Longview: Trials and Tribulations of Turkish-Greek Relations

As usual, relations between Turkey and Greece have continued with ups and downs in the passing weeks. After seemingly promising talks held in March between the two countries to ease the tensions in the East Mediterranean, finger-pointing resumes this month. Last week, Greece once again accused Turkey of pushing migrants towards their shores to pressure and provoke. To legitimize the Greek push back on migrant boats, Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said that these migrants were already supported in Turkey and not at risk. In response, Turkish Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Catakli accused Greece of crimes against humanity for ‘leaving asylum seekers to die’. Most recently, Turkey alleged that Greece is harboring PKK and FETO terrorists, condemning the lack of reaction from other NATO allies.  

Lifting the sanctions imposed on Turkey for deploying vessels to Northern Cyprus, the EU has decided to move towards a more positive approach to Turkey, which Greece and Cyprus strongly criticized

Diplomats have met in Athens on March 16th to discuss core matters of dispute ahead of the European Union summit, which was held on March 25th. It is known that Greece wanted to limit the conversation to disagreements over the boundary of continental shelves and exclusive economic zones. In contrast, Turkey wanted all matters on the table, including disputes of ‘national sovereignty. Ankara’s frustration has continued to grow in March upon a deal signed for an undersea electricity grid plan to link Greece, Israel, and Cyprus. Turkey claims the cable’s proposed path would pass through the Turkish continental shelf. This deal and talks of increased military cooperation between the three countries have reinforced Turkey’s fears of being side-lined in the East Mediterranean energy race. Lifting the sanctions imposed on Turkey for deploying vessels to Northern Cyprus, the EU has decided to move towards a more positive approach to Turkey, which Greece and Cyprus strongly criticized. However, this positive approach is still limited, referred to as ‘phased, proportionate and reversible‘. Cooperation will be increased essentially on migration and trade. It is seen that increasing financial funding and expanding trade relations will help the economically struggling Turkey sustain the vast migrant population it is hosting.

Migration is a critical and continuous issue between Greece and Turkey

Migration is a critical and continuous issue between Greece and Turkey. Poverty and difficult living conditions are the main reasons for migrants seeking Europe. EU officials did call out Greece regarding asylum seeker pushback claims prohibited by international law. EU also pledged more funds for new camps to be built on various Greek islands. At the foundation of tensions between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean is two impenetrable issues: i) unclear international law on the matter of maritime boundary lines, and ii) dispute of sovereignty in Cyprus. The boundaries of exclusive economic zones are established based on the continental shelf of a country, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea signed by 167 countries except for Turkey. According to the convention, inhabited and economically viable islands have EEZ rights as well. This is the central point of disagreement shaping Turkey and Greece’s divergent views on their EEZ borders. All through the Aegean, Greece has several islands in a stone’s throw away distance from Turkish shores, and on the east Mediterranean, one island has become a major matter of debate. 500 km from mainland Greece and 2 km from Turkey, Kastellorizo is home to 275 inhabitants.

Analysts foresee that if matters are taken to the International Court of Justice, it is unlikely that Greece’s maximalist policy will be approved. Case law indicates that factors such as the size, position, and position of an island and its distance from the mainland must be considered, according to Yunus Emre Açkgönül, a former Turkish diplomat and specialist in maritime law. Açkgönül is doubtful that ICJ will deprive Turkey of 400,000 square kilometers of water by finding Kastellorizo justified in extending the exclusive Greek economic zone to another 125 kilometers east.  UN has called for talks on Cyprus reunification, which will be held at the end of April. Erdogan has repeatedly called for a two-state solution, asserting that there are two nations and two functioning democracies on the island, and rejecting this reality has no use for anyone. Turkey’s military occupation has safeguarded the de facto state ‘Turkish Republic of North Cyprus’ in response to the Greece-backed coup in 1974, and unification attempts failed for over 50 years. Considering the stakes raised with the competition over natural resources surrounding the island, a federal one-state solution seems increasingly unlikely. The sovereignty status of north Cyprus plays a key role in Turkey’s claim to access the island’s northern shores, and therefore they will continue to push for a two-state solution.

It is recommended that all parties stop drilling, and the EU should reinforce diplomatic conversation between parties to manage potential conflict instead of trying to resolve the conflict as the two countries are at an impasse on multiple fronts. Within this window of recess, the EU should design a policy arrangement for the eastern Mediterranean that is equally inclusive of all parties’ economic and security interests. Turkey is guaranteed to be a better, more cooperative neighbor in the absence of a threat of exclusion. 

The Editor: Berna Yusein

Berna Yusein holds a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. She has gained significant insight and experience in research, development, and humanitarian action through working with different think tanks and charities. Her research interests consist of security issues, geopolitical risks and socio-cultural dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

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