ISTANBUL–Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ visit to the metropolitan city of Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast last month was heralded by many as a milestone in the history of the relationship between the two countries.
Tsipras stepped in town as the first Greek prime minister to do so since 1921, when one of his earlier predecessors, Dimitrios Gounaris, visited Izmir, then under the occupation of Greek armed forces during the Turco-Greek War of 1919-1922, which is known to modern Turks as the “War of Liberation”, and to modern Greeks as the “Asia Minor Campaign”.
The history of the relationship between these two neighboring countries is beset with conflicts, disputes and suffering. Surely there have been sparks of improvement in the past as well, yet they remained short-lived. What the two countries are experiencing today, however, appears to be the beginning of a long lasting rapprochement.
This optimism, which is also shared by the majority of politicians, academics and pundits from both sides, is grounded in the increasing dependence of Turkey and Greece on each other.
To start with, there is the issue of refugees. The controversial EU deal with Turkey addressed the flow of smuggled migrants and asylum seekers traveling across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands, and did so by allowing Greece to deport all irregular migrants arriving after March 20 back to Turkey.
The first group of migrants from Greece to Turkey arrived on April 4, and it will be followed by several others. For the EU, the objective is to prevent illegal arrivals and to deter future ones, in order keep its own territory “safe”.
For Greece and Turkey, on the other hand, this is an issue that they have to manage carefully and to learn to live with. While Turkey is provided with financial assistance in return for its accepting of migrants, as well as with promises of visa-free travel and progress in EU accession negotiations, the sine qua non condition for the functioning of the deal is the cooperation and coordination between Greece and Turkey.
Brussels makes the decisions and signs the deals, but it is Greece who hosts the migrants, processes them and determines what to do next, and it is Turkey who takes in the deported ones and makes efforts to resettle them. If there is ever going to be a solution—even a partial one—to the refugee crisis, it will be achieved through Turkish-Greek collaboration.
Turkey and Greece depend on each other not only on the issue of migrants, but also on economic affairs. The Greek economy is still suffering from the effects of the Euro crisis, while Turkey, despite having a better performing economy than that of Greece, finds itself in dire straits in the face of serious problems related to Middle Eastern markets and Russian sanctions.
During the High Level Cooperation Council in İzmir, which Tsipras attended with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu, several areas of cooperation were discussed including the food industry, plastics, pharmaceuticals, apparel, transportation and information technologies; but it is the tourism industry which is the most promising area for cooperation.
Greater tourism exchange between Turkey and Greece and a joint marketing of Turkish and Greek tourism assets to tourists from third countries will provide significant support to the two countries’ economies, especially since both are facing a steep decline in tourist numbers, albeit for different reasons.
The fact that Greece is a member of the Schengen zone is a major barrier hindering Turkish tourist flows to Greece. A Turk standing on the shore of the Aegean and looking to a Greek island — literally a stone throw away — has to go to Istanbul, Izmir or Ankara first, apply for a Schengen visa at Greek diplomatic missions, make the payment, wait, and then if he or she is given the visa, a trip to this island is possible.
Greek authorities have found a solution to this problem by making it possible for Turkish passport holders to receive a 15-day single-entry national visa (not Schengen) upon arrival on five different Aegean islands. This practice has boosted tourism numbers to a certain extent.
However, for Turkish-Greek tourism to really start producing results, the visa-liberalization clause in the EU-Turkey deal, which will make it possible for Turkish citizens to travel to Schengen countries without a visa as of June 2016 (subject to certain conditions of course), needs to enter into effect.
In the meantime, new transportation improvement projects discussed by Tsipras and Davutoğlu, such as high speed rail between Istanbul and Thessaloniki, ferry lines between İzmir and Thessaloniki, and direct flights between the two capitals, Ankara and Athens, will contribute to the facilitation of people exchange between the countries.
The current rapprochement between Turkey and Greece stems from mutual and pressing needs, and this is reason enough to expect it to have a long lasting effect on the relationship.
Earlier this week, an award ceremony held in Istanbul added another building stone on the process through its symbolism.
The inaugural Cem-Papandreou Peace Award, named after two former foreign ministers, İsmail Cem and George Papandreou of Turkey and Greece respectively, who through their personal friendship and dialogue helped to overcome the deep mistrust between the two countries in the 1990s, was given to two senior figures from the business community — Şarık Tara from Turkey and Theodoros Papalexopoulos from Greece — for their contributions to mutual understanding between the two countries, and to the civil-society initiative Greek-Turkish Forum for its efforts in track-two diplomacy.
These nominations are truly accurate, as it is the civil society, the business people, academics, and NGOs, who will turn the short breathed improvements in the relationship that we have seen in the past to longer-term peace and cooperation between Turkey and Greece. Politicians come and go, it is the exchange between the people that builds and maintains the links that bind.
The current rapprochement between Turkey and Greece is real, and Ankara and Athens need more of it, as dictated by their interests.
A lasting solution to the migrant crisis in the Aegean is only possible through genuine Turkish-Greek cooperation, and the two sides need each other in order to provide an impetus to their economies as well.
The big question that needs to be answered at this point is to what extent this rapprochement will have positive spillover effects on the two major conflictual issues between Turkey and Greece, namely the maritime disputes in the Aegean and the Cyprus issue.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian studies program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and a senior research associate at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).