The Eastern Mediterranean after the NATO summit

Analysis - Eva
6 min read
24 June, 2021
Analysis: The Eastern Mediterranean was simmering with tensions last summer, but there is now cautious optimism following positive overtures between Greece and Turkey at the NATO summit.

The NATO summit in Brussels last week brought Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan face to face for the first time in 18 months.

Since their first meeting in New York in the autumn of 2019, turbulent bilateral relations have seen escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, coming close to armed conflict.

The Brussels meeting was likely prepared during the visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to Ankara in April, where he had a fiery exchange with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who later visited Athens in May but with no tangible progress.

Such a delicate atmosphere is driven by outstanding disagreements that have accumulated for decades.

"Since 2019, turbulent bilateral relations have seen escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, coming close to armed conflict"

The cautious calm that has prevailed in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent months, however, helped bring the Greek and Turkish leaders together at the NATO summit, where they sought convergence but without high expectations.

Prior to the summit, the Greek media launched a huge propaganda campaign, highlighting disagreements between both sides to the Greek public.

The ongoing controversy over explorations and offshore drilling, together with last summer's tensions caused by Turkish research ships in the Eastern Mediterranean and Greece’s subsequent military escalation, had their place of honour.

The migrant crisis on the Greek-Turkish border, the so-called "Evros crisis", also received significant coverage from the Greek media, which still treats it as ongoing even though the number of refugees has decreased dramatically.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (L) hold joint press conference following their meeting in Ankara, Turkey on 15 April 2021. [Getty]
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (L) hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Ankara, Turkey on 15 April 2021. [Getty]

The issue of Cyprus, meanwhile, took up much less space than usual in the Greek news cycle, possibly reflecting that it is no longer a top priority for Athens in terms of its differences with Ankara.

Sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry told The New Arab that the demarcation of maritime borders with neighbouring countries was the most important issue for Greece at the NATO summit.

The maritime border with Italy has been agreed upon, while with Albania the matter is being referred to the international court to decide. Part of the border with Egypt has been signed, while maritime borders were top of the agenda during April visits by Greek FM Nikos Dendias and PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Libya.

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With many outstanding issues remaining between Athens and Ankara, no significant results were expected from the Greek side at the NATO meeting.

Meanwhile, the Turkish public, through the media and Turkish officials, were more focused on the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Joe Biden, the first since he took over the presidency of the United States.

The meeting had the potential to set the tone for future relations between the two countries, the outcome of which would certainly impact the Eastern Mediterranean.

The demilitarisation of the Greek islands and the 12-mile expansion of the Greek continental shelf, which Greece has reiterated its intentions to undertake, were the main issues raised in the Turkish media, with expectations that both leaders would find solutions to prevent a dangerous escalation.

"Public statements from Greece and Turkey indicate that the summit was a significant step towards a period of calm"

"The year 2021 will be a quiet year for Turkish-Greek relations," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a news conference after meeting with the Greek prime minister. "We do not need mediators with Greece," he added.

These positive statements from the Turkish side were followed by Mitsotakis' statement, which stuck a similar tone.

"We have decided to continue the dialogue mechanism and take steps towards a positive agenda," he said.  The Greek PM also stated that the two neighbours do not need a third party to mediate their differences.

These public statements indicate that the summit was a significant step towards a period of calm.

Considering the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in Greece, which has had a severe economic impact, the government is hoping for a summer of tourists to revitalise the country’s finances, and this would necessitate avoiding political complications that disrupt Greek beaches.

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Cautious calm has prevailed in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent months. [Getty]

That is why it is likely that Athens will move away from any escalation measures in the future, especially on the expansion of its continental shelf, which will be temporarily postponed. It will also focus on discussions of a dialogue mechanism with Ankara to make Cyprus a priority in the next phase.

From the Turkish side, Greek-Turkish ties are not as much of a priority compared to more sensitive issues that could have a greater geopolitical and economic impact on Turkey.

These objectives could also be reflected soon in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey will try to prevent any escalation, even if it would mean keeping its research vessels in the Black Sea for longer.

The Biden-Erdogan meeting at the NATO summit was the one that monopolised the attention of Turkish officials. Ankara, which has many open geopolitical fronts, from Azerbaijan, where it reaps the rewards of its support to Baku, to Libya, which was at the top of Erdogan's agenda as he met French President Emmanuel Macron.

"Libya, Syria, and Iraq will be the focus for Ankara this summer, as it seeks to revive talks on its accession to the EU to stabilise the exchange rate of the Turkish lira"

While the S-400s and F-35s were major issues in US-Turkey talks and may take longer to reach a compromise that satisfies both parties, the Biden-Erdogan meeting aimed to reshape future ties, with the Turkish president hailing a “new era” between both countries.

Despite the positive atmosphere of the NATO summit, there were still indications of underlying tensions. Just hours after the gathering in Brussels had ended a Greek court sentenced the Mufti of Xanthi, Ahmet Mete, to 15 months in jail, a political rather than judicial step.

Shortly afterwards, in a speech at a web event organised by the Council for International Relations (Greece), the Greek FM said Athens’ foreign policy had contained the “neo-Ottomanism" of the Turkish government.

Nevertheless, the current Greek government will likely continue to focus its efforts on the domestic scene, looking for ways to expand its international and regional relations and expand ties under the leadership of Israel and its new government, as well as with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

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However, a new escalation with Turkey is always a convenient tool to cover up domestic failings.

Libya, Syria, and Iraq will be the focus for Ankara this summer, as it seeks to revive talks on its accession to the European Union (EU) to stabilise the exchange rate of the Turkish lira, which is still in flux.

The Brussels summit began with tensions that were evident in the faces of the leaders of Greece and Turkey and ended with more comfortable body language. This aptly reflects the current trajectory, at least in principle, of relations in the near future.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_