Erdoğan’s visit to Athens: A de-escalation with the EU?

Erdoğan’s visit to Athens: A de-escalation with the EU?

When Greek Foreign Minister Nicos Kotzias was in Ankara last week, he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Çavusoğlu. He was also received by President Erdoğan. The visit produced an unexpected piece of news: the Turkish President has responded positively to the invitation of the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and he will pay a visit to Greece.

According to political gossip on the Greek side, Kotzias’ visit to the Presidential Palace was unscheduled and President Erdoğan was particularly friendly and relaxed, even going over the customary dialogue with Kotzias on whether he wanted a “Greek coffee!”

The Turkish president’s readiness to visit Greece is worth special notice. First, the timing. Although the exact date remains to be announced by Ankara, a rough date was given by Kotzias after he returned to Athens He said Erdoğan’s visit will take place between Nov. 20 and Dec. 10. That is surprisingly soon for a visit by a powerful president to a neighboring country with a thick dossier of festering bilateral issues.

News of Erdoğan’s visit to Greece was not reported extensively by Turkish media, except by quoting Kotzias’s press conference in Athens. As there has not been official denial from the Turkish side, we can only assume that both sides have agreed to leave the initial announcement to the Greeks.

The news came as a big surprise among Greek analysts who have since tried to decipher its meaning. Most of them link it to the recent deterioration in relations between Turkey and the West. They think that Greece, worried over a possible final break between Ankara and Brussels or Ankara and Washington is hurrying to re-open dialogue and to secure the most powerful interlocutor who is none other than the Turkish president. Some even link it to the recent apparently successful official visit of Greek Prime Minister Tsipras to the United States upon President Trump’s invitation. They claim Trump may have sent a special message to Erdoğan through Kotzias’ visit while relations between Turkey and the U.S. are at a low ebb.

It is only natural that the Greek side sees Kotzias’s visit as a “diplomatic success.” But, in my mind, this alone does not explain the speed at which Erdoğan accepted a visit to Greece.

I think the explanation lies in a possible new approach to diplomacy on the Turkish side. Is it possible that the apparent readiness of President Erdoğan to visit a European Union country so soon is a signal of the “de-escalation” phase in Turkey-EU relations? And was the first sign of it last week, the release of the eight human rights activists by an Istanbul court?

The release of German citizen Peter Steudtner among them as well as recent revelations concerning former Chancellor Schroder’s role as mediator shows that the bridges of communication are still open. The reaction of German FM Sigmar Gabriel has also echoed some kind of opening, calling Steudtner’s release “an encouraging signal, the first positive step.”

Does the quickly-organized Athens visit represent a second step as Turkey launches a new diplomatic approach towards Brussels? Greece certainly constitutes an ideal platform as a core member of the EU and the first stop of a continuing flow of refugees coming from Turkey. If that is the case, the move should be beneficial for all interested parties, including Greece.

Opinion, Ariana Ferentinou,