NATO’s Aegean deal only half the battle, as Turkey, Greece set for thorny talks

NATO’s Aegean deal only half the battle, as Turkey, Greece set for thorny talks

Emine Kart - ANKARA
NATO’s Aegean deal only half the battle, as Turkey, Greece set for thorny talks Despite the promising tone of messages sent last week from NATO leaders in Brussels, the bulk of negotiations in overcoming territorial sensitivities between Greece and Turkey on how their ships will help counter the criminal networks smuggling refugees into Europe across the Aegean Sea still lies ahead, with essential questions to be solved according to Turkish officials.

“The North Atlantic Council (NAC) in Permanent Session approved on Feb. 24 the modalities of the activity to be conducted by NATO naval units with a view to supporting national and international efforts to cut the lines of human trafficking and illegal migration within the Aegean Sea,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Feb. 25.

“Setting the modalities is only the first stage of a three-stage process,” Turkish officials told Hürriyet Daily News. “A technical agreement has been provided so far. The second stage will take place next week [Feb. 29-March 6] and will concern outlining details on how to implement these principles, and the third stage will be implementation,” the same officials, speaking under customary condition of anonymity, said.

The second stage involved the “drawing” of maps, which will be attended by military officials from the Turkish Naval Forces, the officials said.

After late night talks in Brussels, Reuters news agency reported on Feb. 25 that NATO envoys had set out how ships already sent to the Aegean, including Turkish and Greek vessels, would pass on reconnaissance to the Turkish and Greek coastguards and to the European Union border agency, Frontex, as well as returning to Turkey any migrants NATO crews rescued. 

“Greek and Turkish forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters and airspace,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Stoltenberg’s remarks actually pointed to the core of the problem which is yet to be resolved, as the main issue is the lack of bilateral conformity between Athens and Ankara regarding boundaries of their territorial waters and airspace in the Aegean due to the peculiar geography of the Aegean Sea, where some Greek islands are lined up along Turkey’s western coasts. 

In 1995, the Turkish parliament declared any unilateral attempt by Greece to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles from the current six miles as a casus belli, or reason to declare war. Parallel to the dispute over the delimitation of the territorial waters, the two countries are also at odds over the limits of Greek airspace in the Aegean. Greece claims 10 nautical miles of national air space, while Turkey recognizes only six miles because international law defines airspace as covering a state’s land and its territorial waters. 

“Even our search and rescue areas [SAR] overlap in this case,” the officials said.

‘A common sea’

Still, Turkish officials voiced pleasure over the approval on the modalities because it confirmed Ankara’s principle that “the Aegean is a common sea between Turkey and Greece.”

Furthermore, with this approval by NATO, an international body has refrained from becoming “a party” in the Greek-Turkish dispute, a stance favorable for Ankara, which believes all problems should be addressed as a whole towards the settlement of the Aegean issue, officials said.

For almost a decade-and-a-half, the foreign ministries of Turkey and Greece have been holding “exploratory contacts” with a view to finding ways to resolve the Aegean issue. The first of these contacts, held at the Foreign Ministry undersecretary level, took place in Ankara in March 2002.

Political consultations and the 60th round of exploratory contacts between Turkey and Greece will be held in Athens on Feb. 29 and March 1, the Foreign Ministry announced on Feb. 28.

Taking the length of these consultations into consideration, the essential work regarding the NATO mission - the second stage involving the drawing of maps - may well take weeks, while the talks at NATO headquarters aim to have the mission fully operational before an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels on March 7. 

“Modalities are obvious. If the intention is preventing illegal migration, as they said, it is possible to resolve this without triggering a Turkish-Greek dispute. But resolving these issues from today to tomorrow is difficult. We have clearly explained during contacts with the German side that it would not work if they attempt to impose the Greek side’s ‘international law theses’ in the name of EU solidarity,” Turkish officials said.

The NATO decision is a corollary of the proposal made by the defense ministers of Turkey, Germany and Greece at the NATO Defense Ministers’ Meeting held on Feb. 10-11, on the basis of the Joint Action Points agreed to by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Feb. 8 in Ankara. 

‘No precedent’

“The mission can still operate if the second stage is not finalized shortly. Turkish and Greek vessels can meanwhile operate in open seas rather than in contested waters,” the officials said.

One of the issues is whether Greek and Turkish patrol ships would set a precedent for claims over disputed territorial waters. 

“It has been recorded that a route which is used over one singular incident during a mission will not be used in the future. Such singular practices will be assumed as NATO practice, but not a state’s implementation,” Turkish officials said.

The Aegean issue in relation with the EU’s migration crisis will also be on agenda of a March 8 meeting between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Davutoğlu when they co-chair a meeting of intergovernmental high level cooperation council in the Aegean province of İzmir.

In a related development, Director General of Migration Management Atilla Toros paid a visit to Athens on Feb. 11 and met a delegation led by of Greece’s deputy secretary general of the Greek Interior Ministry and Administrative Reconstruction, Tzanetos Filippakos.