Greece and Turkey starts exploratory talks to resolve maritime boundaries

Turkish and Greek diplomats will meet in Istanbul on Monday to try and iron out differences over maritime boundaries for the first time since 2016.

The 61st round of the so-called “exploratory talks” were decided under pressure from European Union and NATO allies after the traditional rivals mobilized their navies and warplanes against one another in the Mediterranean Sea over the past year.

Turkey and Greece sharply disagree even on the agenda of the talks meant to defuse years of conflict over sovereignty of the areas off their coasts. For the Greeks, they’re not even talks but contacts. While expectations are low, the talks could be deemed successful if both sides maintain dialog. A renewal of tensions could potentially trigger tougher EU sanctions against Turkey over its unilateral search for energy in contested waters of the Mediterranean.

Greece “will willingly discuss” with Turkey, “in accordance with international law, the issue that the two countries have disagreed over for decades and that caused the recent tension, namely the delimitation of maritime zones in the Aegean and east Mediterranean,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told lawmakers in Athens last week.

He ruled out discussing Greece’s sovereignty or rights and international treaties, saying that “we are going to the contacts with optimism, self-confidence and hope,” but not “with any naivety.”

Turkey, however, wants to expand the scope of the negotiations to other long-running disputes with Greece.

The talks were announced earlier this month just weeks after the European Union pledged to expand the number of Turkish officials sanctioned over the country’s energy exploration in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Ankara and Athens are locked in a showdown over conflicting interpretations of maritime borders. Competing claims to sovereignty over waters between the two countries that may be rich in hydrocarbon reserves led to a naval standoff between Greece and Turkey in the summer.

Greece says that the talks starting on Monday are non-binding, confidential discussions, and not negotiations. The aim is to explore “points of convergence” for possible future negotiations for the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, a Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday.

If the two sides can’t agree in the negotiations that may follow the exploratory talks, they’ll have to agree “on a joint text which will then be submitted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague,” he said.

Another thorn in the relationship is Turkey’s continued control of northern Cyprus, which it captured in 1974 following a coup attempt inspired by the military junta in Athens that sought to unite the island with Greece.

Cyprus and Greece say Turkey’s maritime claims infringe on their sovereignty and have repeatedly demanded that the EU impose sweeping economic sanctions. Such demands have so far failed to win the required unanimous backing of EU member states, many of which fear an escalation that would break the bloc’s ties with Ankara.

EU Vows to Expand Turkey Sanctions List in Measured Warning

Erdogan has in recent months toned down his mostly confrontational rhetoric toward the 27-nation bloc, saying his country wants a new chapter in its relations with the EU. His government also ordered an energy exploration ship to limit its work to an area far from Greek islands through June 15, after the vessel’s operations angered Greece.

The Conflicts That Keep Turkey and Greece at Odds:

Meanwhile, Cyprus, Greece and France are jointly seeking new sanctions against more Turkish officials over their country’s drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus. The blacklist so far includes only two people and has no material consequences for Turkey’s economy. It was unclear whether the EU will agree.

Greece ratified last week the extension of the country’s territorial waters in the Ionian Sea off its west coast to 12 nautical miles from six, something it says it also has the right to do in the contested Aegean. Turkey has repeatedly said that it would regard such an act as reason for war.

“Turkey’s position that the territorial waters in the Aegean Sea should not be unilaterally extended in a way to restrict the freedom of navigation as well as the access to the high seas of both Turkey and third countries, is well-known by all parties,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement on Jan. 20. “Our position remains unchanged.”