Monday’s meeting was different. In contrast to the two previous ones – in September and December 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and the NATO anniversary summit, respectively – this time, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were alone, without large delegations, even though their foreign and defense ministers were in Brussels at the time.
It was a face-to-face meeting (only the Turkish president’s closest aide, Ibrahim Kalin, was present and acted as interpreter, while Mitsotakis was accompanied by his chief diplomatic adviser, Eleni Sourani) that allowed much to be said, perhaps even things that often cannot be shared with the public or even with ministers and others; an “icebreaker” intended to build a relationship of trust that is important to both leaders, but also their countries, to the degree that it will help avert misunderstandings and unnecessary tensions.
Turkish officials have consistently claimed in recent years that Erdogan believes and invests in personal contacts. In this context, and inspired by the Turkish establishment’s trust in Konstantinos Mitsotakis and the former prime minister’s pragmatic approach to Greek-Turkish relations, Erdogan wanted to create a relationship based on such trust with his son as soon as the latter became prime minister of Greece, with the expectation that this would help them move forward and achieve results.
This has not been accomplished so far, but it remains to be seen whether the meeting in Brussels managed to turn the tide on a personal level. If this has indeed happened, certain good-faith gestures will be expected, even if they do not concern the thornier issues.
In such a different framework, and despite the considerable differences that remain unresolved, the two sides could find a way to manage these differences and put the dangerous tension of 2020 behind them. This will depend on Ankara’s intentions and, ultimately, its behavior.
What can happen right now is a push for a positive agenda, starting with easier issues like commercial cooperation, while discussions continue on the way forward for resolving stickier matters such as maritime zones and the migration crisis, in an atmosphere of calm, without challenges to the tenets of good-neighborly relations. And this, of course, can only happen in the context of international law, which both sides invoke.
It is, after all, the only mutually accepted compass on the course that must be followed, if the aim is indeed to improve bilateral relations and resolve the Cyprus issue on the basis of principles and rules, but also realism and mutual respect, without threats and provocations.
If Erdogan was sincere in his claim – in a video statement to the German Marshall Fund forum that was happening at the same time as the NATO Summit – that reviving dialogue with “neighbor and ally” Greece would serve stability and prosperity in the region, as well as resolving bilateral issues, then progress can be made.
It is up to the Turkish president to prove this with his actions and to convince not only Greece but also third parties like the United States and the European Union, which are watching developments in our area with very keen interest.