining some momentum over the coming months, given Erdogan’s current overtures to EU-27 states and domestic economic pressures.”

But he added that Erdogan was “unlikely” to fundamentally change his hawkish foreign policy stance.

The Istanbul meeting came during a sudden spurt in diplomatic contacts aimed at thawing an ever deeper chill in relations that have frozen EU accession talks Turkey began in 2005.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was in Brussels for meetings with top EU officials last week and Ankara hopes for a return visit by early March.

France has led EU condemnation of Turkey’s military interventions in Syria and Libya as well as Erdogan’s support for Azerbaijan against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war last year.

The EU ultimately decided to start drawing up an expanded list of Turkish targets for sanctions last month.

But the German foreign ministry said on Monday that the resumption of contacts meant Turkey “should not be burdened by new sanctions now.”