Greece, Turkey Agree to Keep Talking to Defuse Tensions

Turkish and Greek officials met to see if they could find any common ground to try to resolve a festering dispute over maritime boundaries that brought their navies to the brink of confrontation.

In the run-up to the meeting in Istanbul on Monday, Turkey and Greece couldn’t even agree on the agenda of “exploratory talks,” whose ultimate aim would be to defuse years of conflict over sovereignty of the areas off their coasts. For the Greeks, they’re not even talks but contacts.

With expectations running so low before, even maintaining dialog seemed like a success to both sides. A renewal of tensions could potentially trigger tougher EU sanctions against Turkey over its unilateral search for energy in contested waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The sides had last sat down to discuss maritime boundaries in 2016. This 61st round of talks on Monday 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.

The next round will be in Athens but the timing wasn’t immediately clear. Going into the talks, the countries staked out different aims for their meetings.

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.

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

“It’s possible to find a solution to all problems and our will to do that is strong,” said presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin after the latest round of discussions.

Greece, Turkey Agree to Keep Talking to Defuse Tensions

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. 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.

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.

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.

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