Ankara and Athens held 60 rounds of talks between 2002 and 2016 that they broke off without making progress in a dispute that has lingered for much of the past century.

Representatives of Turkey and Greece attend a meeting as part of the bilateral talks on the maritime disputes in Istanbul as talks resumed over Eastern Mediterranean dispute on January 25, 2021.
Representatives of Turkey and Greece attend a meeting as part of the bilateral talks on the maritime disputes in Istanbul as talks resumed over Eastern Mediterranean dispute on January 25, 2021. (Reuters)

With several key issues dividing the neighbouring countries, the first round of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece in nearly five years have concluded, according to diplomatic sources.

In the talks held at the Dolmabahce Office in Istanbul on Monday, top Turkish and Greek officials evaluated the issues from previous rounds  —  which ended in 2016  —   as well as the current situation, recent developments and possible steps to be taken, said the sources, who asked not to be named due to restrictions on speaking the media.

The parties agreed Athens, the Greek capital, would host the next meeting.

The dialogue is also expected to positively contribute to Turkey's relations with the EU. 

European Council President Charles Michel also welcomed the resumed talks in an earlier statement saying members of the bloc  would discuss relations with Turkey again in March.

READ MORE: Turkey: EU should be an honest mediator in Greece row

Positive tone

The talks, led by retired Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, are not expected to make substantive progress but could help ease tensions between the two NATO neighbours after their gunboats collided in August as the row over energy and borders threatened to spiral out of control.

But the meeting adds to the positive tone Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been setting as he tries to repair relations with Europe.

And it could lay the groundwork for the eventual delineation of one of the world's most recently discovered regions of proven natural gas reserves.

READ MORE: Turkish, German leaders discuss EU, eastern Mediterranean

US welcomes talks

The US has welcomed the first round of talks between Greece and Turkey in nearly five years.

"The United States welcomes the resumption of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey in Istanbul today and the commitment of both governments to this process," State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter.

"We support all efforts to reduce tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean."

Greece, France sign warplane deal

The same day as talks between Athens and Ankara commenced, France announced it will put in proposals to supply new frigates to Greece, which is building up its armed forces.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly announced the news at a joint news conference with her Greek counterpart Nikos Panagiotopoulos in Athens on Monday, after the two finalised a $3 billion (2.5 billion euros) agreement for the purchase of 18 Dassault-made Rafale fighter jets by Greece.

The deal will see Greece buying 18 Rafale jets, 12 of them used, made by French firm Dassault to bolster its forces during their regular mid-air skirmishes with Turkish pilots over disputed Aegean airspace.

"Greece is becoming the first European country to acquire this type of fighter jet," Parly told reporters. "France will soon offer to Greece proposals to renew its fleet of frigates."

France strongly backed Greece in a standoff with Turkey over natural gas resources and naval influence in the waters off their respective coasts.

Greek government spokesman Christos Tarantilis said delivery of the first six planes would begin in July.

READ MORE: French support for Greece in standoff with Turkey was just a mirage

Both sides optimistic

Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Saturday expressed hope that lawful solutions to bilateral issues will be found during talks with Greece starting in Istanbul on Monday.

"In talks with Greece, we hope that issues will be dealt with within the framework of rights, law, and equity, and that solutions are found," National Defence Minister Akar said at launch and welding ceremonies for new Turkish-built ships.

Akar further underlined Turkey's expectation that Greece "respect [Turkey’s] rights in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean and avoids actions that may cause misunderstandings."

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Athens was entering the so-called exploratory talks "with optimism and hope" – a comment echoed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

READ MORE: Turkey: Cyprus talks to be held with UN, EU by early March

Disputed agenda 

Ankara and Athens held 60 rounds of talks between 2002 and 2016 that they broke off without making progress in a dispute that has lingered for much of the past century.

Hostilities flared anew last year when Ankara sent a research ship accompanied by a navy flotilla into waters near the Turkish shore which Greece claims with EU support.

Ankara last year sent several drillships to explore for energy in the eastern Mediterranean, asserting its rights in the region, as well as those of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Turkey is furious that Greece is using its vast web of islands to lay claim to huge swathes of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that their excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots.

The two sides cite a range of decades-old treaties and international agreements to support their conflicting claims.

READ MORE: Turkey, Greece to hold exploratory talks in Istanbul

NATO has set up a hotline to stave off a military conflict, while Germany has spearheaded efforts to solve the dispute through negotiations.

These will not be easy as Ankara and Athens clashed over their agenda last week.

Greece wants to limit the discussions between the two countries' deputy foreign ministers to continental shelf borders and the size of exclusive economic zones.

But Ankara also accuses Athens of illegally stationing troops on some of its islands and wants to discuss aerial zones – a separate dispute that saw a Greek pilot killed when his jet collided with a Turkish one in 2006.

"It's not right to choose one (subject) and say, 'we're holding exploratory talks on this'," Cavusoglu said last week.

READ MORE: Will the international community find a fair solution in the east Med?

Diplomatic push 

Michael Tanchum of the University of Navarra and the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) said the process could be helped along if it involved a third party such as the US or Germany.

"The likely outcome of such adjudication would invalidate the use of some small Greek islands near Turkey's mainland ... while upholding the use of larger islands and more distant islands," Tanchum said.

The talks come during a sudden spurt in diplomatic contacts aimed at thawing an ever deeper chill in relations that have frozen EU accession talks Turkey began in 2005.

Cavusoglu was in Brussels for meetings with top EU officials last week and Ankara hopes for a return visit at the end of February or early March.

But EU chief Ursula von der Leyen remarked in a pointed tweet after the meeting that while "dialogue is essential... we also expect credible gestures on the ground."

READ MORE: Turkey dismisses EU's sanction threat as bias and illegal

France has led EU condemnation of Turkey's military interventions in Syria and Libya as well as President Erdogan's support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia last year.

The EU ultimately decided to draw up an expanded list of Turkish targets for sanctions last month.

READ MORE: Turkey vows to put EU ties 'back on track'

But Cavusoglu denied the talks with Greece were linked to the risk of punitive measures from Brussels.

"We're not a country that is scared of sanction threats," he said.

Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favour of resolving outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighbourly relations, dialogue, and negotiations.

READ MORE: Erdogan: Turkey will not bow to ‘imperialist expansionism’ in east Med

Source: TRTWorld and agencies