Turkey And Greece Shake Hands – OpEd


On September 5 the foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece – Hakan Fidan and Giorgos Gerapetritis – met in Ankara.  At the subsequent press conference, standing side by side, they announced that a new era of friendly cooperation had dawned between their countries.  . 

It all began with the summer elections in 2023.  By the end of May Turkey’s Recep Tayyyip Erdogan had won his follow-up poll and was re-installed in the presidential palace.  At the end of June Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was re-elected in a resounding victory at the polls. The two nationalist leaders were safely back at the helm.   In a move virtually unthinkable only a year before, Erdogan – an incarnation of the “big bad wolf” to many Greeks – phoned Mitsotakis to congratulate him.

This amiable gesture did not come completely out of the blue.  Following the devastating Turkey-Syria earthquake in February, Greece had swiftly responded with assistance, and as a result a relatively friendly climate had been generated.  This had been strengthened when, after a deadly train accident in Greece on May 1 that killed at least 32 people, Erdogan extended his condolences.  His action was echoed by many Turkish citizens who offered support and solidarity via social media.

During their chat on the phone, Erdogan and Mitsotakis, realizing that they would both be attending the NATO summit scheduled to take place in Lithuania in July, agreed to meet on the sidelines for an informal discussion.

That discussion duly took place, and proved surprisingly productive.  The two leaders produced a “roadmap” intended to expand the developing rapprochement between their nations.  They agreed that their foreign ministers would hold talks aimed at fostering confidence-building measures, and that the long-suspended High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) would be revived.

The HLCC was inaugurated on 14 May, 2010, during a visit of Turkey’s then-prime minister Erdogan to Athens.  It was an attempt to establish a forum where the two countries, almost continuously at odds with each other, could at least discuss their differences.  Over the years four sessions were held, the last in March 2016.  Now the Council was to be revitalized and, it was agreed, by the end of the year Greece and Turkey would be sitting together round the table in Thessaloniki. 

This was the background to the meeting on September 5 between Fidan and Gerapetritis. During their subsequent media conference Fidan thanked Greece for its assistance after the unprecedented earthquakes that had killed more than 50,000 people, and said that Turkey was “ready to help” as Greece battles weeks of deadly wildfires

Turning to the Turkey-Greece rapprochement they were initiating, Gerapetritis said:

“We don’t have our heads in the clouds.  We know that the…passions passed on from generation to generation cannot be erased with one stroke. But we have the disposition and the will to invest in candor and mutual understanding so as to seek common ground, break with established opinions and, where there are disagreements, at least not have them lead to crises.” 

Fidan sang from the same hymn-sheet.

“We have entered a new and positive era in our relations with Greece,” he said. “We are ready to continue dialogue with our neighbor Greece without any preconditions, and to develop our relations in all fields based on common interests.”

Not everyone believed him.  Only three years earlier the two nations had been on the brink of military conflict over sovereignty in areas of the Mediterranean, and related rights to drill for oil in the disputed ocean zones. The Greek and Turkish navies were shadowing each other in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean for much of the summer of 2020, after Turkey sent a survey ship to prospect for oil and gas in waters Greece claims as its jurisdiction under international law.

The dispute rumbled on, exacerbated in Erdogan’s eyes by the emerging Greek, Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian oil and gas alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean, backed by the US.  The relationship soured further when in May 2022 Mitsotakis, during an address to the US Congress, joined a campaign to deny US military jets to Turkey.  Erdogan, furious at the Greek prime minister, vowed never to speak to him again.

Since then Erdogan has taken steps to repair relations with both Israel and Egypt, while Turkey’s standing in Washington has been greatly strengthened by Erdogan’s agreement to allow Sweden to join NATO.  As part of that deal, the US Congress has promised Turkey dozens of F-16s, with Greece also getting fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets.

​​The two foreign ministers confirmed that their respective leaders planned to carry the initiative forward by meeting later in September, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly ​in New York.  On Erdogan’s shopping list is his wish to revive Turkey’s accession track to the EU. A better relationship with Greece could help that. High among other unresolved issues is delineating the two nations’ exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean, while way out on the horizon is even the possible reunification of Cyprus.

Meanwhile​ on September 20 the ​long-delayed meeting between Erdogan and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place  at Turkish House in New York​, when they came face to face for the first time. ​ The​y discussed regional and international issues, including normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia​, and decided to continue advancing bilateral relations in trade, economic matters and energy.​  The word from the meeting is that Erdogan plans to visit Jerusalem as soon as October.  

Back in 2016 Israel, Cyprus and Greece forged a tight cooperative relationship spanning a wide spectrum of activities including trade, energy, defense, hi-tech and security.  Netanyahu took advantage of the New York gathering of world leaders to meet up with his Greek and Cypriot partners.  Not to be outdone, Erdogan also organized a discussion with Mitsotakis.  Erdogan is intent on drawing closer to both Greece and Israel to ensure that Turkey is not disadvantaged by this thriving alliance, or perhaps to snatch an advantage by way of a bi-lateral deal with one or other of the partners.  He seems to have decided for the moment to follow Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism:  “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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