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Turkey and Greece resume Mediterranean crisis talks

NATO's General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg (L) speaks next to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during a press conference after their meeting in Athens on 10 October 2019. [ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]
NATO's General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg (L) speaks next to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during a press conference after their meeting in Athens on 10 October 2019 [ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]

Turkey and Greece resumed talks on Monday to settle the dispute over oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, which resulted in a serious rift between the two NATO member states.

The talks were held at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, where Turkey's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sadat Onal, received a Greek delegation.

Talks about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean have been suspended since 2016 after a major escalation between the two neighbours. The recent Turkish gas exploration in what the Greeks claim as their territorial waters plunged Ankara and Athens into a diplomatic crisis, unprecedented since 1996 when the two countries were on the verge of armed confrontation.

READ: EU welcomes restarted Turkey-Greece talks

The talks are part of a broader campaign launched by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seeks to calm tension with the European Union. Last month, EU leaders decided at a summit in Brussels to punish Turkey for its "illegal and hostile" moves in the Mediterranean against Greece and Cyprus. Sanctions were imposed on individuals involved in Turkey's operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Although Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that his country is entering these talks with "optimism and hope", he does not expect any significant progress. The two parties failed to agree on an agenda for their meeting, an indication, perhaps, that the talks may turn out to be futile.

Greece wants to discuss the demarcation of the continental shelf around its islands in the Aegean Sea, while Turkey wants to expand the scope of the talks to include the countries' respective exclusive economic zones and air space.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denounced "provocation" by Athens, which talked about doubling the area of its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. Such a step is regarded by Ankara as very dangerous.

Cavusoglu's counterpart, Nikos Dendias, reiterated the importance of the talks, stressing that the meeting will not include formal negotiations, but rather informal discussions on the issue. "But we hope that these talks will lead to de-escalating tension," he added. Despite these differences, the EU welcomed the resumption of dialogue between the two countries, considering it a "positive sign".

The crisis between Athens and Ankara escalated with the deployment of a Turkish vessel in the disputed area last August near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a few kilometres off the Turkish coast. Greece, which is finalising a deal to buy 18 French Rafale aircraft to boost its defences, accused Turkey of violating its maritime borders.

READ: 'Turkey hopes to find solutions in talks with Greece'

Ankara believes that the presence of this small island does not justify preventing it from exploration activities in a large part of the Eastern Mediterranean that is rich in natural gas reserves. At the end of November, the vessel returned to port in Turkey, in an effort to ease the tension.

Analysts believe that Turkey is seeking to reduce the tension with Europe due to economic difficulties, which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and Joe Biden's victory in the US presidential election.

Ankara expects a change in US policy towards Erdogan's administration, after the Turkish president established a strong personal relationship with Donald Trump.

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