Unpacking the state of Greek-Turkish relations

Unpacking the state of Greek-Turkish relations

The recent cancellation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the White House immediately sparked discussions about its potential repercussions on Greek-Turkish relations, particularly concerning the scheduled visit of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Ankara on May 13. Both governments reacted swiftly: Upon learning of Erdogan’s canceled visit, Greek Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis promptly initiated a crisis meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, in London. Diplomatic sources in Athens reveal that the ministers meticulously strategized the agenda for the upcoming Ankara summit, leaving no detail to chance.

For over a year now, we have been witnessing a period of detente in relations between the Aegean neighbors. The pinnacle of this political process was the summit meeting between the Greek prime minister and the Turkish president in Athens on December 7 last year. Behind the scenes, Western governments, especially Washington and Berlin, have been instrumental in promoting this development.

For Turkish foreign policy, improving relations with Greece aligns with a broader strategy aimed at repairing ties with the West, particularly the USA. Despite enduring differences, primarily in Middle East policy, there are currently no signs that the rift in Turkish-American relations is adversely affecting Athens-Ankara ties.

Greece and Turkey are striving to insulate their relations from the toxicity of external conflicts, notably the Gaza war, signaling a commitment to detente. President Erdogan’s recent conciliatory remarks and Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ acknowledgment of progress underscore this shared aspiration for stability. “There are no problems in the region that cannot be solved,” said Erdogan. The messages from Athens have also been positive. In an interview, the Greek prime minister spoke of “significant progress in relations with Turkey” – and substantiated this with the observation that “for months” there had been no violations of Greek sovereignty by Turkey in the airspace of the Aegean Sea.

Mitsotakis also articulated an essential premise underlying the political process with Ankara: “The differences of opinion remain unchanged,” he said. “Our aim is to ensure that no crises arise [in our relations] that jeopardize calm and peace in the region.” A shorter summary of the strategic objective of the Athens Declaration signed by Mitsotakis and Erdogan last December would be hard to find. There, both sides solemnly agreed to work on improving and deepening their relations while reaffirming their fundamental positions on bilateral issues. The Athens Declaration, which has been the most important framework for bilateral relations since last December’s summit, outlines the process of detente. The text does not say a word about the substance of the well-known differences between Athens and Ankara. On this basis, diplomats and ministers have made progress on practical issues of bilateral relations in various areas over the past few months.

A breakthrough between Erdogan and Mitsotakis during their meeting in Ankara seems highly unlikely – and is perhaps not even their objective at this stage

The broader and more ambitious goals of the “positive agenda” and “confidence-building measures” aim to create a political climate conducive to negotiating deep-rooted differences, particularly regarding the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. As of now, no tangible progress has been made in this regard, a breakthrough between Erdogan and Mitsotakis during their meeting in Ankara seems highly unlikely – and is perhaps not even their objective at this stage.

Despite the absence of major crises, bilateral relations are far from harmonious. Greece reacted strongly to Ankara’s plans to introduce the expansionist “Blue Homeland” concept into school curricula, much as it did to the recent opening of the iconic Byzantine-era Chora Church in Istanbul as a mosque. Mitsotakis has indicated his intention to address this concern in Ankara. It may be expected that Erdogan will reciprocate by expressing opposition to Athens’ announcement of creating ecological protection zones in the Aegean. This list of grievances between Athens and Ankara could go on.

The overarching question is whether the spirit of “friendship and good neighborliness” proclaimed in December in Athens six months ago will endure or merely be a fleeting moment in this fraught relationship. Monday evening will provide more insight.

Dr Ronald Meinardus is a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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