Athens, Greece – After a five-year hiatus marked by grievances over their rival claims to Aegean and Mediterranean waters, Turkey resumes talks with Greece on January 25, 2021 in the first test of its hopes to reverse deteriorating relations with the European Union.
While diplomats say that rebuilding trust will be a hard slog, the Aegean and Mediterranean talks follow Turkey’s decision to stop its search for gas in disputed waters which angered Greece and Cyprus and a cooling of rhetoric around Turkey’s wider disputes with the EU.
They could also pave the way for an imminent visit to Turkey by EU leaders.
Both sides say there is political will to improve relations, but after years of rancour over refugees, human rights, maritime claims, Turkey’s military interventions and the divided island of Cyprus, rapprochement appears a distant prospect.
Expressing guarded optimism, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell saw a “window of opportunity” but that Turkey needed to “abandon this line of confrontation” and seek dialogue.
Turkey, has accused the bloc of “strategic blindness” towards Turkey, told EU ambassadors in Ankara this month Turkey was ready to improve ties.
Diplomats say it will need more than a shift in tone and the withdrawal of Turkey’s survey vessel from disputed waters to silence calls from some EU states for sanctions on Turkey, which EU leaders will discuss in March 2021.
“I don’t see any great reconciliation to move us off the trajectory we are on. It is going to take a significant gesture from Turkey,” one diplomat in Brussels said, adding there was no reason to be optimistic.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Brussels on a mission to maintain what he called the “positive atmosphere” between Turkey and the EU, said talks on Cyprus would be held in New York in the next two months of 2021.
Turkey’s effort to build bridges with Turkey’s main trading partner comes as Turkish government struggles with an economic slowdown. While the Covid-19 pandemic has been the main brake on growth, international tensions have also weighed on the economy.
Setting out a new economic path in November 2020, Turkey also promised reforms of Turkey’s judiciary after repeated criticism from EU and US allies who say the rule of law has eroded in Turkey after a 2016 coup attempt and subsequent crackdown.
How much Turkey will be able to meet its expectations from the EU without taking any reform steps is an important aspect.
Better ties with Europe may also depend in part on how much Turkey can address differences with the new administration in the United States, after US imposed sanctions on Turkey last month over its purchase of Russian defense systems.
US would review whether further sanctions were necessary and accused NATO partner Turkey of not acting like an ally.
At a summit in December 10, 2020 the EU said it would coordinate its response to Turkey with the United States, meaning that Turkey’s relations with US will be “a determinant factor in Turkey’s ties with the EU and US as a whole”, Ulgen said.
Even before the talks with Greece start, the two sides disagree over what they should cover, with Greece insisting they should be limited to demarcating maritime territorial limits and Exclusive Economic Zones.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament Greece would not discuss issues it considered sovereign rights and would approach the talks with optimism but “zero naivety.”
Greece has ruled out discussion on other issues Turkey has raised, including demilitarization of eastern Aegean islands, saying that was an issue to do with sovereign rights.
Turkey has also been working on a roadmap to normalize ties with NATO partner France. France has been a vocal critic of Turkey’s military intervention in Libya and its challenge to Greek and Cypriot maritime claims.
Turkey in return has accused France of harboring an anti-Islamic agenda and questioned French leadership’s mental state.
Turkey has appointed a new envoy to Paris – a former university classmate of Macron’s – and a diplomat said the two leaders had exchanged letters in which Macron proposed a video call.
But a French diplomatic source said it was too early to consider that Turkey had changed its ways. France would work with its partners on possible sanctions until Turkey’s words were met with concrete actions, the source said.