In last year’s Outlook, we expressed our concerns that 2023 could turn out to be the “most difficult” year yet for Greek-Turkish relations. Our concerns were not founded entirely in the fact that—though the year was ending with Greek-Turkish tensions at lower and/or more controlled levels than the two years that preceded it (2021 & 2022)—it was anything but certain that 2023 would bring with it a return to a state of ‘conflictual normality’ in the stand-off between Greece and Turkey. They related mainly to the unprecedentedly extreme rhetoric (“we will come suddenly one night”) the Turkish president had chosen to employ, which questioned not only Greece’s sovereign rights but also its actual sovereignty over certain islands and islets in the Aegean.
We therefore predicted—taking also into account certain systemic realities, such as Turkey steering a course increasingly independent of the West (US and EU) plus its enhanced geopolitical significance in the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine—that Turkey was unlikely to abandon its policy of maintaining parallel fronts of controlled tension with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus; especially in 2023, the centenary of the signing of the Lausanne Treaty, which the founder of the “New Turkey” had declared himself keen to revise.
However, a series of particularly significant events during 2023 (devastating earthquakes in Turkey, the formation of strong governments in Turkey and Greece, the outbreak of a new conflict in Greece and Turkey’s backyard, namely the Middle East, and the ongoing war in Ukraine) obliged the Turkish president to make a tactical retreat vis-a-vis Greece and led to a temporary détente between the two countries. In fact, President Erdoğan’s official visit to Athens in December 2023 not only strengthened the “road map” the two countries had agreed to follow (primarily in relation to the Confidence-Building Measures and the bilateral “positive agenda” centred on the addition of issues of common interest, such as the migration challenge, civil protection and the response to natural disasters); it also led to the signing of the Athens Declaration on “Friendship and Good Neighbourly Relations”. The latter has managed to introduce additional institutional checks and balances, and especially of “value-based” commitments to be undertaken by Turkey towards Greece. In fact, Mr Erdoğan granted an interview to a Greek newspaper prior to his visit to Athens in which he went so far as to acknowledge and accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, albeit on certain conditions.
All these developments, along with the agreement to set in motion the next steps in the rapprochement process—which include exploring the two sides’ positions via “Political Dialogue” (i.e., the upgraded Exploratory Contacts) on the issues relating to key differences, as well as the planned visit by the Greek Prime Minister to Turkey next spring—allow us to predict with relative certainty that the waters will remain calm for the first half of the upcoming year at least. During this period, Mr Erdoğan’s interest will, of course, be limited to keeping relations with Greece at the current level of relative normality and stability and will not extend to efforts to resolve the Greek-Turkish dispute.
In the new year, as wars rages in Ukraine and the Middle East, Turkey will remain a useful but simultaneously problematic partner for the West, having been further delegitimized by its active support for Hamas. It is positive that both the Biden administration and the EU seem determined to set certain terms and preconditions for their future as well as their current relationship with Turkey. In so doing, they increase the pressure on the Turkish president while limiting his options, especially with regard to the pursuit of ambitious goals that clash with those of the US and/or the EU.
However, the time Mr Erdoğan needed and ‘bought’ through his tactical volte face and re-engagement with Greece may prove unnecessary from autumn 2024 on, especially if, as early November and the US presidential elections draw closer, a second Trump presidency begins to seem increasingly likely. Similarly, the European elections at the end of the first half of the new year may lead to changes in the balance of power within the EU that give Turkey more room to manoeuvre as well as to pursue its ambitions than it has had to date.
The possibility of major change in both the US and the EU makes predicting the outlook for Greek-Turkish relations in the latter half of 2024 extremely difficult. Consequently, Greece has every reason not to leave things to chance. Rather, Greece should take pains to build further on what has already been achieved at the bilateral level through smart and courageous initiatives at the multilateral level—primarily in an EU context, where it can contribute to the agenda set for EU-Turkey relations—, no matter how the nationalists and the “permanently worried” in Greece react.
*Panayiotis Tsakonas is a Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Foreign Policy & Security Programme at ELIAMEP and a Professor at the University of Athens