Can planned Greek-Turkish talks resolve East Med dispute?

Tensions between Turkey and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean are thawing now that both sides have agreed to resume exploratory talks to resolve their dispute there. What these talks can or will achieve, however, is not yet clear. 

Tensions reached worrying heights in August when Turkey sent the Oruç Reis seismic research vessel into waters claimed by Greece to search for oil and natural gas. Turkey’s withdrawal of that ship led to a thaw and renewed hopes that diplomacy, rather than conflict, will resolve this dispute. 

Germany and the United States are encouraging Greece and Turkey to deescalate tensions and initiate dialogue. 

The Special European Council on Oct. 1-2 will discuss European Union relations with Turkey, the situation in the East Mediterranean, as well as Belarus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had previously insisted that Greece and Turkey negotiate before that summit, which has already been postponed by one week.

EU member Cyprus is adamant that Turkey face sanctions for drilling in its continental shelf, although the EU is very hesitant to do so. Cyprus is blocking unrelated EU sanctions against Belarus so long as similar measures are not imposed on Turkey. Germany worries EU sanctions will stymie successful negotiations and make Turkey even more uncooperative and hostile.

Merkel hinted Turkey and Greece came close to war when she remarked that, “It’s hard to imagine how small the distance between military conflict and peaceful settlement can get in some cases.”

Military delegations from Turkey and Greece held their latest technical talks in the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Sept. 29. They discussed the eastern Mediterranean tensions, with emphasis on reducing the risk of any incidents between their armed forces.

On the same day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the island of Crete and encouraged Greece and Turkey “to resume discussion of these issues as soon as possible”. 

“Resuming exploratory talks is an important step in diffusing tensions, as the focus will hopefully turn on seeking mutually agreed terms of negotiation instead of using gunboat diplomacy to conduct seismic research in contested waters,” Katerina Sokou, a non-resident senior fellow at the Future Europe Initiative and Atlantic Council, told Ahval. 

“No wonder the U.S. and Germany are concerned, as military conflict would undermine the prosperity and security in both countries, as well as NATO’s strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean,” she said. 

In order to reach an agreeable compromise, both states would need to hold off on seismic research in disputed waters, Sokou suggested. Also, focusing on the issue at hand, the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) delimitation, would help both sides reach an agreement on what “their most consequential dispute” is without adding other disputes to the agenda that have been sources of tensions in the past, she said.

While Turkey is not a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Sokou insisted that international customary law still needs to guide these negotiations.

“Hence, Turkey would recognize that all inhabited Greek islands have the right to an EEZ and that its memorandum of understanding with the Government of National Accord in Libya cannot, as a legal matter, affect the rights of Greece,” she said, referring to the controversial maritime deal Turkey and Libya signed in November 2019.

“From its part, Greece would agree, as it has done in its recent EEZ agreements with Italy and Egypt, to limit some of its own EEZ claims,” she said.

Mutual trust is also a condition for resolving such disputes in the long-term.

The late former U.S. Ambassador to Greece Monteagle Stearns argued that an agreement on non-aggression guaranteed by NATO may be necessary before any attempts at resolving such complex maritime issues are made. Such a guarantee would reassure both countries that their sovereignty is not being threatened.

“But should the upcoming talks manage to reach an agreement on even the terms of negotiation, this will be a key step in ensuring both countries’ sovereign rights and hence in rebuilding the lost trust,” Sokou said.

While the latest standoff does appear to be cooling off, Süleyman Özeren, a Turkey expert at George Mason University, says the best outcome “will be returning to the pre-escalation period, which is no improvement”. 

“The Turkey-Greece escalation led Greece to gain grounds, while Turkey was left with “precious loneliness”,” Özeren told Ahval. 

“The U.S. sided with Greece and sent a clear message to Ankara that Washington is ready to take further actions if Turkey continues to escalate the situation.” 

In this context, Pompeo’s visit to Greece also indicated that Greece-U.S. relations could further erode Turkey’s strategic position. 

According to Özeren, one cannot analyse Turkey’s current foreign policy without considering its radical transition from a pro-Western military and political mindset into an Islamist-nationalist dominated world view. 

“We see consistency and continuum in these policies, which reflect that radical transformation,” he said. “Turkey’s actions and its strategy of tension are similar to that of North Korea and Iran.” 

While Turkey’s military actions and drills may work for it in the short term, Özeren warned that Turkey cannot maintain this policy long term.

“Without a drastic change in Turkey’s current course, attempts to mediate between Greece and Turkey will be short-lived,” he said. 

George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre International de Formation Européenne and research associate at the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (BESA), also doubts that a comprehensive compromise can be reached to end this dispute. 

“Looking at the situation from a historical perspective, I would not be optimistic,” Tzogopoulos told Ahval. “Turkey wants to discuss a wide range of issues, whereas Greece considers the delimitation of maritime zones the only acceptable legal difference.” 

Consequently, he suggested that the first required compromise should simply be agreeing on the agenda since time “works in favour of no one in terms of delimitation of maritime zones because of energy transition”. 

“A few years later, it will perhaps make no sense to talk about seismographic research and drillings,” he said. 

In Tzogopoulos’ view, Turkey’s goal is pushing for the demilitarisation of some Aegean islands and occasionally bringing into question the sovereignty of some Aegean rocks and inlets. On the other hand, Greece has no similar claims, a fact that “perplexes the situation”.

“While I completely agree on the solution of dialogue, I would say that Turkey now has more to gain,” he said. “This does not mean that its claims, which do not comply with international law, will be vindicated.”

Tzogopoulos believes EU Council President Charles Michel’s idea for a multilateral conference is interesting but needs more details and a clarified agenda. 

“I see no potential for a breakthrough without joint agreements between Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Libya and a solution of the Cyprus Question – at least, the creation of a sharing mechanism,” he said. “Theoretically, the EU has an opportunity to mediate and score some foreign policy points. But its record on geopolitics is rather poor.”

The potential of a return to the August-September military crisis very much depends on whether or not the findings gathered by the Oruç Reis are promising in terms of the extraction of hydrocarbons.

“I strongly believe the interest of Turkey is significantly shaped by the will to find natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean,” Tzogopoulos said.

“It’s not all about politics and foreign policy.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.