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Whose Sea? A Greek Perspective on Old Troubles in a Changing Context

Whose Sea? A Greek Perspective on Old Troubles in a Changing Context
 Dimitrios Triantaphyllou
Professor and Director of the Center for International and European Studies

The recent military conflict between Greece and Turkey over the ownership of fossil fuels located in disputed waters is tied to a complex historical and political strife between the two nations, so close geographically, yet distant culturally and politically. Superpowers have stakes and alliances tied to both countries, thus globalizing the conflict. Furthermore, all the countries involved need Greece and Turkey's collaboration in matters such as the refugee crisis. The Greek professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and member of the Greek-Turkish Forum, Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, gives us his insight into the strategic evolution of relations between Greece and Turkey, and what this latest episode of escalation means for them.

The long, hot, tiring summer of 2020 has come to its seasonal end. Yet in the theater of Greek-Turkish relations, much like the blur caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the tensions between the two countries transcend time and persist, albeit at a lower level of friction than they were a few weeks ago. The polemics are neither new nor will they dissipate any time soon. The issue at hand is whether and how they can be handled over time, in order to lead to some sort of paradigmatic shift in relations between the two countries, and by extension, between the European Union and Turkey. Potentially, this may provide an example for relations among all the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. The stakes on all sides are as high as they have usually been. This time, though, there is the very real recognition that the international and regional order are undergoing fundamental changes, within which decoupling the issues that separate Greece and Turkey from the wider regional and European contexts is not possible. There is also the issue of the contextual and fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between the EU and Turkey. 

Turkey’s Drift Away from Europe

This year’s spike in tensions between Athens and Ankara has not occurred in a vacuum, notwithstanding its acceleration and intensity. 

The friction reflects a strategic rebalancing by Turkey as it drifts away from the European Union and the West in general. 

They are symptomatic of the changing nature of geopolitics, geoeconomics and the consequences of Covid-19. The friction reflects a strategic rebalancing by Turkey as it drifts away from the European Union and the West in general. It is also a function of a realization by Greece that it has to rethink and act upon this perceived Turkish realignment, with regard to how it affects its own security and stability. 

Finally, there’s the embattled Union, as the personification of normative multilateralism that finds itself having to come to terms with the global shifts from a rules-based international order, to an increasingly multipolar one. In this new configuration, the other poles, such as the United States, Russia, and China among others, define their role ever more through the lenses of great power competition. 

For Greece, in particular, this reckoning has meant a fundamental rethinking of its approach of how to maintain a working relationship with its key neighbour, Turkey. The regional security vacuum in evidence has awoken Greece from its doldrums. It had sought, and to a certain degree still does, to keep Turkey ingrained within the wider European family, and the norms and principles that come with both full membership, or an aspiration for it. The stalemate in the accession process and the lack of a viable alternative to it, coupled with the realization that Ankara has potentially turned away from the procedural and normative confines of a closer relationship with the European Union have alarmed Athens. 

The extended unprecedented crisis between the two countries clearly reflects the dilemmas of all sides. Both Greece and Turkey are outliers in historical terms, in geographic terms, as well as in political terms. In the post-1945 world order, they have been fundamentally shaped by their flank state mentality and their membership in the Atlantic Alliance in 1952, as well as their efforts to join the then European Economic Community since the late 1950s. 

From both their perspectives, these efforts reflect primarily the primacy of security considerations. This security-first approach, with the normative elements of integration taking a backseat, is still very much in effect today for both Athens and Ankara. The Cold War, as well as a large part of the post-Cold War contexts induced both countries, despite periodic serious crises and flare ups, to keep a lid on the outbreak of full-scale conflict with the guidance of their allies and partners. 

Greece [...] has also opted to strengthen its regional presence both diplomatically and militarily.

This tendency also led both not to invest rigorously in fundamental diplomatic efforts to resolve outstanding differences, which have evolved over time depending on the context.

Undeniably, both NATO and the EU have acted as deconfliction levers between the two countries, which have led to a tenuous attempt to strengthen political, economic, and societal ties in particular since the late 1990s. 

The gridlock in Turkey’s EU accession process coupled, with the emergence of multiple poles that contest the existing multilateral order, has fundamentally challenged Greece’s approach to "containing" Turkey since 1999; when it lifted its objections to Turkey’s EU bid. This steadfast support for Ankara’s EU vocation, from a Greek perspective, was based on the belief that the transformative context of the process would allow for an eventual settlement of differences on the basis of International Law and its application. It would be at the core of a long-term trust-building process that would transform both countries and their societies in how they approach and view the other. At the same time, Greece has always understood the limitations that EU and NATO membership brought to its deterrence potential to counter the perceived Turkish threat to its sovereign rights in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as to its sovereignty. This discernment emerged, in particular, because of the continued Turkish military presence in Cyprus since 1974, when Turkey intervened militarily in the wake of a coup against the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios. Another result of the Cyprus conflict in 1974 was the emergence of the Aegean or Fourth Army based in Izmir, with its offensive and amphibian capabilities which are seen as a direct threat to Greece’s many neighbouring islands. This induced Greece to beef up its deterrence capacities to counter the perceived threat from a neighbour and ally; whose geography was viewed as a crucial bulwark against a bevy of the threats that the West (including Greece), faced by a number of state and non-state actors.

At the current phase of the evolving regional context, both powers have clearly come to the conclusion that the world that was is being rapidly transformed. For Greece, this has meant an iteration of sustaining the EU project and ensuring that it is not only strengthened politically, but that it acquires a more geopolitical and dynamic international presence. Simultaneously, Greece, concerned with the increasingly coercive and military nature of Turkish diplomacy and power projection, has also opted to strengthen its regional presence both diplomatically and militarily. The conjecture of perceptions with other regional stakeholders such as Egypt, Israel and Cyprus, in particular, regarding the nature of the growing regional (over)reach by Turkey has mobilized Greece to strengthen diplomatic and military ties with the other peripheral states. Athens’ goal was to support a regional security community framework between these countries that could manage the hydrocarbon wealth that lies in the Eastern Mediterranean’ sea bed. Greece has also found common ground to strengthen its security deficits (both materially as well as conceptually) with both France and the United States, given their wider strategic interests in the region. 

Greece has also understood that the compartmentalization and prioritization of its foreign policy in order to handle the perceived Turkish threat cannot be limited to the narrow confines of bilateral relations.

Yet, the fundamentals of Greek diplomatic activity do not stop there. Athens has become increasingly aware and concerned of Ankara’s strategic drift away from the binding nature of EU conditionality toward a strategic reorientation of a more autonomous trajectory. Such a drift would endow Turkey with the recognition that it is also one of the key poles shaping the new international order. The definitive reorientation that would result from this project can only take place over the longer term. Therefore, Turkey is perceived as seeking a tactical green card type marriage of convenience with the European Union, to alleviate some of its short and medium-term deficits, especially on the economic front, as well as to counter its growing diplomatic drift until the reorientation stands on firmer ground. 

Greece has also understood that the compartmentalization and prioritization of its foreign policy in order to handle the perceived Turkish threat cannot be limited to the narrow confines of bilateral relations. It has, hence, tried to extend its diplomatic reach beyond the region. Athens incorporated into its toolbox, for example, the changing dynamics between the Gulf states and the normalization by some such as the UAE with Israel, to strengthen its ties with them as well. Athens has also become cognizant that the evolving EU relations with Turkey and NATO’s renewed existentialist dilemmas may not provide the framework to constrain a potential hot conflict between Greece and Turkey in the future. This has led Athens to speed up the search for a possible peaceful resolution of its key disputes with Ankara. Both the maritime delimitation deals it signed earlier this year with Italy and Egypt suggest that Greece is willing to accept partial sovereign rights for some of its smaller islands in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek government has also repeatedly, constantly, and with fervor been stating that it is willing to accept the jurisdiction and verdict of the International Court of Justice, or a mutually acceptable arbitration panel, should political dialogue and negotiations with Turkey fail to produce a breakthrough. It is also increasingly aware that a landmark breakthrough and resolution of the Cyprus governance problem are necessary for a long-lasting regional paradigm that would encapsulate the security considerations of all stakeholders from the region as well as those with a stake in it. 

Regulating Relations with Turkey

In order to drive its point home, Greece has continued to insist for, and to a certain degree obtained, the application of EU principles such as internal EU solidarity, with its emphasis on good neighbourly relations, and its calls for the peaceful resolution of disputes. In fact, the recent early October European Council conclusions reflect both the sought for solidarity by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, coupled with possible recourse to a sanctions mechanism should Turkey continue to act unilaterally and in breach of international law (paragraph 20). The Council conclusions also suggest that the Union is coming to terms with its geopolitical persona and how to apply it. This is reflected, in particular, in the qualified emphasis "to launch a positive political EU-Turkey agenda with a special emphasis on the modernization of the Customs Union and trade facilitation, people to people contacts, High level dialogues, continued cooperation on migration issues, in line with the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement." (paragraph 19) Tellingly, there was no reference to the importance of the application of the rule of law and other normative values and principles that have held up progress on many of these issues. This, in itself, suggests an acceptance that Ankara’s strategic drift away from the Union is more permanent rather than transient and that the EU and its member states, in particular Greece and Cyprus, are already working on how to regulate relations with Ankara in the new emerging international context. Undoubtedly, the bridging of France’s more forceful approach that had been strengthened by the Joint declaration of the 10 September meeting of the EU Med7 leaders in Corsica and Germany’s preference for offering Ankara more incentives in order to ensure compliance helped in the formulation of the Council’s decision. The same can be said of the linkages between the announcement of some sanctions against the Belarus regime promoted by many member states and Greece and Cyprus’ insistence on a clear blueprint vis-à-vis Turkey. 

For Athens, this implies a fundamental rethinking of its strategy of engagement with Ankara, away from the cocoon of the accession process to one where security considerations will become more prioritized, but within the confines of clearly formulated, mutually acceptable rules of engagement. The internationalization of Greece’s differences with its neighbour ups the stakes for both countries, as it pressures them to sit at the negotiating table, at first, via the resumption of the direct exploratory talks.

Athens would need to deploy a pragmatism for a fundamentally different regional context. 

Eventually, the parties will have to deliver both on resolving their differences which the European Council has clearly formulated as "the delimitation of the Continental Shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone of the two countries" (paragraph 16) and on committing to a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem (paragraph 18). Finally, the call for a Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean is clearly meant to encourage a regional security community with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders which promotes regionwide solutions on issues such as maritime delimitation, security, energy, migration, and economic cooperation (paragraph 21).

In other words, this new framework under development represents, for Athens, a move away from the obduracy and dogmatism of both the binding confines of the accession process which Ankara refuses to even play lip service to, and the lethargy of going through the motions of dialogue without assuming the political risk of a mutually acceptable compromise with Ankara. On this second matter, Athens would need to deploy a pragmatism for a fundamentally different regional context. 

A Much Needed Paradigm Shift

The significant emotional and tangible outlier quotient of Greece has always made it seek to maintain a balance between integration in European and Atlantic institutions and investing in its security in order to level the playing field to counter the continued threat it perceives historically emanates from Turkey. By privileging a diplomatic tract within the EU context and agreeing to the re-energization of a deconfliction mechanism within NATO, Greece’s approach and message is that unilateral action and/or disruption in bilateral and regional relations will have catastrophic consequences, at least, over the short term. 

There is reason to believe that Turkey also wants ordered closure in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, rather than disruption, as it navigates the unchartered waters of disengagement from the West. The straitjacket of both European and American pressure, and leverage on both countries as well as Cyprus for a long standing and historic settlement might well be the conduit for protracted and complicated negotiations that could entail the much needed paradigm shift in Greek-Turkish relations towards a more positive, forward-looking model of engagement. The stakes are high, success is by no means guaranteed, but failure is not an option either.




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