Turkish and Greek officials will likely meet again between the end of February and early March to revive efforts to resolve the maritime boundary dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Thursday.
Mitsotakis said they expect to resume the exploratory talks by early March, ahead of an EU summit on March 25.
"I expect within the next month, at some point at the end of February, beginning of March. It's a good step in the right direction," he told Reuters.
The two NATO allies have been at odds over a number of decades-old issues including the extent of their continental shelves, overflights in the Aegean Sea and the ethnically split island of Cyprus. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by EU members 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).
Last month, Turkey and Greece launched the first direct exploratory talks in nearly five years to address their disputes related to sovereignty rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. That meeting in Istanbul, the 61st round, lasted only a few hours but both sides said that they had agreed to meet again in Athens.
Between 2002 and 2016, dozens of rounds of talks were held to try and lay the foundation for full negotiations over the delimitation of maritime zones. After a five-year hiatus, prolonged by a dispute over overlapping claims for energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean last year, the two resumed the exploratory talks on Jan. 25. The two countries had initiated the talks to discuss the issues in the Eastern Mediterranean on March 12, 2002, in an effort to find a fair, sustainable and inclusive solution. 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 also participated in deconfliction talks last year, initiated by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, which 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 and in the air.
But obstacles remain, including what each side is willing to discuss. Greece says it will only address the demarcation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, while Turkey argues that they should tackle all of the issues between the two sides, including air space and the status of certain Greek islands.
"Turkey needs to be consistent in terms of its behavior. This cannot just be a decoy to avoid the discussion at the EU council in March," Mitsotakis said.
Greece, which has recently reached maritime accords with Italy and Egypt, argues that if the two sides fail to agree, they should refer the dispute to an international tribunal.
“We hope to maintain dialogue and find political, peaceful solutions to the problems between Turkey and Greece,” Akar said, adding that Turkey is eager to remedy the problems between the countries.
The defense minister also pointed out that the Turkish seismic exploration vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean are only carrying out technical and scientific operations. Turkey has been keeping a close eye on Greece's navigational telexes, or Navtex, and makes a conscious effort not to pursue paths that could negatively impact relations between the neighbors.
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 been the biggest advocates of taking a hard line against Turkey, other EU states led by economic powerhouse Germany have leaned toward a more diplomatic approach so far.
Since then, the hostile rhetoric has subdued dramatically, with Turkey and the bloc both voicing their desire to "turn a new page." Turkey recently reiterated that it is part of Europe and sees its future in the EU, adding that it will continue to work 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.
Most recently, last week the EU decided to hold off on potentially sanctioning Turkey thanks to positive developments made during a meeting with the bloc's foreign ministers.
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.
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