Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan smile after signing a joint statement in Athens on Thursday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a meeting on Thursday that concluded with the establishment of a roadmap designed to strengthen ties between their two countries, traditionally at odds. During the meeting, the two leaders signed agreements in 15 areas, including the energy sector, education, tourism, rural development, the economy and public works. The intention is to strengthen bilateral cooperation to "increase regional prosperity" in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual trust that seeks to leave behind past tensions.
Greece and Turkey are two countries with multiple cultural similarities, but also with numerous open fronts: Athens intends to expand its territorial waters, which is described as casus belli by Ankara; Greece's Muslim minority, which is ethnic Turkish, is a matter of discussion; the conflict in Cyprus remains ongoing; there are several islets in the Aegean Sea in dispute; Greece has been a haven for militants of the Kurdish liberation movement and other Turkish dissidents; The most extreme religious sectors of both countries often express reproaches. And to these issues entrenched in the last five years have been added controversies over gas pipelines, the exile of Turkish military coup plotters in Greece and the management of migration policies.
"Geography and history put us in the same neighborhood. Circumstances confronted us on several occasions. Although there are dissenting voices in both countries about this approach, I feel a historical debt in working to bring the two nations closer together. We have managed to re-establish our relations towards calmer waters. Today, my sights are set on the future," the Greek prime minister said. "We are two neighboring countries that share the same sea, the same geography and the same culture in many areas. It is natural that there are problems between two countries, and much more so between brothers. We want to turn the Aegean into a sea of peace and cooperation, and be an example to the world," he said.
Despite the effort to show mutual sympathy, Mitsotakis and Erdogan have not been able to hide the fact that there are issues on which understanding seems distant. "We disagree on the Cyprus issue," Mitsotakis said, referring to Turkey's occupation of the north of the island.
The bilateral meeting did not take place on the anniversary of Erdogan's first visit to Athens by a day. On December 8, 2017, the Turk met at the same place with the then Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. But the tone of both meetings has been different. On that occasion, the first thing Erdogan did when he arrived in Greece was to question the validity of the Treaty of Lausanne, the 1923 agreement that delineates the borders of Greece and Turkey. The prime minister and the president of the Hellenic republic did not want to hide their discomfort with Erdogan's words. That visit did not serve to bring positions closer together, but to hurl reproaches.
Six years later, everything has been different. Now that Turkey is accentuating its independence from NATO and distancing itself from its traditional allies, Erdogan has decided to show closeness to its neighbor. Both governments have set aside the most uncomfortable issues to intensify relations through existing institutional mechanisms and cultivate solidarity to face common challenges without pre-existing positions interfering negatively.
The most important point of what has been agreed is the building of military confidence. "Friend Kyriakos, we won't threaten you if you don't threaten us," the Turkish president told Kathimerini, Greece's main conservative daily, on the eve of the visit. Erdogan has publicly thanked the eviction of Lavrio, the oldest refugee camp in Europe, created in 1947 and closed last April after spending five years managed by Kurdish organizations that Turkey considers terrorists. Another joint goal is to increase the volume of bilateral trade from $5 billion (€000.4 billion) to $630 billion.
Mitsotakis has also stated that meetings with his Turkish neighbor will continue, among other purposes, to demarcate the continental shelves and the corresponding exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of each country. These areas are likely to be home to oil or gas reserves; in fact, one of the world's largest natural gas discoveries occurred a few years ago in the eastern Mediterranean basin. Turkey and Greece were on the brink of war in the 1990s, and the dispute over the Mediterranean's energy resources has been a constant in their relations.
Mitsotakis and Erdogan have been scheduled for the next bilateral meeting, which is expected to take place in Ankara next spring.
The bilateral summit also led to a meeting on migration policies between Greek Immigration Minister Dimitris Kairides, Greek Interior Minister Yiannis Oikonomou, Maritime Transport Minister Jristos Stilianidis and Turkish Interior Minister Ali Gerlikaya. The heads of the coast guards of the two countries were also present. The Turkish Interior Ministry publishes a report every day detailing the number, nationality and type of boat in which migrants are rescued and illegally expelled by Greece through pushbacks, a practice that Athens denies and that Ankara is responsible for publicizing.
Another decision taken was to open a 24-hour direct line of communication, something that satisfies Greece's demands. Mitsotakis, at the joint press conference, praised Turkey's work and assured that there is a "significant reduction in migratory flows thanks to border surveillance and increased cooperation between the authorities of the two states". The numbers belie his words. The reduction in arrivals does not exist, as they have gone from 12,700 in 2022 to almost 37,000 so far in 2023, and it would be even more evident if Greece did not expel thousands of migrants in the heat of the moment, as Turkey itself notes. As of November 2023, 31,132 irregular expulsions have been registered, 4,000 more than in 2022, according to data from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
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