Turkey is well aware that Greece is not Syria, Libya, nor Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey appreciates the fact that Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952 (the year of its accession along with Turkey) and a member of the European Union and the eurozone – more than a significant part of Greek public opinion does. It takes into account the high level of Greco-American relations and takes this parameter into account now that it is trying to assess the new American landscape following the election of President Joe Biden. It knows that over the next 55 days presidential authority will be exercised by Donald Trump, but over the exact same period the president-elect will be shaping his basic decisions.
The first decisions of this kind, I believe, along with many others, will be to restore the strategic status of the West based on Euro-Atlantic relations. If this happens, ambitious regional players who have rushed to exploit the large gaps and internal dysfunctions and contradictions of a strategically relaxed West will see a significant reduction in the margin of their initiatives.
The important advantage of its interesting relationship of “controlled conflict and strategic understanding” which it has developed with Russia and tested on various fronts, will not be enough for Turkey. If the direction of Biden’s policy is the one I am describing, Turkey will be asked to answer the question of not whether it is a normal or typical Western country, but if it is a fundamentally Western country that promotes its “exceptionalism,” but knows and respects its own limits.
Of course, until all this works, the Turkish challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean will continue with periodic hiatuses. Greece must avoid the risk of the continuous tension – lasting almost a year – being regarded as a new form of normality in Greco-Turkish relations. The EU has to use, with some effectiveness and insight, the threat lever of sanctions against Turkey and the lever of conditional financial aid, should Turkey be forced to seek it. The Greek-Cypriot side must urgently form a clear policy, knowing that its choices will determine the national strategy, while we, in the so-called national center, must be aware of our historical debts.
This is the context in which the question of dialogue with Turkey is raised. History teaches, first of all, that a compliant attitude and defeatism cause and accelerate whatever it is that they want to prevent. History teaches, secondly, that avoidance of dialogue leads to tension, tension leads to crisis and finally crisis leads to dialogue, possibly on worse terms and in any case under the pressure of time. Thirdly, the history of international relations teaches that any party that gives the impression of refusing dialogue becomes vulnerable to the blame game inherent in international conflicts. These three assumptions shape the field in which we must operate.
Respect for international law is a pillar of Greece’s foreign policy. The international law of the sea requires dialogue on the delimitation of the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone. Without a final delimitation, the relevant sovereignty rights cannot be exercised and yield practical results. Therefore, our position is still that we are ready for exploratory contacts and then for negotiations on the delimitation of the continental shelf and EEZ in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, and if no agreement can be reached, our position is the signing of a procedural agreement for a joint appeal to the International Court of Justice.
The pillar of our foreign policy is international law, but not legalistic naïveté. We therefore do not accept the notion that persistent unilateral claims and challenges can open the way for dialogue on national sovereignty issues.
We are aware, however, that the delimitation of the continental shelf and the EEZ can de-dramatize the issue of the extent of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea and especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Greece and Turkey have territorial waters of 6 nautical miles, while all other countries involved in delimitations that interest us have territorial waters of 12 nm.
Greece does not engage in dialogue on the extent of its airspace or on the “demilitarization” of its islands. However, it has participated with positive results and is ready to engage again in a dialogue on confidence-building measures in order to avoid unnecessary tensions and accidents. It is also prepared to participate – and already has – in NATO consultations aimed at avoiding friction and conflict, provided that the institutions of the Alliance are ready to ensure respect for the North Atlantic Treaty by all members of the Organization.
In any case, even our most sincere and bona fide friends in the coming months will ask Turkey to avoid challenges and respect the status quo and at the same time ask Turkey and Greece to resort to dialogue. Therefore, the question is not a “yes” or a “no” to dialogue, but what we mean by that and in what strategic context our stance lies.
The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Cyprus issue, the developments of which affect the climate of Greek-Turkish relations in a major way. It would be ahistorical to think that there may be significant developments in Greco-Turkish affairs without significant developments in the Cyprus issue, which is certainly an international issue, an issue of invasion and continued military occupation by Turkey of a large part of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. I hope that these developments will be the product of dialogue and will be endorsed by the will of the Cypriot people expressed through a referendum, and not the product of unilateral movements and de facto situations.
It goes without saying that at the same time Greece must upgrade all the parameters of its national power, from the strengthening of its defense to economic recovery. From managing the pandemic to the quality of our democratic institutions. Such a fundamental parameter is the collective national ability to understand and tell each other the truth.
Evangelos Venizelos is a former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, and former minister of national defense.