ATHENS — After a four-year wait and with tension high, Greek and Turkish officials quickly wrapped up a symbolic chat in a 61st round of exploratory talks but there were no negotiations nor progress in breaking their dispute over seas boundaries.
They met in Constantinople for a short session and adjourned without any agreements on anything beyond more talks, which have been set for Athens in March, the same time the European Union said it would consider sanctions for Turkish provocations if the two countries hadn’t settled their differences.
The two sides have been meeting off and on for 19 years, since 2002, but this time the focus was on Turkey’s insistence it would go ahead with plans to hunt for energy off Greek islands, which has nearly brought a conflict.
Turkey also had warned that if Greece extends its territorial limits in the Aegean and East Mediterranean to 12 miles instead of six, as it did in the Ionian off the western coast, that it would be a cause for war.
Against that backdrop, with Turkey not reportedly bringing up other issues it demanded be on the table, such as Greece removing troops from islands near Turkey’s coast, the talks were designed to be just that.
Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attended the meeting and stressed Turkey’s commitment.
“Under the strong leadership of our president, it is possible to solve all problems, including the Aegean, and we have the will for this,” he tweeted. “Regional peace and stability is in everyone’s interests.”
He didn’t mention that Erdogan and other Turkish officials have alternated between talking diplomatically and insisting drilling will go on no matter what happens, leaving Greece and the EU in a dilemma what to do.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency cited diplomatic sources as saying steps to address recent developments were discussed at the four-hour meeting, diplomatic code to indicate nothing substantial happened.
And the Greek side wasn’t as effusive.
“These are not negotiations and do not have a binding effect,” Greek government spokesman Christos Tarantilis said.. “The aim is to pick up the thread from the point where contacts were interrupted in 2016 to see if there is a point of convergence in order to lead us to negotiations.”
He added that future talks would be limited to the demarcation of economic zones and the continental shelf in the Aegean and East Mediterranean where Turkey has claimed waters under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes.
Greece is expecting Turkey to make some “tangible steps of substantial progress” so that the exploratory talks can become negotiations although it wasn’t clear that if there isn’t any progress in March either if the EU would again pull back penalty talk.
STILL MAKING WAVES
The issues on which Greeces wants to see progress include an end to the “continuing Turkish provocations” in the Aegean, Turkey’s threat of war, its refusal to recognize international law and the United Nations Law of the Sea.
Since the last round in March 2016, Turkey has encouraged thousands of migrants to cross the Greek border and sent gas exploration ships into waters claimed by Greece and continued drilling in Cypriot waters in defiance of soft EU sanctions.
Confrontation in the seas around Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete last summer saw warships shadowing one another, leading to a collision between Turkish and Greek vessels on one occasion.
Turkey’s shift toward playing nice came after the EU pulled back sanctions talk in December although Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wanted penalties for Turkish incursions.
The new attitude has also coincided with the departure of former president Donald Trump, who critics said was in Erdogan’s pocket, and President Joe Biden – a known Hellenophile – taking a tougher stance against Turkey.
Trust between Turkey, Europe and the U.S. has been eroded in recent years by issues including refugees, Turkey buying Russian-made S-400 missile systems that could be used against Greece and undermine the defenses of NATO, to which Greece, Turkey and the US belong.
Turkey’s halt to its search for energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and an easing of the fiery rhetoric that had alarmed European leaders led to the talks in Turkey but Erdogan has previously used similar tactics to play for time.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier went to Brussels to meet EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and say Turkey wants to improve relations as it has fruitlessly been trying to join the EU since 2005, prospects fading under Erdogan.
Borrell said in a statement that ministers discussed “all aspects of the relations with Turkey” as identified in the December Council Conclusions, “including sanctions,” and reaffirmed “the importance of engaging with Turkey in order to advance in and consolidate paths of dialogue and cooperation,” essentially saying nothing.
The Turkish President, often belligerent, has taken a softer tone as his country has been wracked by economic woes and the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey and the EU important trading partners to each other.
Further U.S. sanctions – Washington imposed penalties last month over the purchase of the Russian missile system – are another concern after Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Ankara of “not acting as an ally should.”
The resumption of talks was welcomed by the EU and the US which said it showed the “the commitment of both governments to this process,” although noting came of the brief meeting.
“We support all efforts to reduce tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the new State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, said in a tweet.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)