Turkey and Greece on Monday launched the first direct diplomatic contact in the form of exploratory talks in nearly five years to address their disputes related to sovereignty rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The meeting in Istanbul, led by Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal and the retired Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis, is expected to further improve the recent positive atmosphere established between Turkey and the European Union. It could also lay the groundwork for the eventual delineation of one of the world's most recently discovered regions of proven natural gas reserves.
Following the meeting, Turkish diplomatic sources said that Turkey and Greece discussed recent developments, possible steps to take and the current situation.
Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın also said in a tweet that the solution to all of the problems is possible and Turkey has the will for it, underlining the benefits of regional peace and stability.
The two countries initiated exploratory talks to discuss the issues in the Eastern Mediterranean on March 12, 2002, in an effort to find a fair, sustainable and inclusive solution. These discussions are the 61st of their kind between the nations.
Talks were regularly held up until 2016, but there have been none since then due to political speculation and the Greek side's reluctance to sit down at the negotiating table. Bilateral discussions continued in the form of political consultations but did not return to the exploratory framework.
NATO members Turkey and Greece participated in deconfliction talks last year, initiated by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Those meetings were designed to reduce the risk of incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean. The talks facilitated the establishment of a hotline between Athens and Ankara, allowing for conflict resolution at sea or in the air.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said over the weekend that Athens was entering the exploratory talks "in good faith," a comment echoed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Saturday also expressed hope that lawful solutions to the bilateral issues troubling Greece and Turkey could be reached.
"In talks with Greece, we hope that issues will be dealt with within the framework of rights, law and equity and that solutions are found," Akar had said at the opening ceremony for new Turkish-built ships in Istanbul.
Akar underlined Ankara's expectation that Greece "respects (Turkey's) rights in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and avoids actions that may cause misunderstandings."
While Athens only wants to address the demarcation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara says all issues should be tackled, including airspace and the status of some Greek islands in the Aegean.
"It's not right to choose one (subject) and say, 'we're holding exploratory talks on this,'" Çavuşoğlu said last week regarding the issue.
Dendias said on Saturday that the dispute could be submitted for arbitration in The Hague if the exploratory talks collapse.
On Jan. 11, Ankara officially invited Greece to resume the talks, demonstrating how Turkey favors dialogue, cooperation and resolution. On Jan. 20, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his country would join the talks with "optimism and confidence."
European Council President Charles Michel welcomed the development, according to a statement following his meeting with Turkey's top diplomat in Brussels on Jan. 22.
Saying members of the European Council would discuss relations with Turkey again in March, Brussels stated that the bloc is "looking forward to progress resumption of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece as well as the Cyprus settlement process," referring to the divided island.
The Istanbul meeting comes during a sudden spurt in diplomatic contacts aimed at thawing an ever deeper chill in relations that have frozen EU accession talks Turkey began in 2005.
Çavuşoğlu was in Brussels for meetings with top EU officials last week and Ankara hopes for a return visit at the end of February or early March.
Turkey and EU member Greece have been at odds on several issues. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favor of resolving outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiations. Instead of opting to solve problems with Ankara through dialogue, Athens has, on several occasions, refused to sit at the negotiation table and opted to rally Brussels to take a tougher stance against Turkey.
During a meeting in Brussels on Dec. 10, EU leaders decided to draw up a list of Turkish targets to sanction. While France, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration have pushed hardest for a tough line on Turkey, other EU states led by economic powerhouse Germany have been far keener for a more diplomatic approach.
Since then, the rhetoric on all sides has mellowed dramatically as Turkey and the bloc voiced their intent to "turn a new page." Turkey has recently reiterated that it is part of the bloc and sees its future in the EU, while it will continue efforts toward full membership. Turkish officials have also said that they hope for progress in 2021 and expect the bloc to take definitive action to this end.
In order to find a solution to the dispute that favors all parties, last year Turkey also proposed holding a conference with the participation of each Mediterranean nation, including the Turkish Cypriots, but the EU has yet to provide a concrete answer to the proposal.
“We want both communities to attend the Eastern Mediterranean conference; however, if it will not be possible for them to attend the main meeting, we can get them together in a separate format,” Çavuşoğlu said last week during a visit to Brussels.
He reiterated that the region's natural resources must be fairly distributed between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots and said that the EU "disregarded the rights of the Turkish side."
"We conveyed to them that this trust needs to be reestablished," he added.
The U.S. made another positive statement later on Monday as the State Department welcomed the “resumption of exploratory talks” between Greece and Turkey.