The EU should support the thaw in Greece–Turkey relations

Better relations are an opportunity for the EU to improve cooperation with a major geopolitical player.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

During his visit to Athens on 7 December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hailed a new era of friendship with Athens and talked about turning the Aegean into a sea of peace. His counterpart, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was similarly effusive and welcoming, emphasizing both sides’ shared historical responsibility to mend ties.

To outside observers, this language might come across as mere diplomatic niceties. However, context matters: only a few years ago the two countries were routinely exchanging threats, and an eruption of a conflict was seen as within the realm of possibility.

A thaw in Greco-Turkish relations is welcome news at a bilateral level, but also positive for Eastern Mediterranean security, which is currently defined by the Hamas–Israel war, unresolved conflicts in Syria and Libya, and a frozen crisis in Cyprus.

There are significant challenges to any long-term improvement in Greece–Turkey relations.

There are significant challenges to any long-term improvement in Greece–Turkey relations, which are bedevilled by thorny issues, but the EU should do all it can to support this thaw.

It should also build on this by launching a structured security and foreign policy dialogue with Turkey, strengthening European security and improving cooperation with a major geopolitical player and NATO partner.

The Eastern Mediterranean crisis

Expectations for improved Greece–Turkey relations need to be kept modest. The relationship is characterized by an interlocking set of disputes, intertwined with both countries’ perceptions of their sovereignty, where any compromise is difficult and politically risky.

The countries disagree about the borders of their exclusive economic zones (maritime boundaries) in the Eastern Mediterranean, the length of Greek territorial waters in the Aegean, (where Ankara also contests the status of certain isles and islands), and are bitterly divided by the long-running Cyprus crisis.

One feature of the current thaw is that it focuses on bilateral Turkish–Greek relations rather than the trilateral Turkey–Greece and Cyprus nexus.

One feature of the current thaw is that it focuses on bilateral Turkish–Greek relations rather than the trilateral Turkey–Greece and Cyprus nexus.

Ankara and Athens’ views on the framework within which the Cyprus question needs to be addressed are diverging from each other: Turkey is inching towards two-state solutions, whereas Athens and Nicosia stick to the federal framework.

Previously these disagreements had largely taken the form of frozen conflicts, but developments over the last decade have turned them into active crises.

At the regional level, gas discoveries by Israel (2009-10), Cyprus (2011) and Egypt (2015) encouraged Turkey to send drilling ships into the Eastern Mediterranean, turning disagreements about maritime boundaries into an active crisis in Turkish–Greek relations.

Civil war in Libya drove further wedges between Turkey and Greece. Ankara supported the UN-backed Tripoli government, while countries including Egypt, the UAE and France threw their weight behind the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. As a reaction to Turkey’s pro-Tripoli policy, Athens also supported Haftar later. These latter three countries supported Greece in its dispute with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara signed a maritime boundaries deal with the Tripoli government in 2019, which conflicted with Greece’s view of its maritime boundaries. In response, Athens signed a similar deal with Cairo in 2020, conflicting with Ankara’s stated maritime boundaries.

Opposition to…Ankara’s pro-Arab Spring policy drove states such as Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and partially Israel closer to Greece.

At a broader level, opposition to the Arab Spring and Ankara’s pro-Arab Spring policy drove Arab states such as Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and partially Israel closer to Greece, and created a geopolitical rupture with Turkey.

At the systemic level, two issues aggravated the crisis: the perception of a reduced US footprint in the region, and the disappearance of the EU framework in Greco-Turkish relations. Both have intensified regional rivalries and unhinged relations.

Implications for European security

Despite limited prospects for progress on this underlying set of crises, a thaw in Greco-Turkish relations is highly significant and deserves the EU’s full support, not least to enhance its own security.

Turkey has a pivotal role in almost all key areas of the European neighbourhood: in Ukraine and the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Balkans and the South Caucasus – and cannot be ignored.

Greece and France are EU members and Turkey is officially a candidate for EU membership. All are NATO members. Tensions between them inevitably take their toll on NATO’s internal coherence and negatively affect European security more broadly.

Ankara was angered by a Greco-French defence pact signed in 2021, seeing it as directed against Turkey, as it not only covers threats emanating from outside of NATO but also from within the alliance. A Turkey–UK Statement of Intent on defence cooperation, signed on 23 November 2023, caused consternation in Athens – though it is qualitatively different from the Greco-French pact as it does not have binding security commitments.

Better management of disputes between Turkey and Greece is crucial to laying the ground for a more cooperative…geopolitical relationship.

Better management of disputes between Turkey and Greece is crucial to laying the ground for a more cooperative, rather than competitive, Turkish and Western geopolitical relationship in their shared neighbourhood – and for preventing intra-alliance fracture and tension within NATO.

Turkey–Western relations and geopolitics

An effort to build on the Greco-Turkish rapprochement and address the Eastern Mediterranean crisis can have a positive impact on the future shape of Ankara’s broader relations with the West.

The first step should see the EU and Turkey launch a structured foreign and security policy dialogue. Despite Turkey’s stalled EU accession process, such a dialogue is crucial.

At a time of great power competition, in which European security is fundamentally challenged by Russia, and major geopolitical restructuring is taking place in Turkey and the EU’s shared neighbourhoods, dialogue will be vital to achieve positive outcomes on three key factors that will shape the future of Turkey–Western relations.

Article 2nd half

First is how both sides position themselves in relation to Russia and China. Second is how Turkey will feature in the West’s drive to downsize its dependence on China in global supply chains – which in turn will influence to what extent the Turkish economy will remain structurally anchored in the Western economic ecosystem. Third is whether Turkey and the EU can be partners or rivals in their neighbourhood.

A foreign and security policy dialogue between Ankara and Brussels can potentially lay the foundation for more coordination and convergence, and better management of their differences.

The EU should begin by inviting the Turkish foreign minister to the Gymnich meetings, the informal gatherings of EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs that take place every six months, and try to define a potential Turkish role in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

Turkish representation would be an important recognition that no sustainable European security order can be created without clearly defining Turkey’s role.