The end of Turkish-Greek diplomatic relations?

Celine Madaghjian is a second year International Relations student at Kings College London. She believes that understanding the implications of the region’s current and rapidly evolving politics is vital to our understanding of International Relations. She is passionate about analysing the sectarianism and geopolitics of the Middle East, as well as the effects of GCC relations on the regional and international scale.

On the 24th of May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed that he does not acknowledge the existence of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stating that the Greek leader “no longer exists for me. I will never agree to meet with him. We will continue our way with honourable politicians.” Erdogan also said that he would not attend the strategic council meeting this year as he was supposed to meet with the Greek leader. Greek spokesman Yiannis Economou responded by stating that Greece “will not get into a counter-argument with Turkey’s leadership.” 

Erdogan made these statements after Mitsotakis met with US president Joe Biden and addressed Congress, urging it to consider Turkey’s violations of airspace in the eastern Mediterranean when selling F-16 fighter jets to it. He emphasised that the focus must be on helping Ukraine rather than creating further instability in the Mediterranean. 

Erdogan’s comments and decision to halt the Turkish-Greek dialogue puts an end to what was expected to be a period of détente between both countries given their historical conflicts regarding national sovereignty. Both leaders had met in March to discuss their conflicting issues, and in 2021 Germany had taken a mediator role that initiated talks between the two. However, as this article demonstrates, the historical events leading up to Erdogan’s statement, Greece and Turkey’s realist foreign policies, and Erdogan’s international aspirations show that the prospects of a friendly relationship resuming between both countries are grim.  

What present and historical events can explain the tensions between Turkey and Greece? A look at Realism in action

Despite being NATO allies, Turkey and Greece are engaged in issues regarding the disagreement about their maritime rights and access to airspace, their overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and continental shelves in the eastern Mediterranean, and the ethnic division of Cyprus. 

Both have different interpretations of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea; therefore, Greece contends that it has the right to extend its territorial rights an extra 12 miles into the waters and include islands in the EEZ definition. On the other hand, Turkey believes that islands should be removed from this definition. It would be deprived of 400,000 square kilometres of water if the Greek EEZ expanded an extra 125 km east of Rhodes, overlapping with Turkish maritime claims. 

These conflicting sovereignty claims have resulted in the formation of Realist Turkish and Greek foreign policies, as reflected in the tensions that have arisen regarding energy exploration rights in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. For example, in 2020, both countries engaged in a tense naval standoff due to disagreement over exploratory drilling rights near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkey has also accused Greece of militarising its islands in the Aegean Sea, as the latter explains it must defend itself against a future attack by Turkey’s growing naval fleet. Turkey perceives this to be a hostile move against itself. Moreover, in April 2022, Greece accused Turkey of provocatively violating its airspace approximately six times, while Turkey responded it did so only because of an initial Greek violation of its own airspace. 

The potential eruption of a naval conflict between these NATO allies has also been reflected in their deals with other countries such as the UAE, Libya, Israel and Egypt to secure access to gas reserves. For instance, Greece, Cyprus and Israel are cooperating to create the EastMed pipeline. This project would pass through Libyan waters, thus Turkey signed two agreements with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2019 to obtain access to this maritime area. According to this deal, the pipeline would have to go through what had now become Turkey’s new and additional maritime territorial rights, giving it the ability to object to the construction of the pipeline. 

Therefore, Turkey and Greece’s realist approaches to the conflict and the prioritisation of their national sovereignty demonstrate that neither side is willing to reach a diplomatic settlement in which concessions are made. Erdogan’s recent statement reaffirms this. 

What do Erdogan’s statements imply about Turkey’s international aspirations?

Erdogan’s “Blue Homeland” realist foreign policy seeks to legitimise the actions of the Turkish navy internationally and domestically. Its underlying claim is that Turkey is repositioning itself to be a maritime power whilst reimagining its power position on the international scene. It draws upon altering the geopolitical status quo to benefit Turkey, as it views the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne as a historical example of how it foolishly conceded territories such as northern Syria and Iraq that it had claimed in the 1920 National Pact. Thus, current events with Greece are perceived to be the opportunity to challenge its historical inferiority. Turkish analyst Cem Gürdeniz claims that Blue Homeland is a “defensive doctrine after our continental shelf was stolen by Greece and Cyprus [and] represents the greatest geostrategic challenge of the century.”

Erdogan also needs this policy to maintain his political dominance in Turkey. With his decreased popularity among the domestic population given lowered living standards and devaluation of the Turkish Lira, he is drawing upon nationalism to maintain domestic support. This makes reconciliation with Greece more difficult to expect. 

No prospects for a diplomatic settlement?

As demonstrated, the prospects of Turkey deciding to reconcile dialogue with Greece given its actions in Washington in the near future is improbable. Its realist foreign policy that draws upon elements of its strategic culture makes a diplomatic settlement difficult to achieve. Furthermore, Greece and Turkey disagree on too many factors, and neither are willing to any form of concessions needed to reach a negotiated settlement. They interpret the Law of the Seas differently, Turkey wants to settle the issue bilaterally, whereas Greece wants international arbitration, and Turkey believes that German mediation is biased towards Greece and Cyprus. 

Unless both countries are willing to make concessions, which would be a first step towards the negotiation process, a diplomatic settlement cannot be achieved. Turkey needs to keep in mind that EU membership remains its strategic priority, thus it must be careful with the consequences of cutting ties with an EU member state. However, both countries’ prioritisation of protecting national sovereignty and asserting territorial integrity is not something that is going to be easily forgone by both parties.

Image credit: https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/erdogan-says-greek-pm-mitsotakis-no-longer-exists-for-him/

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