Greek-Turkish tensions have been heating up in the Mediterranean, but some common interests are pushing the two neighbours to co-operate, especially on trade routes.
Construction for the Canakkale 1915 Bridge in the Dardanelles, which includes a highway connecting Turkey and Greece, continues to move forward, even during another period of renewed tensions between the two Aegean neighbours.
“Turkey and Greece seem to be on a co-operative route for quite a long period of time,” said Professor of International Relations at Antalya International University Tarik Oguzlu. “Since the negotiation process with the European Union began just 15 years ago, Turkey and Greece have been co-operating on many different issues. [But] this doesn't mean that bilateral problems are free of crisis.”
Canakkale 1915 Bridge
The Canakkale 1915 Bridge, named for the place and year of Turkey’s historic victory in World War I, will span over 2,000 metres between Lapseki and Gelibolu (Gallipoli) in northwestern Turkey.
The suspension bridge is due to be the longest in the world when its construction is complete.
Speaking in Canakkale on the anniversary of the 1915 Canakkale-Gallipoli victory celebrations on March 18, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced during a ceremony for laying the foundations of the bridge towers, that the bridge would be completed by 2022, more than a year earlier than originally planned.
In addition to the bridge, the project includes a land route connecting Turkey to Greece.
“[T]he construction of the highway and the bridge would facilitate bilateral relations, particularly economic relations,” said Oguzlu.
“This is going to be another lane through which Turkey is going to be connected to mainland Europe.”
Rocky relations and rapprochement
Initial plans for the bridge started in 2014 in Athens, in the context of high-level co-operation meetings that were initiated during former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s tenure. During those meetings, which started in 2010, Turkish and Greek officials convened to discuss contentious issues for both parties, as well as steps to improve economic, political, trade, cultural and other relations.
After the 2014 meetings, Davutoglu said that the sides saw their relationship as one of complementarity rather than competition. To this end, he said, “our transportation policies complement each other… and if we [are to] build the Canakkale Bridge, for instance…[it] will provide the easiest [land] route to northern Greece.”
The High-Level Co-operation Council meetings appeared to usher in a new period of co-operation between the two countries, which added to the first steps taken during the 1990s. For instance, the presence of natural gas in the Mediterranean was viewed as a potential for peace.
Davutoglu said during his speech in Athens that the parties viewed the natural gas in the Mediterranean as belonging to the whole of Cyprus, and that it could help pave the way for a comprehensive solution process on the divided island.
But even though the two sides held talks for years, a solution has still not been reached.
High-level talks continue. Most recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Greece in November, in what was the first such visit by a Turkish president since 1952.
These tensions have been ongoing amidst the backdrop of Aegean disputes, including over natural gas reserves off the island of Cyprus—which has been divided in two since 1974.
In July 1974, after a coup in Cyprus by Greece-backed soldiers, Athens aimed to annex the Island. Turkey started its military operation with the aim of protecting ethnic Turks in Cyprus in accordance with the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, and since then, the island is ethnically-divided. But Northern Cyprus is not recognised as a sovereign state, except by a couple of countries.
Turkey objects to “unilateral hydrocarbon-related activities” undertaken by Greek Cypriots. In February, Turkey blocked a ship that was hired to drill for oil off the coast of the island. Turkey, as one of the guarantor state for Cyprus, opposes the drilling, saying it flouts the rights of the Turkish Cypriots' natural resources.
Turkey is aiming to become an energy hub, with its strategic location at the crossroads of oil and gas-rich Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and Western countries in need of oil and gas supplies.
Meanwhile, the discovery of gas fields off Cyprus has shaken the geo-strategic balance in the region as the governments of Cyprus and Greece have entered into talks with Egypt and Israel for an alternate route that would bypass Turkey and Northern Cyprus, and run a pipeline through the island of Crete instead. This alternate project, called East-Med, still poses engineering and economic concerns, and still remains a distant project. Meanwhile, the TANAP and TAP projects are due to finish in the coming years.
“This gas discovery is the most important problem, so a solution to this problem [is needed], but we all know that Greek and Turkish positions on the Cyprus issue are quite fixed and not very easy to change,” explained Oguzlu.
“But another observation might be this: the Greek government itself is not very happy with the Greek Cypriots’ position on the Cyprus issue because they don’t want to see the Greek Cypriot government somehow damage Turkey’s EU accession process,” he continued.
Oguzlu underlined that it is important for the Greek government that Turkey remain attached to the EU project, as it could increase the possibility of gaining some privileges or concessions from Turkey.
“There is a famous Greek saying: the road to Brussels goes through Athens, so the Greek government will try its best to make sure that neither the Eastern Mediterranean problems, nor the Cyprus problem, cause a strong breach in Turkey-EU relations.”
Disputes over several issues continue
Despite several high-level meetings between the two NATO allies over the past seven years, new disputes, including the extradition of FETO members, have emerged.
That is only the latest one alongside long-standing disputes, such as maritime border disputes in the Aegean, offshore gas and oil drilling projects in the Eastern Mediterranean, the status of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace, the status of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, among other diplomatic issues.
Most recently, Greece refused, for the third time, to extradite eight soldiers accused of taking part in the July 2016 coup attempt. Meanwhile, Turkey detained two Greek soldiers who were arrested when found patrolling Turkish territory near the Turkish-Greek border.
Greece has also conducted military drills in the Aegean in recent months, with several countries including Egypt and the UAE, both of which have strained relations with Turkey.