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Greece, Turkey facing first crisis talks since 2016

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Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) is welcomed by European Council President Charles Michel before their meeting in Brussels on Friday. Turkey's EU accession talks have been stalled for years. AFP

Greece, Turkey facing first crisis talks since 2016

Greece and Turkey bowed to EU and NATO pressure and were set on January 25 to hold the first direct talks over their explosive eastern Mediterranean standoff in four years.

The Istanbul meeting is not expected to make major headway after the two NATO neighbours’ gunboats collided in August as their dispute over energy and borders threatened to spiral out of control.

But it adds to the positive tone that Turkish President Recep Erdogan has been setting as he tries to repair damaged relations with Europe in the face of a potentially more hostile US administration under President Joe Biden.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

NATO has set up a hotline to stave off a military conflict, while Germany has spearheaded efforts to solve the dispute through negotiations that do not further isolate the mercurial Erdogan.

These will not be easy as Athens and Ankara 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 fumed last week.

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