Why the latest attempt at a Greece-Turkey reset, while positive, falls short

Earlier this month, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Ankara for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But the mood heading into the meeting was difficult to gauge, as just days before the two leaders met, Turkey officially reopened a United Nations World Heritage Site as a mosque (the Kariye Camii)—a location that, before it was turned into a mosque during Ottoman rule and a museum in 1945, was originally a prominent Byzantine church (the Church of St. Saviour in Chora). In response, Greece lodged a démarche to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In the past, such embittered instances between Turkey and Greece had fed a repeating cycle of mutual suspicion and angry rhetoric. But the prime minister’s visit to Ankara went ahead as planned. Although the press conference revealed the leaders’ disagreements, their decision to highlight their different takes on the Hamas-Israel war instead of lingering on bilateral disputes demonstrates their desire to maintain a positive momentum.

This is remarkable, given that the two NATO allies almost came to the brink of conflict in the summer of 2020, averted through some shrewd diplomacy and cool-headed maneuvring. The list of bilateral disputes has gotten longer: the Cyprus problem remains——but in recent years, new disputes such as competing claims to energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean have been added to the list of bilateral disputes. As Greece reinforced defense and energy cooperation with the United States, France, and Israel, Turkey accused Greece of a maximalist position in the Eastern Mediterranean, while calling on Athens to demilitarize the Aegean islands.

Tensions rose after Turkey sent a seismic research ship, accompanied by gunboats, to waters contested by Greece and Cyprus and signed a controversial maritime boundary treaty with the former Government of National Accord in Libya, angering nearby countries in the area. Moreover, Ankara’s decision to open Turkey’s border with Greece in February 2020 for migrant travel into Europe, and Greece’s refusal to allow passage into the country, added to the tension, as police from both countries fired tear gas at their shared border, eventually leading to the construction of a twenty-five-mile fence and surveillance system along the border. As these tensions built up over time, Greece’s official position remained that the two countries’ sole differences lie in delimiting the continental shelf and their respective exclusive economic zones, and that failure to agree bilaterally on these issues should lead the two nations to arbitration through the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

A rare opening

The devastating February 2023 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria paved the way for an attempt to reset relations. Greece was among the first countries to pledge support to Turkey, and the then Greek foreign minister rushed to visit his Turkish counterpart and tour the affected region, pledging support from the European Union (EU). A few months later, Mitsotakis and Erdoğan got a fresh mandate in their countries’ respective elections, effectively freeing them to act independent of electoral calculations. In that context in December 2023, a large Turkish delegation of ministers and businesspeople, headed by Erdoğan, traveled to Athens. The two sides signed a total of fifteen bilateral agreements including the Athens Declaration, a nonbinding political document committing the two sides to boosting their friendship and cultivating good neighborly relations.

Greece and Turkey pursue dialogue on three levels: first is the so-called “positive agenda” of cooperation on trade, education, research, and tourism among others. The two countries have pledged to double their bilateral trade volume to ten billion dollars and agreed to setting up a Greek-Turkish Business Forum. Greece’s decision to extend tourist visas to Turkish citizens to visit select eastern Aegean islands all year round aims at boosting people-to-people ties; it is also a recognition of Ankara’s intensified cooperation with Greek and EU authorities on migration, one of the many areas of common concern, as such an arrangement likely required EU approval.

The second level relates to confidence-building measures, for example to avoid tension over the Aegean Sea through agreements on the rules of military drills and training exercises and the creation of a hotline between the two countries’ military and civilian headquarters. Talks resumed in 2023 after a long hiatus and have so far led to calm over the Aegean. Such calm makes economic, as well as political, sense: Dogfights are expensive, and both sides would rather invest in health, education, and services that support busy tourist seasons.

The third level is the political dialogue to address the already thorny bilateral disputes that have been around for decades. Substantial progress on this front has not been achieved and will require solid preparation, political courage, and a desire to compromise on issues that both sides have grown accustomed to viewing as nonnegotiable.  

Will the positive momentum last?

While wars in Ukraine and Gaza rage on, both Greece and Turkey have a vested interest in being perceived as a stabilizing force in an unstable neighborhood. Ankara’s friendlier posture towards Greece suggests that it recognizes the elevated role Athens plays in the Eastern Mediterranean and that working alongside (rather than against) Greece is important in its wider attempts to rebuild its relationship with regional neighbors. Moreover, both Washington and Brussels support Greece and Turkey’s reconciliation efforts: Energy and defense cooperation are high on the agenda of Ankara and Washington as they attempt to set aside major differences over Israel, Russia, and Syria. For the EU, Ankara is a key player in its attempt to externalize the governance of its migration policy, and EU-Turkey cooperation on trade and energy matters is crucial too.  

Nonetheless, overt optimism about the prospects of Greece-Turkey ties is not warranted.

First, the two countries disagree on a range of issues, and they have not attempted to move away from their entrenched positions. On sovereignty and identity matters, not to speak of the Cyprus dispute, the political cost of attempting a genuine breakthrough could prove prohibitively high.

Second, even “second-order” issues carry the potential for derailing the positive atmosphere. Greece’s announcement of a second marine national park in the Aegean Sea, in the name of environmental protection and as part of the country’s EU-related obligations, has sparked a response from Ankara, in which the foreign ministry warned Greece that the park is located in a disputed area and said it suspected the move was politically motivated.

Third, this isn’t the first time the two countries are looking to improve ties: The Greek-Turkish rapprochement of the early 2000s was premised on the Europeanization of Greek foreign policy and Turkey’s reform efforts to enter the EU, spearheaded by what can be considered earthquake diplomacy 1.0. A Greece-Turkey Cooperation Council was set up in 2010, only to be forgotten amid rising tension and geopolitical rivalry.

It is therefore premature to speak of a new era in bilateral relations. As of now, all contentious political issues remain unresolved. However, the progress the two sides have made is genuine. Their economic relations have become stronger, and nonstate actors, such as businesses and civil-society organizations, are playing a bigger role in deepening ties.

Erdoğan and Mitsotakis are scheduled to meet again this year on the sidelines of the NATO summit in the summer and the UN General Assembly in September, after having met three times in 2023. This year will be telling about whether the two leaders can deepen their mutual understanding and build up reservoirs of trust that will eventually permit a breakthrough on high-level political items.

Dimitris Tsarouhas is head of the Turkey Research Program at the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies (CEUTS) at Virginia Tech, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and a Global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program. Follow him on LinkedIn.

The views expressed in TURKEYSource are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attend a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, May 13, 2024. REUTERS/Umit Bektas