Economic crisis; a curse or a blessing for Turkish-Greek relations

Economic crisis; a curse or a blessing for Turkish-Greek relations

A recent statement by the Greek Foreign Ministry created a sort of “nostalgic” effect on me.

According to the statement made on Feb. 22, Greece notified the United Nations of Turkey’s granting of exploration permits for areas of the Greek continental shelf.

I recalled writing a lot of news articles in the first decade of my career in the 90’s that would deal with the contention between Turkey and Greece on the “continental shelf” issue. When I saw Greece’s statement, I just could not remember when the last time was in the last decade that I wrote anything about this issue.

As Greece’s statement was shortly followed by an official reaction from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the thought of whether Turkey and Greece might go back to past confrontational periods quickly crossed my mind.

Ironically, there were not many newspapers in Turkey that published the statements. Actually, most preferred news pieces about the visit of the Greek Prime Minister, with a big delegation, scheduled for March 4. Ankara and Athens are planning to sign nearly 20 agreements, said the news. So, it looked as if the two capitals decided to continue with the “engagement” policy that dominated their relations much of the last decade.

But then how to explain these reciprocal (negative) statements just ahead of a visit that is expected to give a new push to improved ties between the two countries?

When you take into consideration the energy background, at first glance there seems to be reason to be worried about potential tension between the two capitals. Crippled under an economic crisis, Greece’s need for cheaper energy is more acute than ever, while the same need is also valid for Turkey, since with a growing economy, its energy demand in terms of quantity is even bigger than that of Greece.

There is recently a focus on the Eastern Mediterranean. The discoveries by Greek Cypriots and Israelis have generated excitement while Turkey seems to be shifting its exploration activities from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. But the experts I have talked to as well as reports I have read do not indicate a potential reason for “war.” It is therefore a bit difficult to understand the timing of the Greek government’s decision to complain to the UN about a step Turkey took last summer, just ahead of a high-profile visit by the Greek prime minister.

Turkish officials seem to be convinced that this was done for domestic purposes, in order to silence those “ultra-nationalist-radical” circles that cannot accept the idea that Greece has fallen into a position where a former “foe” is now offering to help.

It looks like the economic crisis poses a dilemma in Turkish-Greek relations: On the one hand, it is only to the benefit of Greece to improve its relations with the big market to its east as one of the ways out of the economic crisis. Yet the same economic crisis that becomes a critical motivation in furthering relations also becomes an obstacle, since economic hardship feeds ultra-nationalism and radicalism leading to opposition to cooperation with Turkey.

Time will tell whether economic crises will be a curse or a blessing for Turkish-Greek relations. The fact that both countries finished their reciprocal statements about the continental shelf issue with their desire to maintain good relations leaves room for optimism.