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EU Looks for Wiggle Room in Greece-Turkey Seas Standoff

Αssociated Press

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addresses European lawmakers during a debate about the escalation of tensions between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)

With tension reduced for now after Turkey pulled an energy research vessel and warships away from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, European Commission foreign chief Josep Borrell said he hopes it will bring a breakthrough before a Sept. 24-25 showdown with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

He said the caesura would lead the bloc's heads of state  “to create the urgently needed space to work with the Turkish leadership, to achieve a de-escalation that will allow to pursue lasting solutions to the underlying problems of today’s crisis,” said Kathimerini.

Speaking during a debate at the European Union Parliament in Brussels Borrell said that “the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean requires urgent and collective engagement,” repeating diplomatic boilerplate language. 

“What has been happening during the summer are unacceptable events. Turkey has to refrain from taking unilateral actions. This is a basic element to allow the dialogue to advance – well, better, to start,” Borrell added, stressing that despite his own and others’ efforts to initiate de-escalation talks between Greece and Turkey, “the situation has not been improving.”

He said Turkey's decision to have the Oruc Reis energy exploration ship stop work in Greece’s Continental Shelf was “a step in the right direction,” but said he was still anxious about what would happen in a “watershed moment in history.”

“The world will go one side or the other, depending on what is going to happen on the next days,” Borrell said, adding that, “It is clear that solutions will not come from an increasingly confrontational relationship.”

Turkey said the Oruc Reis vessel had been anchored in the Antalya gulf to refuel and carry out maintenance work, but implied that it was a step toward diplomacy, Middle East Eye said in a feature about the brouhaha.

“Greece and the EU shouldn’t waste (this) chance for diplomacy and take reciprocal steps,” said Ibrahim Kalin, Chief Foreign Policy Adviser for Erdogan.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed the move and said, “If there are steps towards this direction, Greece is ready to start a new cycle of exploratory contacts with Turkey.”

Turkey had sent its ships off the island under a maritime deal with Libya dividing the seas between them, no other country recognizing it, and Greece countered with a similar agreement with Egypt.

That led Erdogan to scuttle planned talks in Ankara and send the ships back in with a vow to continue and to drill off other Greek islands, including Crete where the United States Navy has a base on Souda Bay.

“When Turkey sends warships, Greece is naturally concerned. Put yourself in our shoes. How would you feel if a country like Russia did the same to Turkey?” a Greek official not named told the site.

“Turkey is a neighboring country with a much bigger size, population and an army. Of course it is deeply troubling for us.”

The backoff came after Turkey in August also suspended drilling off Cyprus, violating the sovereignty of that country where Turkey has occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion.

That was done at the behest of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is trying to broker peace between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus with the potential of lucrative energy revenues driving up tension.

After balking, Greek and Turkish officials met at the headquarters in Brussels of NATO, the defense alliance to which both belong and which had refused to intervene over constant Turkish violations of Greek airspace and waters.

After initial resistance, Turkish and Greek officials met at Nato's HQ in Brussels. “It was technical talks on de-escalation as Turks required,” the Greek official said with led Mitsotakis to say he was open to dialogue but only if Turkey withdrew its ships.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu welcomed Mitsotakis’s remarks but said Turkey hadn't taken a step backwards by withdrawing its ship. “Turkish opposition claims that we have conceded are not true,” he said. “The ship will be back once it is refueled and maintenance is completed.”

Mitsotakis, taking no chances with the volatile Erdogan, authorized purchase of arms, including Rafale fighter jets and frigates from France, which has backed Greece in the confrontation.