ATHENS - Greece has rejected new calls by Turkey to start exploratory talks to settle their maritime differences, feeding into a long-running and dangerous energy standoff in the eastern Mediterranean. The snub comes as Greece tries to increase pressure on its European allies to impose sanctions on Turkey during a summit next week. Beyond Europe, Greece is also shoring up international support, including in the Middle East, to press Turkey to back down from what it believes are irrational and unsubstantiated claims in the region.
As the voice of Greek diplomacy, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is usually subtle and discreet in his remarks.
Angered, now, however, by what he calls Turkey’s continued defiance of international rules and regulations, he has lashed out at Ankara, saying its high time for Europe to call it out and take punitive action against its dispatch of a survey ship to scout for gas and oil in regions claimed by Greece.
He also believes Turkey’s bid to return to the negotiating table with Athens ahead of next month’s EU leaders summit is just a last-minute ploy.
Turkey, Dendias said, missed its chance, when it unilaterally shut the door on talks, instead resending a survey vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to search for gas and oil in contested waters.
He warned that the European leaders would not be fooled, as he put it, by Ankara’s about-face and newfound desire to restart the talks.
Dendias’ remarks come less than two weeks before EU leaders convene anew to consider sanctions against Turkey. However, to potentially stave off any action by Turkey and appease EU critics, Turkish President Recep Tayyip said this this week he would suspend his country’s contentious energy hunt in the eastern Mediterranean, in addition sending a top aide to Brussels to try and work out a compromise, face-saving deal with EU officials.
Greece has been urging the EU to slap sanctions on Turkey since Erdogan ordered the first survey ship to the Eastern Mediterranean during the summer.
Tensions have since then flared and a military buildup in the region has followed, as Erdogan has vowed to drill off the coast of a Greek island – a strip of seabed Athens says it alone has the right to exploit but which Ankara insists it has legitimate claims to because islands, as it argues, do not have continental shelves.
Leading European nations, including Turkey’s biggest trade partner, Germany, have resisted sanctions against Ankara, especially as Turkey’s economy continues to be in free fall.
However, like Greece, some U.S. officials are also growing frustrated with Turkey, as former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said, "Turkey has become in many ways, for the EU and NATO, the largest problem because of its undue aggression in the eastern Mediterranean, because it continues to pick fights with Greece, along what Turkey believes is a contested border."
That leaves Greece extremely vulnerable. In an effort to increase pressure against Turkey, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has moved in recent weeks to shore up international support from countries Ankara was once closely aligned with, including the United Arab Emirates.
In a lightening visit to Abu Dhabi, Mitsotakis signed a defense and strategic partnership agreement with the crown prince. While details of the pact have not been released, Athens analysts believe the deal drives a further wedge between Turkey and the Emirates , whose relations have deteriorated because of Erdogan’s active support of the Libyan government Abu Dhabi is fighting through the Libyan National Army.
In recent months, Greece has also bolstered ties with Israel and grown closer to Egypt in a bid to sideline Turkey in the region.
That strategy, some suggest, may backfire, though.
With the Turkish economy waning and EU member states remaining divided over punitive economic action against Ankara, analysts in Athens say Erdogan is being further emboldened, warning he may move to escalate tensions in the eastern Mediterranean to deflect the attention of his electorate.