Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday raises concerns. One concern has to do with Erdogan’s visit to Greece in December 2017, which was a diplomatic flop for Athens. Nevertheless, there are certain principles which have permeated bilateral ties between Athens and Ankara in the years following the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1974.
1. Dialogue is necessary: When PASOK came to power in 1981, it did not want dialogue. It was Greece’s decision to terminate the (seriously problematic) meetings between the foreign ministry general secretaries of Greece and Turkey. Subsequently, as a condition for talks, Athens stated that Ankara must stop the violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets. Turkey’s recognition of the breakaway state in occupied northern Cyprus dealt the final blow to further contacts between political leaders. In March 1987, the two countries came close to war due to a series of misunderstandings and lack of communication channels between the two sides. After that, it became clear to Greece that it must be on speaking terms with Turkey.
2. Dialogue does not necessarily mean solving problems: Often, the point of holding talks with the people on the other side is to understand how they think or what is the best way to clear up a misunderstanding. In fact, talks rarely aim to solve problems and they succeed in doing so even more rarely.
3. Turkey aims to officially register all of its claims on a bilateral level: Talks between the two sides are not taking place under clear skies. Ankara actually has very specific claims in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, and it pursues them in a constant fashion. The aim of the Turkish side during the bilateral talks is to address all the differences across the spectrum of Greek-Turkish relations and officially record them on a bilateral level.
4. Greece must be strict about sticking to a specific list of topics: The Greek side can only react to Turkey’s efforts to open up all issues by carefully preparing ahead of each meeting. Athens must pursue a structured dialogue around a very specific list of subjects that will stop the other side from roaming freely. Experience demonstrates that it is preferable to focus on issues of mutual interest (e.g. the refugee/migration crisis).
5. Summit meetings do not have to take place on a regular basis: In May 2004, Erdogan paid an official visit to Greece. It was the first time that a Turkish prime minister had visited Greece in 52 years. Similarly, the Greek premier’s visit to Turkey in 2008 was the first since 1959. This does not mean that the two countries’ leaders avoided each other previously. Rather, meetings took place in third countries on the sidelines of international summits. There’s no need for top-level meetings to take place in Greece or Turkey. Furthermore, they must take place when the mood is relatively positive. In contrast, when relations are tense, it’s better that meetings take place on at the foreign ministers’ level, so as to allow for crisis management if needed.
In light of the above, it would be more appropriate if Greece’s alternate foreign minister visited Turkey, rather than the premier. Erdogan will seek to put as many issues on the table as possible, just like he did in 2017. Greek diplomats must outline the agenda of talks as clearly as possible. Finally, the prime minister must avoid any superficial approach on issues such as the Muslim minority in the Greek region of Thrace.
Angelos Syrigos is an associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’s Panteion University.