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Merkel Steps Deep Into Greece-Turkey Seas Imbroglio, Won't Take Sides

Αssociated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel waits for the arrival of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for talks at the Chancellery in Berlin, Sept. 18, 2020. (Odd Andersen/Pool Photo via AP)

BERLIN-- With Greece and Turkey still wrangling over rights to the seas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to keep them from shooting at each other in the duel over energy and sovereignty.

Turkey for now pulled back the energy research vessel Oruc Reis and warships from near the Greek island of Kastellorizo where it plans to drill for oil and gas but said they will return after maintenance on the seismic boat.

The European Union has a Sept. 24-25 showdown with Turkey where Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he wants hard sanctions imposed unless he can get Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stand down his plans.

German Ambassador to Greece Ernst Reichel that Merkel has made it her personal business to prevent military conflict between the two NATO alleged allies and find a peaceful solution to setting maritime zones, reported Kathimerini.

That will be difficult as Turkey has claimed large swathes of the East Mediterranean and Aegean under a maritime deal with Libya dividing the waters between them and is especially anxious to hunt for energy around Greek islands within sight of the Turkish coast.

Merkel earlier convinced Erdogan to pull back his ships but he sent them back in again after Greece countered the Turkey-Libya deal with a similar agreement with Egypt, leading the Turkish leader to call off planned talks in Ankara.

He said he's still open to dialogue but has alternated between sounding conciliatory with demanding that Greece make concessions while Mitsotakis said he wouldn't talk with Turkish ships near or in Greece's Continental Shelf.

Speaking to the European Parliament’s Special Standing Committee on European Affairs, Reichel defended Germany's refusal to go along with Mitsotakis' call for sanctions – Germany has 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage – saying it can't take sides although Greece is in the EU and Turkey isn't. 

If Turkey keeps its ships away from Kastellorizo and Greek islands, Reichel said that, “We will soon move on to the next step, which is the start of the so-called exploratory contacts.”

Talking to the the EU Parliament's Special Standing Committee on European Affairs, it was said he “defended Berlin’s more neutral stance towards Ankara" but then later said that using the word neutral didn't mean Germany was neutral but sided with the EU.

Complicating matters, however, is that Turkey said it will renew drilling in Cypriot waters in defiance of soft EU sanctions, with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades also wanting harder penalties but being ignored.

Erdogan said he would now prefer diplomacy despite what he called the “provocations and childish behavior” of Greece, undercutting the attempt to get together and talk.

“From the beginning, we said that the issues can be resolved through negotiations and dialogue,” he said, without mentioning he even threatened military action to get his way.

Despite Greece’s behavior, “we continued to act properly and with dignity, as befits our state,” he said, although Turkey has been chided by the EU for its open belligerence toward Greece.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said he opened steps would be taken “soon” in order to continue the negotiations, making it clear that he was referring to the exploratory contacts. 

Referring to the Oruc Reis, Kalin stressed that its withdrawal to the port of Antalya was an opportunity given by Erdogan for diplomacy but that it requird Greece to go along, the paper said.

As for Cyprus, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said earlier there won't be any compromise as Turkey, which has occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion, doesn't recognize the island's legitimate government – a member of the EU – and bars its ships and planes.

He said Turkey would go along with negotiations only if Greek-Cypriots accept the “political equality” of the occupied side and talk again about a process for a two-state solution on the divided island.

The last round of reunification talks fell apart in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana when Turkey said it wouldn't remove a 35,000-strong standing army and also wanted the right of military intervention.