Turkish-Greek ‘exploratory talks’ all over again

Turkish-Greek ‘exploratory talks’ all over again

Turkish and Greek delegations will meet today in Istanbul to carry out the 61st round of the exploratory talks, after nearly a five-year hiatus. The last meeting between the two sides took place in Athens on March 1, 2016.

As a long-term Ankara-based diplomatic reporter, I had the privilege to follow very closely and cover frequently exploratory talks between the two countries even from the first meeting which occurred on March 12, 2002, in the Turkish capital.

It would be difficult to understand the importance and the essence of these talks without having a clear perspective on the political context. Turkey and Greece, which long had a troubled relationship, had had to go through two main political crises in the late 1990s.

In 1996, they came to the brink of a war due to the disputed sovereignty of Kardak/Imia islet in the Aegean Sea. In 1999, the fact that PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Nairobi where he was sheltered by the Greek ambassador had seriously thrown bilateral relations into a deep crisis.

Particularly, the latter had sparked a big trauma in Athens which caused a 180-degree change in its policy towards Turkey. That was how the two neighbors could have launched a comprehensive reconciliation in ties under the leadership of two foreign ministers, Yorgo Papandreou and İsmail Cem. Turkey was announced as a candidate country in late 1999 by the EU while Ankara and Athens continued to take joint steps to leave differences behind and to improve bilateral relations.

Starting a mechanism to tackle Aegean problems came to the fore in line with the EU resolutions which obliged Turkey to resolve its problems with neighboring countries in a bid to start full membership negotiations. Under these conditions those exploratory talks began in early March in 2002.

The course of these talks which have observed 60 rounds over the years tells a lot. The Turkish and Greek officials held 32 rounds of exploratory talks between March 12, 2002, and Nov. 29, 2005. It was the same period in which Turkey’s dialogue with the EU was at its peak. Turkey and Greece held another 10 rounds between 2005 and 2010 and 18 times between 2010 and 2016, which shows that the pace of these talks had slowed down in the same proportion with reduced engagement between Turkey and the EU.

It’s, therefore, no coincidence that the 61st round of the Turkish-Greek exploratory talks will take place today as Turkey and the EU are jointly working to launch a new era in ties following a long friction.

But nobody should think that it will be an easy process. These talks come after nearly a year-long tension in the eastern Mediterranean. Greek political circles are yet to digest the EU’s decision to start a positive agenda with Turkey instead of imposing tough sanctions.

Increasing the territorial waters to 12 miles in the Ionian Sea and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ statements that they have every right to do the same in the Aegean Sea are part of the government’s efforts to compensate for its tarnished image in the Greek public opinion. Plus, Athens says the sole issue they will discuss with Turkey is the delimitation of the maritime boundary in the Aegean.

Of course, what will matter is how the talks will evolve on Monday. It’s expected that the two sides will review the past talks and will exchange views on how to proceed. Although Athens seems not very enthusiastic, it’s difficult for it to break the table as almost all prominent powers in the world, including the EU and the U.S., have strongly welcomed the resumption of this mechanism.

Turkey’s stance is clear: As seen during Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s intense trip to Brussels last week, it is sincere in its calls for a new and constructive period in ties with the EU and Greece. In all his meetings with the EU Council, EU Commission, and EU Parliament, as well as with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Çavuşoğlu highlighted Turkey’s readiness to move forward with the said organizations and countries.

Today’s exploratory talks with Greece should be seen as an important part of Turkey’s new political engagement with the EU. Its success depends on the Greek response to this effort.