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Turkey, Greece hold first round of exploratory talks since 2016

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The file photo shows Greek navy ships taking part in a military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean last August.

Greece and Turkey have started a new round of exploratory talks in the Turkish city of Istanbul to settle a long-running dispute over energy exploration and territorial rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

The dialog was held following a five-year hiatus on Monday, after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu invited Greece to resume direct talks in his meeting with top EU officials in the Belgian capital Brussels last week.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his country would join the talks with "optimism and hope" -- a comment echoed by Cavusoglu.

European Council President Charles Michel welcomed the development, saying the bloc is "looking forward to progress resumption of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece as well as the Cyprus settlement process.”

The meeting is not expected to make major headway since the two NATO countries clashed over their agenda last week.  

Greece wants to limit the discussions to continental shelf borders and the size of exclusive economic zones. But Ankara, which accuses Athens of illegally stationing troops on some of its islands, wants to discuss aerial zones.

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

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 United States 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 ongoing talks between Greece and Ankara may positively contribute to Turkey's relations with the European Union.

Turkey has been attempting to become a member of the EU since the 1960s. Formal EU accession negotiations began in 2005, but the process has been mired in problems.

The energy rivalry has lowered the already dim prospect of Turkey's membership in the EU.

After meeting with Cavusoglu last week,  EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a post on Twitter that while "dialog is essential... we also expect credible gestures on the ground.”

Ankara hopes for a return visit at the end of February or early March.

Athens and Ankara 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.

Bilateral talks continued in the form of political consultations, but did not return to the exploratory framework.​​​​​​

Greece and Turkey, both of them NATO members, have been locked in a long-lasting territorial dispute over hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean Sea.

Tensions escalated last year between the two after Turkey began a military-backed hydrocarbon exploration venture in waters between Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey’s discovery of major gas deposits in the waters sparked anger in Greece, which responded with naval drills to defend its maritime territory.

Siding with Athens, France also deployed its frigates and fighter jets to the region.

Turkey, at the time, warned France against supporting Greece in the escalation, saying that Paris wants to create a security force of the EU against NATO.

Ships from Cyprus, Italy and the US have also taken part in the Greek naval exercises, while the US and Italy have held drills with Turkish units as well.

There have been encounters between Turkish vessels and those of rival Greece.

Cyprus, for its part, accuses Turkey of breaching its sovereignty by drilling in the waters.

The EU, which has taken the side of Greece in the dispute, imposed sanctions against Turkish individuals and threatened Ankara with wider economic measures.

It has also accused the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of ruining the country’s chances to join the EU.

Turkey slammed the EU approach toward the dispute with Greece and Cyprus as “biased and illegal,” calling on the Western bloc to instead act as an honest broker.

Greece and Turkey almost went to war in 1974 over Cyprus, which has since been divided, with the northern third run by a Turkish Cypriot administration and the southern two-thirds governed by the Greek Cypriot government.

Erdogan has formerly called on Greece to enter talks or face “painful” consequences.

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