By Foteini Doulgkeri, from Euronews’ Athens bureau
Last week was a good week for Greek diplomats. After a very long video-conference, the 27 leaders of the EU agreed on a common statement that, among other things, laid out the priorities for engagement with Turkey. The text calls on Ankara to continue the de-escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and keep dialogue open with Greece. In exchange, the EU is ready to offer new funds for the 2016 migration deal that allows Turkey to host millions of refugees, mostly coming from Syria.
For Athens, the statement was a victory, even though a final decision on sanctions was – once again – postponed. The delay shows that a group of EU countries, led by Germany, is not willing to definitely break ties with Turkey, one of the bloc’s most strategic neighbours and a military ally under NATO.
The European summit follows a charm offensive launched by Turkish officials, who are bent on starting a new political chapter after a tumultuous 2020 that saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expand illegal drilling explorations, encourage migrants to cross the Greek border and lead an international boycott of French goods.
“Let us wait and see what the Turks are going to do, but we can be hopeful. Yet again, that does not mean that the European Union does not hold sanctions as a potential reaction to Turkey breaking again International Law,” Nikos Dendias, the Greek foreign minister, told Euronews in late January.
Despite Turkey’s sudden volte face, the European Union insists that sanctions remain on the table, hoping there won’t be any reason for their implementation. And the simplest way for this to happen is for Turkey to respect international law.
But the problem is that Athens and Ankara defend different – and often opposite – views and interpretations on what international law actually means. This is what explains the never-ending string of accusations and counter-accusations between the two countries, who often put the European Union in the middle to act as a referee and decide who is wrong and who is right. Many times in the past European officials had spoken about “bilateral issues” on which they would not comment.
This is not the case anymore. And this is one of the reasons Greek diplomacy is satisfied with the last European summit. Because now the issue is no longer a bilateral dispute between Greece and Turkey, but a matter related to the broader EU-Turkey relations.
As EU leaders put it: “We reaffirm the determination of the European Union to use the instruments and options at its disposal to defend its interests and those of its Member States as well as to uphold regional stability”. The inclusion of words such as “provocations”, “breach” and “defend” in the final text brought particular satisfaction to Athens.
In fact, this dual approach introduced last week is an idea that Greek diplomats had been promoting over the last months. In practice, the agenda means that, on one hand, sanctions remain a real (yet distant) possibility. But on the other hand, Turkey is going to be rewarded with things such as a modernised Customs Union, high-level dialogues on public health, climate change and counter-terrorism, and even a potential liberalisation of visas. All of this, of course, provided that Turkey behaves in the Eastern Mediterranean and “engages constructively”.
Athens sees that the situation with its neighbour has improved, even if partially. The Greek Foreign Minister has accepted the invitation of his Turkish counterpart to meet in Ankara, but as Dendias has said, this can change at any moment if Turkey “repeats provocations”.
What remains to be seen is if President Erdoğan, who is under strong pressure in his country due to a failing economy and growing popular discontent, sticks to this newfound euro-path or changes course again. The ball is now in Turkey’s court.