An overall reset of EU-Turkish relations with Greece in the immediate background?

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

A little while ago, a matter of weeks – things go fast in this part of the world… – Dora Bakogianni, an old hand in the tumultuous foreign-affairs side of Greek politics, quipped that the only way for Greek-Turkish relations not to get into an impasse (that might lead to a regional conflagration) would be for a reset of EU-Turkish relations, overall. That position referred to the tense situation at the Greek-Turkish border which refugees and migrants tried to cross “to get to Europe”, with the not-so-discreet pressure on the side of Turkey; it had also to do with Turkish hyperactivity in oil-and-gas exploration and drilling ventures (or intentions) in Cypriot and (increasingly) Greek EEZ.

From that point in time to the present day, much has happened and many tensions were added to the explosive mix. Turkish naval forces have assisted cargo ships in breaking  the (UN-supported, EU-run) blockade in the Central Mediterranean, imposed to enforce the cease-fire declared in Libya – to the point of locking in their sights a French frigate, just days after they had forced a helicopter flying off a Greek frigate to desist from boarding another cargo so as to check for heavy weapons shipped to Libya. Also, the centuries-old landmark of Eastern Christianity in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia Buzantine-era cathedral, a museum since the Kemal Ataturk years (in the mid-Thirties), was once more used as a symbolic weapon, with a legal tangle in Turkey over its conversion to a mosque.

In the first occurrence, France got close to get estranged with NATO whose reaction to the Med incident was considered de facto supportive to the Turkish side. In the second country after country, starting from the US or France and ending up to Russia, warned Ankara not to proceed with the Hagia Sophia conversion. But it is issues of EU-Turkey relations that are a matter of central importance: the EU Foreign Ministers Statement of 15 May 2020 (“we deplore that Turkey has not yet responded to the EU repeated calls to cease such [illegal drilling] activities and reiterate our call to Turkey to restrain, refrain from such actions”; “Turkey should avoid making threats”) has set the field for the July 13 EU Foreign Ministers meeting. The fact that for the second semester of 2020 Germany holds the post (and assumes the responsibilities) of Chair to the EU Council of Ministers has passed over to Berlin – known for the cosiest relations with Ankara – the baton of trying to bring about some sort of new equilibrium in the relations of Europe with Turkey. Instead of exhortations and discussing (or paying lip-service to) sanctions, that might mean a new set of relations to be initiated. A set that would encompass the refugee-migrant issue, advantageous trade relations of Turkey with the EU as well as a stop to aggressive statements and challenges to sovereign rights on the part of Ankara.

Could Greek diplomacy, assisted by Cyprus and with the French/German axis in support, bring off such a feat? Not an easy call.