Turkish, Greek leaders signal markedly improved ties between the two NATO allies

After several years of strained relations that raised tensions to alarming levels, longtime regional rivals Greece and Turkey made a significant step Thursday in mending ties during a visit to Athens by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After several years of strained relations that raised tensions to alarming levels, longtime regional rivals Greece and Turkey made a significant step Thursday in mending ties during a visit to Athens by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ahead of his one-day visit, Erdogan had promised a “win-win” approach that could lay the foundation for broader cooperation, with hopes of also resetting his country’s ties with Western allies.

“It is natural for there to be problems between two countries, even more so among brothers,” Erdogan said after meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “The issue is the will to resolve those problems and differences of opinion.”

With both leaders showing a marked departure from the testy, sometimes outright belligerent rhetoric of the last few years, Erdogan said of the Aegean Sea through which the two NATO members’ border runs: “We want to convert the Aegean into a sea of peace and cooperation. We wish to be an example to the world with the joint steps we will take as Turkey and Greece.”

“I say it openly,” Erdogan said, according to a translation of his comments. “There is no problem between us so great that it cannot be resolved, provided we move with good faith and we focus on the big picture.”

The longstanding disputes between Greece and Turkey have led the two countries to the brink of war three times in the last 50 years. Centering on maritime boundaries and exploration rights for resources in the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean, the latest flare-up occurred in 2020, when navy ships from the two countries shadowed each other in the eastern Mediterranean.

As relations deteriorated, Erdogan said as recently as last year that he no longer had any interest in meeting with Mitsotakis. But Thursday’s visit will be the third time this year that Erdogan and Mitsotakis have met, signaling a significant push to improve ties.

“Our bilateral relations have experienced turbulence that at times have dangerously threatened them, and with them (threatened) security and peace in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Mitsotakis said, addressing the Turkish president as “my dear president,” and “Mr. President, dear Tayyip.”

Mitsotakis noted the importance of the “calmer path” that bilateral relations have been on over the past few months. “Greece and Turkey, Turkey and Greece should live in peace, express their known differences, discuss them honestly and keep looking for solutions,” he said. “And if these are not resolved, however, they should not automatically produce tensions and crises.”

Erdogan was accompanied on his trip by several ministers, with joint Cabinet talks with Greek ministers and the signing of several cooperation agreements on the agenda.

The significance of improved relations extends beyond bilateral ties and could help Turkey mend rocky relationships with the European Union and other Western allies. One crucial agreement in Athens focuses on migration, establishing communication channels between the coast guards of the two countries.

Mitsotakis also said he is backing holiday visas for Turks visiting Greek islands and is backing Ankara’s request to ease travel restrictions for Turkish nationals in the European Union.

Other agreements include deals on trade, energy, education, agriculture, sports, technology and tourism. Mitsotakis said a “realistic target” over the next five years was for bilateral trade, which currently stands at over 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion), to increase to 10 billion euros ($10.8 billion).

The intention to work toward improved relations was evident in Erdogan’s first meeting of the day, with President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

“We will discuss what steps going forward we can take on all issues after preparations have been made by the relevant ministers. We will proceed in a more logical way,” Erdogan told the Greek president in televised comments. “I believe it is best for the future of both sides to discuss looking at the glass half-full.”

Sakellaropoulou, whose role is largely ceremonial, said disasters in both countries this year, when Turkey was hit by a deadly earthquake and Greece suffered deadly wildfires and floods, brought out sentiments of solidarity between the two nations.

“The tragic events that our countries faced this year were an occasion to prove once again that a sense of solidarity and the demonstration of humanity in difficult circumstances is a common characteristic that unites our two peoples,” Sakellaropoulou said. “This finding is a strong basis for building on the mutual political will to establish a climate that will allow deepening cooperation and avoiding tensions in our bilateral relations.”

She said it is now “perhaps more necessary than ever for Greece and Turkey to work together to enhance prosperity, to preserve peace, stability and respect for international law, and to promote good neighborly relations for the benefit of both our peoples and the wider region.”

Security was tight in the Greek capital, with major roads and some subway stations shut down as Erdogan’s motorcade headed from the airport to central Athens.