Greece and Turkey: on the road to nowhere or a chance for redemption?

Greece and Turkey: on the road to nowhere or a chance for redemption?

Ever since George Papandreou in his capacity as the Foreign Minister of the Hellenic Republic met his Turkish counterpart İsmail Cem for the first time in late June 1999 in New York, the two countries have found themselves involved in a process of rapprochement despite their differences. This has led to a number of political and military confidence building measures and agreements on a number of ‘low politics’ issues of common interest to both countries. The process also involved a paradigm shift in Greek foreign policy, which allowed Athens to give the green light to the start of Turkey’s accession negotiations with the European Union.

Yet, we cannot say 17 years since the start of the process between the two countries that it has been smooth sailing. In fact, it hasn’t, despite the greater interaction between the two countries at all levels – political, economic, and societal. With the unfolding drama of the refugee flows from Syria to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece, the tensions between the two NATO allies have increased as there is mutual suspicion as to what the intentions of each side are. The difficult operationalization of the standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) to participate in national and international efforts to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea in the area between Greece and Turkey is another example of the complexity -and absurdity- of Greek-Turkish relations.

While we await the results of today’s EU-Turkey summit on migration and the 4th Turkey-Greece High Level Cooperation Council to be held in Izmir on March 8, it might be wise to reconsider the framework of bilateral relations. Is there such a thing as a rapprochement process or is it a misnomer as it is primarily a political process based on the perception of improved relations? It contains no formalized institutional framework that would oblige both countries to cultivate their relations further. In a recent study I conducted in late 2014 together with my colleague Kostas Itantis, for the Hellenic Observatory of the London School of Economics, measuring the Greek elites’ perceptions regarding Turkey, we found that a majority of Greek elites (63.5 percent) approve of the rapprochement process between the two countries and, albeit in fewer numbers, Greece’s support of Turkey’s EU accession bid (51.6 percent). Yet, when asked whether they trust Turkey, the numbers barely added up to no more than 11.4 percent. I am pretty certain that Turkish elites feel the same way about Greece.

The trust issue, or rather lack thereof, is crucial in explaining the difficulties in strengthening bilateral ties even with enhanced contacts at all levels including 59 rounds of exploratory talks between high ranking diplomats on both sides. The lack of trust permeates the inability to define the Aegean dispute, the inability to properly integrate indigenous populations, the inability to resolve the anomaly of a divided Cyprus once and for all, and the inability to agree on the terms of reference of NATO’s current mission in the Aegean. The lack of trust fundamentally implies the need for a further paradigm shift in mentalities vis-à-vis the other country. The only way forward is to establish a framework within which the two countries bind themselves to produce a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation within the next five years and establish the mechanism, working parties, and timelines to resolve their outstanding disputes even if this implies making use of the good offices of the International Court of Justice or international Arbitration and accepting their decisions as binding. 

The Franco-German Declaration and the Élysée Treaty of January 1963 shows the way toward real and sincere cooperation. Greece and Turkey have an obligation to think what we consider to be unthinkable and make good on their promises to conduct good-neighborly relations. Otherwise, all efforts on cooperation conducted at the level of civil society and the ever growing discovery of each other’s countries and culture will have come to naught. A legally binding treaty would ensure a process of socialization between the administrations of the two countries and focus on education, including the rewriting of history textbooks and the learning of each other’s language, to provide the younger generations with the requisite resources as begin entering the ranks of their respective countries’ governance.  

Imagine the state of bilateral relations or EU-Turkey relations should such a treaty have been in place today. Imagine how nonsensical and anecdotal the current debate of terms of engagement of NATO’s mission in the Aegean would have appeared. Crisis provides opportunity - if only our elites would seize it and we begin to redefine ourselves and our perceptions of the other.

*Dimitrios Triantaphyllou is the director of the Center for International and European Studies (CIES) at Kadir Has University.