“Even the smallest spark can lead to a catastrophe” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during his shuttle diplomacy trip to Athens and Ankara in August 2020. Tensions had been triggered by Turkish natural gas explorations off Greek islands in the eastern Mediterranean. Rival military maneuvers by Greece and Turkey helped to aggravate the situation.

In this politically heated atmosphere, Athens formally called on the German government to impose an arms embargo on Turkey. The focus was on six submarines that were assembled in Turkey with the significant involvement of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. The delivery of the components had been approved in 2009.

Berlin did not comply with the Greek request: “Strategically, I don’t think this is the right way to go”, said Foreign Minister Maas in an interview at the end of 2020. “We have already seen NATO partner Turkey simply buy missiles from Russia because it could no longer get them from the USA.”

The submarine issue led to a major diplomatic upset in German–Greek relations. The Greek media relentlessly portrayed the arms deal as evidence of Berlin’s partisanship with Ankara.

But that is in the past: “The show is over”, said a German diplomat at the beginning of 2022 concerning the submarine issue. One senior member of the SPD parliamentary group has said that “There’s not a chance in Hell that Chancellor Olaf Scholz will undo existing treaties [with Turkey].”

During the German–Greek meeting of foreign ministers in Athens in summer 2022, Greek host Nikos Dendias raised the issue once again. Since then, the submarines have, as far as is known, disappeared from the agenda of German–Greek consultations.

For German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, preventing an escalation in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean – or to put it more positively, achieving lasting détente between Athens and Ankara – remains a major goal of German foreign policy. “Good, neighbourly relations between Greece and Turkey are important not only for both countries but for Europe as a whole. The German government is committed to ensuring that the outstanding issues between the two countries are resolved through dialogue and based on international law”, said the Chancellor in a newspaper interview on the occasion of his visit to Greece at the end of October 2022. Addressing Ankara, the Chancellor added, without mentioning Turkey by name: “It is not acceptable for one NATO partner to question the sovereignty of another. This also applies to veiled military threats.”

The Chancellor was referring not at least to the numerous verbal threats that Erdoğan has often directed at Greece personally. These have had a toxic effect on Greek–Turkish relations in tandem with the simultaneous violations of sovereignty over the airspace of the Aegean Sea.

In these circumstances, Berlin sided with Athens on a number of occasions. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s statement, made during her visit to Athens in July 2022, attracted considerable attention on both sides of the Aegean: “Greek islands are Greek territory and no one has the right to question that.”

Strategic Dilemma

The minister’s rhetoric met with little enthusiasm in Turkey (which she visited after Athens). Ankara’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu complained that Berlin appeared to have lost its objectivity in the bilateral conflict: “Germany has acted as an honest mediator in the past. It took a balanced approach, but lately, we see that this balance is, unfortunately, being lost.”

The Turkish minister’s complaint points to German policymakers’ strategic dilemma in the current phase of Greek–Turkish relations. On one hand, Berlin wants to act as a mediator and is therefore obliged to remain neutral. On the other hand, Berlin should show solidarity with Athens, not least because of their common membership of the European Union.

Ernst Reichel, German ambassador in Athens, described the resolution of this dilemma in the following terms: “The more threatening the rhetoric from the East [in other words Turkey] and the more openly the Turkish government questions Greek sovereignty, the clearer Berlin’s rejection of these stances becomes.”

Examples of such “rejection” can be found in the aforementioned statements by the Foreign Minister and the Federal Chancellor during their talks in Athens in July and October 2022, respectively. Olaf Scholz is known for his reticence, but what little he does say carries all the more political weight. In June 2022, he condemned Turkish fighter jets’ violations of Greek airspace over the Aegean islands through his spokesperson: “Invading Greek airspace and flying over Greek islands is not okay; it seems counterproductive and against the spirit of the alliance.”

A Federal Foreign Office spokesperson was much more specific, announcing in early October 2022 that it was the unified stance of the German government (and the European Union) that “the agreement concluded in 2019 regarding the maritime borders between Turkey and Libya is not in line with international law.”

A leading German diplomat in the region repeated in a background interview that the Turkish-Libyan memorandum is “clearly contrary to international law”. The agreement should have been agreed with all neighboring countries, including Greece, which did not happen. The same diplomat then said of Berlin’s role: “If we tell the Turks that they are in the wrong, we achieve exactly the opposite in Ankara and exacerbate the crisis.” Public scolding of Ankara therefore remained exceptional during the period under review.

Successful diplomacy behind the scenes

Berlin’s visible efforts to strike a balance, which have been criticised in Greece as a “policy of equidistance”, have been accompanied by diplomatic action behind the scenes. The effectiveness of political mediation away from the headlines was demonstrated in December 2022, when leading diplomats from Greece and Turkey met in Brussels at Germany’s initiative and agreed to resume the frozen dialogue. Jens Plötner, the Chancellor’s foreign and security policy advisor, pulled the strings on the German side. Plötner, who has excellent connections in the region as a former ambassador to Athens, succeeded in bringing to the table Anna-Maria Boura and Ibrahim Kalin, two key figures in their respective governments’ foreign policy decision-making: Ms Boura is, like Plötner in Berlin, a foreign policy advisor to the Greek Prime Minister, while Kalin held the same position in the Turkish presidential palace at the time.

With hindsight, the German mediation in December 2022 can be described as the initial spark for a process that gained momentum in the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Anatolia, with the revival of earthquake diplomacy in February 2023, and led to a new phase of détente between Greece and Turkey.

The highlight of this process, which was initiated with Berlin’s help, is the Athens Summit in December 2023 with its forward-looking agreements.

In Germany’s foreign policy, the Greek–Turkish issue occupies a comparatively prominent position and repeatedly preoccupies senior staff – and the top leadership – in both the Foreign Office and the Federal Chancellery. Despite the change of government in Berlin in 2021, German policy on Greek-Turkish issues has not changed, with minor differences in style and the tone of external communication: “Our policy has remained unchanged over the years”, says a senior official at the foreign ministry.

For good reasons, the German government is “positively excited” to quote Andreas Kindl, the German ambassador to Athens, given the latest signs of détente in Greek–Turkish relations. Nevertheless, Berlin is aware that a quick solution cannot be expected to the complex differences in the Greece-Turkey-Cyprus crisis triangle. “It may take decades”, said one senior German diplomat. “In the meantime, we have to make sure that they don’t shoot at each other.”

Dr Ronald Meinardus is a Senior Research Fellow and the Coordinator of Research Projects on Greek-German Relations at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) in Athens. This article is an excerpt from a study that was supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.