Refugee agreement: A critical test of Greco-Turkish relations

Refugee agreement: A critical test of Greco-Turkish relations

Last week, Greece and Turkey embarked on a difficult journey, the safe navigation of which is not guaranteed. 

Following the Turkey-EU agreement aimed at curbing the flow of refugees/migrants, the two countries will now jointly try to manage a practically enormous and legally controversial issue which has already been met with a lot of criticism worldwide. 

Greece and Turkey have had a long, tempestuous history of wars and peace, with animosities followed by friendship agreements. Their peoples have been deeply marked by painful memories and the loss of lives. So, it is only a logical sequence to wonder how these two countries will manage to collaborate closely now – especially when considering that their theater of operations is the Aegean Sea, which is the source of their bilateral problems! It is true that since the launching of “earthquake diplomacy” in the 1990s, Greeks and Turks have been experiencing the longest peaceful period in their recent history, but it is also true that their governments have retained a long list of complicated foreign policy issues on the shelf to be solved during prolonged and inconclusive talks. 

The refugee/migrant crisis that exploded in our neighborhood has laid bare a Europe below our expectations; it has turned into a serious humanitarian issue now directly influencing Greek and Turkish societies. The solution that was suggested by Turkey and agreed by the EU has just been implemented. Already in the first hours, however, we have witnessed not only the actual drama of the individual refugees/migrants, but also the reactions by local communities on both sides of the Aegean. The migrant issue is a hot potato that the Europeans have thrown at us. It is up to us to manage it. 

At this very early stage, it would be interesting to see how Greeks and Turks stand opposite each other before this common problem and whether the historical perceptions of each other have been affected under the weight of a major regional crisis.

To my knowledge, there has not been a recent Turkish survey measuring the state of Greek-Turkish relations in relation to the refugee/migrant problem. However, I found a study conducted last March by Public Issue, a leading opinion polling company in Greece to be an eye-opener.  The findings were published at the end of March and the Greek respondents replied to a series of questions on how they see Turkey today. 

Asked their opinion on which neighboring country – Albania, Macedonia (FYROM), Bulgaria and Turkey – presents Greece with its most serious problems today, 77 percent selected Turkey, with Macedonia scoring just 10 percent in a very distant second. FYROM’s recent decision to close its borders to the migrants and refugees on their way to Western Europe probably contributed to this result. 

Even more interestingly, asked whether the relations between Greece and Turkey have changed during the last year, just 4 percent thought they had improved, 60 percent thought that they remained the same, and 34 percent thought they had deteriorated.

And to the question about Greece’s most serious problem with Turkey, 60 percent thought it was the Aegean (continental shelf, airspace, territorial waters, Exclusive Economic Zone-EEZ), with the refugee problem coming second at just 25 percent. Issues like the Turks in Western Thrace, as well as Cyprus and the Cyprus EEZ, were selected by a mere 1 and 2 percent, respectively. It’s a surprising find given the severity of the refugee problem and its impact upon a crisis-laden Greece.

Still, when asked about their opinion whether a war was possible between Turkey and Greece, almost two-thirds (64 percent) thought it was “unlikely,” with only 33 percent thinking it was “likely,” and just 3 percent having no opinion on the matter. Nevertheless, should there be a war, 39 percent of respondents thought that the winner would be Greece, with 29 percent choosing Turkey and almost 20 percent not having an opinion.   

One week after the implementation of the Turkey-EU plan, Greeks believe the Aegean disputes are a far more serious bilateral problem than the refugees/migrants, while they placed last those issues that used to haunt bilateral relations, such as Cyprus and Western Thrace. We should look forward now to a similar survey on the Turkish side which would provide useful data for a correct reading of the current trends in both societies.