The old saying “elephant in the room” implies that there is an issue that is so obvious and serious that it is easier to pretend it does not exist than actually do something about it. Regrettably, Greece’s Turkey policy has come to that point.
Take the migration issue. We know that Turkey’s authoritarian police state is capable of controlling migrant and refugee flows. Turkey officially threatens to “open the gates” into Europe for refugees. The Turks know that Greece would be the first casualty of such a move. After all, they experimented by allowing an abrupt spike in crossings from Turkey to the Greek islands after the New Democracy party came to power in July 2019; a total of 55,000 people landed on the Aegean islands in the second half of the year, up from 23,000 in the first six months. This is the most dangerous weapon in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in case bilateral relations deteriorate.
Nonetheless, the migration issue has for years been treated as an independent issue and not as one that is directly related to violations of Greek air space or developments in the continental shelf of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about taking recourse to the International Court of Justice in The Hague as a way of presumably settling Greek-Turkish differences once and for all. However, the fact is that a court settlement would not be feasible due to the wide spectrum of issues raised by Turkey.
No one bothers to explain why Turkey would under the present circumstances go to The Hague only to discuss the delineation of the continental shelf/exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which is what Athens intends to do. Also, we are deluding ourselves regarding the number of issues that Turkey is willing to negotiate. We seem to believe that when the two sides sit down for talks, Turkey will for some reason abide by Greek wishes and withdraw some of the issues. In fact, it is sometimes said that the most likely topic to be withdrawn is Turkey’s questioning of Greek sovereignty over certain small islands.
The idea is that Turkey only raised the issue as a bargaining chip. In truth, however, no country will easily abandon its long-standing positions, let alone nationalist Turkey.
Back in the days of the 1999 Helsinki Summit, Greece adopted a strategy that was based on Turkey’s westernization as the European Union recognized Turkey as a candidate state. That strategy is long dead in the water. The EU does not want Turkey in, nor does Turkey want to join the EU. However, until May 2019 Greece alone insisted on saying that the bloc must keep its door open to Turkey.
It is said that a solution to Greek-Turkish disputes will come from a return to the strategy and the methods used at Helsinki in 1999. Or this is what the advocates of taking recourse to The Hague seem to suggest. It is not just that the conditions are different today. It is also absurd to expect that something which has repeatedly failed in the past will this time yield results.
Greece is constantly invoking international law. In practice, however, it is acting as if there were no such thing as the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea or the institutions that the accord entailed. Time as far as Greek-Turkish ties are concerned stopped in 1974.
The list of our self-delusions is a long one. The Turkey-Libya deal on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean made us look at the elephant in the room of Greek-Turkish relations. We have been forced to discover our neighborhood. It was good to see Greece make quick contacts with regional states that were also harmed by Turkey’s policy. But we are still in pursuit of a strategy aimed at the peaceful resolution of Greek-Turkish differences. Responding to Turkey’s initiatives is not tantamount to a strategy.
Our new strategy cannot be based on our abstaining from exercising the rights granted by international law. Today Turkey feels no pressure about going to The Hague, let alone on our terms. For Turkey to change stance, it must be made to feel that continuing its current policy will come at a cost. This means that one of the pillars of the new strategy will be moves based on international law and backed by the EU which will send Turkey the message that it is ultimately in its best interest to accept recourse to The Hague.
Angelos Syrigos is a New Democracy MP and associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Panteion University in Athens.