Germany plays peacemaker in dispute between Greece and Turkey
NATO allies Turkey and Greece are at loggerheads over a range of deep-rooted issues that affect their domestic and international agendas. Conflicts in the Middle East have made things even more complicated for the two countries, so much so that other nations are stepping in as mediators.
Germany, an unofficial leader in talks between Turkey and European nations, seems to have taken on the role of peacemaker during the most recent rise in tensions. Can Berlin break the ice between two neighbors — or at least cool rising temperatures in the hot waters of the Eastern Mediterranean?
Recent reports in the Turkish and Greek media revealed that officials from Turkey, Greece and Germany took part in an unheralded meeting in Berlin last Monday, ahead of an EU Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) session.
Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported on the meeting, citing confirmation by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Greek newspaper Kathimerini said it had been brokered by Germany as part of an effort to keep open the channels of communication between Athens and Ankara.
There was no official confirmation of when the meeting took place, but the reports said it was held before, and most likely on the same day as, the FAC meeting, which was called to discuss the deteriorating relationship between the EU and Ankara.
Berlin reportedly invited Ibrahim Kalin, adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to a meeting with Eleni Sourani, diplomacy adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy adviser, Jan Hecker.
Reports suggested this was not the first Berlin-brokered meeting between Kalin and Sourani, with previous talks taking place on June 26. However, during an interview with Skai Radio in early July, Mitsotakis denied that Germany had mediated negotiations between Ankara and Greece, saying: “We don’t need intermediaries or referees.”
Given this denial, Cavusoglu’s disclosure this week of the latest meeting caused quite a stir in Athens because it had been kept secret from the public and not officially confirmed until then. The two largest opposition parties in Greece, Syriza and the Movement for Change (KINAL), demanded an explanation from Mitsotakis. A Syriza spokesperson criticized the government for keeping the meeting a secret that was revealed by the Turkish foreign minister.
Greek newspapers said Cavusoglu’s disclosure undermined Berlin’s mediation attempts and reduced the chance they might prove successful.
According to German sources, the agenda for Monday’s meeting included a proposal to open preliminary talks leading to a full resumption of the negotiations between Athens and Ankara that ground to a halt in 2016. However, the preconditions for this included agreements by Turkey to stop its drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and step up its efforts to block the flow of refugees to Europe. Kalin reportedly disagreed in particular with the demand to cease drilling.
Many in the region have increasingly called on Berlin to get more involved. Concern over the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, in particular, has encouraged Germany to assume this role of mediator in regional disputes.
The trilateral talks, which followed Turkey’s announcement that the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul will be converted from a museum and return to use as a mosque, mark an attempt by Berlin to ease escalating tensions and prevent further problems emerging that might hamper its interests in the region.Germany has engaged in a number of international peace efforts in recent years, in Somalia, Colombia, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Ukraine for example. In some cases, officials preferred to adopt a more secretive approach, with talks mainly taking place behind closed doors. In others, they practiced a more public style of diplomacy, openly bringing together opposing sides and their international backers for talks in Berlin. For instance, heads of state and government — including Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron — met in Berlin recently for talks on the situation in Libya.
In recent years, as France has become increasingly involved in regional disputes, Germany has come to be seen as an influential European partner that can negotiate with all sides. This is why many in the region have increasingly called on Berlin to get more involved. Concern over the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, in particular, has encouraged Germany to assume this role of mediator in regional disputes.
In the particular case of Turkey and Greece, Germany’s bilateral relationships with the two nations are strong and involve a number issues that prevent Berlin from ignoring the dispute. For instance, despite attempts by Athens to invoke NATO Article 5 — which states that an attack on any one member of the alliance is an attack on all members — against Turkey, other states have adopted a more cautious approach because the ongoing row is between two NATO allies.
For this reason and many others, including the Syrian refugee crisis, Berlin prefers to tread a fine line of diplomacy in an effort to avoid the risk of a migrant influx, should Turkey decide to throw open the doors to Europe along its border.
In addition, Germany and some other EU members have strong economic interests to safeguard, including defense contracts with Turkey. For instance, German firms supply submarines to the Turkish Navy, and its first aircraft carrier is being built by a consortium that includes Spanish firm Navantia. Turkey also enjoys a close relationship with Italy.
In short, a combination of bilateral and regional interests provide strong motivation for Berlin to mediate the escalating dispute between Athens and Ankara.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.