Turkey’s claims in the Aegean were first brought to the table in 1973, following the discovery of the Prinos oil field. They have escalated ever since, reaching successive peaks over 10 to 15 years and multiplying. The notorious question of “grey zones,” for example, first emerged in the 1990s.
I still remember an interview with Emre Gonensay, Turkey’s foreign minister for a few months in 1996, in which I asked him what issues needed to be on the agenda of bilateral talks. He listed them without making any mention of grey zones. Then a diplomat sitting behind me held up a piece of paper; Gonensay immediately added: “I musn’t forget the grey zones of course.” It was clear that one more issue had been added to the negotiations scale. Many at the time believed that it was simply a negotiating card that the Turks would later withdraw; they were wrong.
Talks with Turkey may have been easier back when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was powerful, but he had not adopted the nationalist agenda or fallen hostage to the deep state. The balance of power between the two countries was even and Turkey’s European prospects were alive.
The dilemmas we face today are both more numerous and tougher. Greece’s political leadership appears keen to take recourse to The Hague. It will take both parties to get there and, most importantly, they will have to agree on what is at stake. The situation has changed. Turkey insists on delinking negotiations regarding the Aegean with those regarding the Eastern Mediterranean. It obviously plans to bring up the issue of grey zones in the Aegean and ask the court to rule on the sovereignty of certain small islands and islets. We do not know whether it will also choose to bring up the demilitarization of certain islands or even whether it will agree to certain formulaic solutions that had been agreed upon in the past.
It will take time and lengthy negotiations for us to achieve any tangible results in talks that need to address a lot of very thorny issues. The next few weeks ought to reveal whether Ergodan really does want to seek a solution at the International Court of Justice or whether he will choose the path of strong-arm tactics. Until we have a bit more clarity on this point, Athens would be advised to play its cards close to its chest.