April 16, 2023
Turkiye will hold elections on May 14 and Greece on May 21. Depending on the outcomes, these two dates may signal the beginning of a new era between the neighboring NATO allies.
The mediating role that the US used to play in Turkish-Greek relations has now been taken over by Germany. The socialist-led government of Olaf Scholz is active in trying to help solve their disputes. The US, of course, has greater leverage in all international affairs, including Turkish-Greek disputes. However, Germany also has the advantage of maintaining multifaceted relations with Turkiye. It has mediated on the question of refugees between Ankara and Brussels. It is Turkiye’s biggest trade partner among the EU countries. It also accommodates the biggest Turkish community in its territory.
There has been a relative relaxation in the tensions between Turkiye and Greece as a result of the earthquake diplomacy following the February disaster in southern Turkiye. We may therefore presume that Germany’s task may be made easier if the present trend is maintained. Both the Turkish and Greek foreign and defense ministers are making soothing statements regarding the future relations between the two countries.
Previously, a standoff was witnessed between Turkiye and Greece starting from 1975. This was regarding the demilitarized status of islands in the Aegean controlled by Athens, including the control of their airspace, their maritime jurisdiction areas and the status of uninhabited islands and geographic formations. The tensions grew because of domestic political considerations.
The US played an important role in the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 395, which urged the two countries to avoid any unilateral action both on Cyprus and in the Aegean. As a follow-up to this resolution, Turkiye and Greece in 1976 signed in Bern, Switzerland, an agreement to commit themselves not to take any unilateral action in the Aegean Sea. Despite this, Greece in 1987 started seismic research off the island of Thasos. Another conflict broke out in 1996 because of the uninhabited Imia (Kardak) islands, but it did not lead to a serious confrontation. Both of these crises were contained with the help of US mediation.
The US is not expected to play a similar role during the Biden administration. Turkish-American relations are today at a much lower level. One of the reasons for this is the Ukrainian war, as Turkiye declined to impose sanctions on Russia. But the US does not want to antagonize Ankara and push it closer to Russia at a moment when transatlantic relations need further consolidation. Washington will also need Ankara’s cooperation in order to secure Sweden’s accession to NATO.
The US does not want to antagonize Ankara and push it closer to Russia at a moment when transatlantic relations need further consolidation.
Washington might also wish to wait and see what happens in next month’s elections in Turkiye and Greece. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized the US ambassador after he paid a visit to the headquarters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, even though such visits are a well-established practice in diplomacy.
The mediation efforts by the German government are an indication of the importance it attaches to its relations with Ankara. However, it is unclear whether Ankara and Berlin share the same assessment regarding the future defense architecture of Europe. Berlin’s assessment on this subject may have undergone an evolution. After the end of the Cold War, Germany used to believe that it might shape the European architecture in coordination with Russia. It was not opposed to economic cooperation with Moscow. On the contrary, it established strong economic relations with Russia and decided to lay a second gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea. It may have thought to further consolidate economic cooperation with Russia. This dream disappeared with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Now, Germany has changed its mind. The visible increase in Germany’s military budget is a reflection of its military doctrine. Berlin is applying strong economic sanctions on Moscow. It will probably put an end to its dependence on Russian natural gas as soon as is feasible. This must have demonstrated to Germany the importance of Turkiye’s future role in the European defense architecture.
The transatlantic community is uneasy because of the working relationship between Ankara and Moscow. On the other hand, Turkiye is also disappointed with the way it is treated by the Euro-Atlantic community. Turkiye’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic community have been held hostage by several EU countries. It has also been expelled by the US from the co-production project of F-35 fighter aircraft, in which Ankara had invested billions of dollars. More than 900 components of the aircraft were being manufactured in Turkiye.
While Germany is doing its best to keep Turkiye in the Euro-Atlantic community, Greece is doing everything to distance it from this group. Germany’s efforts to ensure Turkiye does not drift away from this community is important for this reason.
One can only hope that, whatever the outcomes of the forthcoming elections in Turkiye and Greece, the post-election eras in both countries will open up new horizons to these two NATO allies.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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