Greece, Turkey open first talks since 2016 to resolve explosive maritime dispute

NATO neighbors both say they are entering negotiations over energy and borders in ‘good faith,’ though sides are already at loggerheads over what’s up for discussion

Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis, center, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, August 10, 2020. (IHA via AP)
Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis, center, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, August 10, 2020. (IHA via AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Greece and Turkey bowed to European Union and NATO pressure on Monday and opened the first direct talks in nearly five years over their explosive eastern Mediterranean standoff.

The Istanbul meeting is not expected to make major headway after the two NATO neighbors’ gunboats collided in August as their dispute over energy and borders threatened to spiral out of control.

But it adds to the positive tone Turkish President Recep Erdogan has been setting as he tries to repair damaged relations with Europe in the face of a potentially more hostile US administration under President Joe Biden.

And it could lay the groundwork for the eventual delineation of one of the world’s most recently discovered regions of proven natural gas reserves.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said over the weekend that Athens was entering the so-called exploratory talks “in good faith” — a comment echoed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Disputed agenda

Athens and Ankara held 60 rounds of talks between 2002 and 2016 but they broke off the negotiations without resolving a dispute that has lingered for much of the past century.

Greek foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, speaks during news conference in Athens, January 14, 2021. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)

Hostilities flared anew last year when Ankara sent a research ship accompanied by a navy flotilla into waters near the Turkish shore, which Greece claims with EU support. Turkey is furious that Greece is using its vast web of islands to lay claim to huge swaths of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

The two 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, while Germany 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 — led by retired Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal — 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.

“It’s not right to choose one [subject] and say, ‘we’re holding exploratory talks on this,'” Cavusoglu said last week.

‘Credible gestures’

The process could be helped along if it involved a third party such as the US or Germany, according to security and energy expert Michael Tanchum.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gives a statement in Brussels, January 21, 2021. (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool Photo via AP)

“The likely outcome of such adjudication would invalidate the use of some small Greek islands near Turkey’s mainland… while upholding the use of larger islands and more distant islands,” Tanchum said.

Dendias said on Saturday that the dispute could be submitted for arbitration in The Hague if the exploratory talks collapse.

The Istanbul meeting comes 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.

Cavusoglu was in Brussels for meetings with top EU officials last week and Ankara hopes for a return visit at the end of February or early March.

But EU chief Ursula von der Leyen remarked in a pointed tweet after the meeting that as well as talks she expected “credible gestures on the ground.”

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen addresses European lawmakers during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, January 20, 2021. (Francisco Seco/AP)

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

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

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