Exclusive Interview – Mevlut Cavusoglu: The “keys” for a solution

The Turkish Foreign Minister talks to TO VIMA ahead of his meetings with Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Dendias.

by Angelos Al. Athanasopoulos

A mutual understanding between Athens and Ankara on the issue of the expansion of territorial waters in the Aegean is one of the «keys» that could pave the way for a comprehensive settlement of outstanding issues between the two countries says Mevlut Cavusoglu in an exclusive interview in To Vima a few hours before his arrival in Athens. ¨

The Turkish Foreign Minister confirms that the big goal is to convene a Mitsotakis – Erdogan meeting at the upcoming NATO Summit.

He also adds that Ankara remains open to any third-party settlement method, such as a recourse to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but that should be preceded by bilateral negotiations, while proposing three steps towards good neighbourly relations: honest dialogue, avoiding populist rhetoric and provocations, and a political will to resolve all issues.

Dear Minister, in a few days you are arriving in Athens to meet Nikos Dendias. Are you optimistic we could have a quiet summer in 2021? How close are the two countries to a high-level meeting between President Erdogan and Prime Minister Mitsotakis during the upcoming NATO’s Summit?

I am always optimistic for good neighbourly relations between Turkey and Greece. Yet this requires 3 steps. First, a genuine and sustainable dialogue. Second, commitment to refrain from populist rhetoric and provocative actions. Third, political will to address and resolve all outstanding issues. If these steps are implemented by good will, both countries will reap the benefits not only this summer but in all seasons. We are destined to live in the same geography as two neighbours. We should therefore define our relationship with cooperation rather than confrontation.

It is up to us to determine our destiny and the path forward. These are the messages I will convey during my visit. I will meet FM Dendias and I will also be received by PM Mitsotakis. My meetings will serve to prepare the ground for a meeting between our leaders at the NATO Summit.

There is a lot of talk lately about a positive agenda between Greece and Turkey, but also between EU and Turkey. Do you believe there is ground for such an agenda? Is the Customs Union modernization your main goal on the EU front? Are there specific bilateral projects with Greece which can be realized, and could you name us some of them?

We are willing to develop a positive agenda in Turkey-EU relations which will help restore confidence and lead to a constructive approach in overcoming our differences. Yes, there is ground for such an agenda. We see the political will on the EU side, with the exception of some member states which are inclined to abuse the membership solidarity and the right to veto. This momentum should not be lost. The positive agenda should be based on mutually agreed concrete and meaningful steps.

Thus, we have to work on; (i) strengthening Turkey’s EU perspective, (ii) starting Turkey-EU Customs Union modernization process, (iii) revitalizing Turkey-EU high-level dialogue and Summits, (iv) encouraging visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, (v) having better cooperation in the management of irregular migration and (vi) enhancing cooperation on our fight against terrorism. In this regard, Turkey-EU Customs Union (CU) modernization process can be an immediate step.

We welcome the inclusion of modernization of the CU in the Council Conclusions, but the conditionality creates a vicious cycle. Modernizing the CU would be significant in terms of upgrading the rule-based economic and trade relations to the benefit of both sides. The updated CU will widen and deepen the economic integration between Turkey and the EU.

As two neighbours and trading partners, Turkey and Greece will benefit the most. However, this is only one aspect of the positive agenda. I believe we have to leave this transactional approach and adopt a more holistic geopolitical perspective. Overall, Turkish accession to the EU is the single most important geopolitical investment that the EU can make for Europe and beyond.

Greece should Greece should refrain from using the EU as a leverage against Turkey and embrace the current positive momentum. Only Turkey and Greece can solve their outstanding issues – not the EU. This can be achieved through a genuine and meaningful dialogue. We are glad that we finally have managed to revive most of our dialogue channels.

In this regard, we are currently working on a group of tangible projects and a road mapmto strengthen our connectivity, economic and commercial cooperation. The Deputy Foreign Ministers of both countries met before my visit and discussed these projects
in length. We will also focus on these issues with Foreign Minister Dendias.

During our last interview, in December 2019, you appeared open to the possibility for Greece and Turkey resorting to the ICJ to solve their disputes. Since then, we have seen a series of events, mainly the migrants’ crisis in Evros in March 2020 and the “Oruc Reis” crisis from August until November 2020, when Ankara followed an extremely assertive stance towards Athens. Didn’t this stance and the push for the “Blue Homeland doctrine” with the Turkey-Libya MoU run against dialogue by shattering confidence?

Turkey has never categorically ruled out any method of third-party settlement to be based on mutual consent. But first and foremost, we need to engage in bilateral negotiations. I heard that some circles in Greece do not approve of negotiations. But I should remind that even to take the issues to the ICJ, we need to negotiate a special agreement. This is why we keep on emphasizing the importance of dialogue.

It should also be underlined that it was Greece which introduced reservations to ICJ’s jurisdiction on issues such as demilitarized status of islands, airspace limit, maritime boundary delimitation, application and interpretation of Articles 74 and 83 of UNCLOS. “Oruç Reis” carried out its activities at locations within Turkish continental shelf. We are resolute to protect both Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriots’ rights in the face of unilateral and maximalist claims by Greece and Greek Cypriots. “Oruç Reis” has been anchored a couple of times for logistical reasons. These were also chances to ease the tense situation in the EastMed and we have continued to call upon dialogue, but our calls have been ignored by Greece.

The 2019 Turkey-Libya MoU was signed by two sovereign states based on international law. As you may recall, this MoU has been welcomed and endorsed by the Government of National Unity in Libya as well.

Last July, in Berlin, Greece and Turkey tried (with Germany’s mediation) to create the conditions for dialogue. However, your side was hesitant in accepting a moratorium in exploratory and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Couldn’t we have avoided last year’s crisis with such an initiative? Would you be willing discuss today a new moratorium, a “Bern 2.0” if you like, with Athens to allow for exploratory talks to produce results?

If Greece only demands and never compromises, we cannot reach a common understanding. We are ready to discuss any controversial issue with Greece but Greece should renounce the Seville Map. Neither the US nor the EU endorse this map due to a false sense of entitlement. I should reiterate that it is a miscalculation on the Greek side to think that Turkey will be confined to merely the coasts of the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

Athens insists that the only issue to be referred to the ICJ is the delimitation of maritime zones, the continental shelf and the EEZ respectively. Ankara believes that the agenda is wider, even issues such as the sovereignty of certain Greek islands and the demilitarization of others. Do you recognize Greece’s right in expanding its territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles? And if you do, are there areas among which you distinguish? For example, is an expansion in the Eastern Aegean different in your eyes than an expansion in Western Aegean or in the Eastern Mediterranean?

We respect the UNCLOS and every country’s sovereign rights. However, the Aegean Sea has unique characteristics. The delimitation of continental shelf and the EEZ are not the only problems between the two countries. The fact is in a theoretical situation where we will delimit only CS and EEZ, we will not be able to solve all outstanding issues and we will continue having problems. This is what we want to avoid.

For instance, the breadth of the territorial waters is an outstanding issue in the Aegean. We do not categorically reject territorial waters up to 12 nm where conditions allow. Black Sea or Ionian Sea is an example. However, with 12 nm territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, freedom of navigation would be severely impacted to begin with. We cannot allow such an extension.

The disagreement over the legal status of islands, islets and rocks and the demilitarized Greek islands by 1923 Lausanne Peace Agreement and 1947 Peace Agreement cannot be isolated or ignored either. As I said, our eventual goal is to resolve all outstanding issues with Greece and to reach a lasting solution, not just to save the day.

Would it be fair to say that if Turkey reached an understanding with Greece on the width of territorial waters, she would be more constructive in discussing the delimitation for continental shelf/EEZ? Is this the reason you keep the “casus belli” active?

If Greece does not unilaterally expand her territorial waters in the Aegean, Turkish Parliament’s decision will not be implemented and we would like to keep it that way. I should remind you that Turkish Parliament adopted that decision one week after the decision of the Greek Parliament. On the other hand, it is true that a mutually acceptable position on the width of territorial waters would impact other issues positively.

Turkey’s case about Kastellorizo is well known, but allow me to ask you the following: does Ankara still insists on differentiating between the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean as far as delimitation is concerned? And would you prefer to discuss only about delimitating the continental shelf or about EEZ too?

Let me say it outright from the beginning: Greece’s position with regard to Kastellorizo is simply absurd. Geographical conditions both in the Aegean and the Mediterranean dictate that the delimitation of the CS, as we have been hoping to achieve, first has to be affected through bilateral negotiations and on the basis of the principle of equity. This is even more so necessary for the Aegean, due to its special conditions, but our stance and insistence on these principles remain unchanged.

Ankara supports clearly a two-state solution in Cyprus, a formula outside UN parameters and clearly a problem as far the Republic of Cyprus’ EU membership is concerned. Are you willing to compromise in a new 5+1 conference, or you will insist till the end to a two-state solution?

I suggest one should peruse with an open mind the proposal of the Turkish Cypriot side submitted in Geneva. Building a partnership on the Island could not be possible due to the rejection of the Greek Cypriot side to share the power and the welfare with the Turkish Cypriots. In fact, this mentality led to the collapse of the 1960 Republic of Cyprus in 1963.

It was the Greek Cypriot side who rejected the Annan Plan in 2004 and maintained the same intransigence in Crans-Montana in 2017. The UN parameters you pointed out are not set in stone. One should remember that those parameters, the UN Security Council resolutions reflect the agreement reached by the Turkish and Greek Cypriot sides in 1970s.

It is obvious that there is no such an agreement today. Turkish Cypriots elected Mr. Ersin Tatar, who is advocating the two-state settlement based on sovereign equality. Therefore, President Tatar has been vested with the authority by the Turkish Cypriots to negotiate this proposal. The vision of the Turkish side is the establishment of a cooperative relationship between the two States on the Island, on the basis of sovereign equality and their equal international status. We all should draw lessons from the failures of the past. Insisting on outdated UN Security Council resolutions could only get us into a vicious cycle. Therefore, we need to chart a new way forward with a realistic, constructive, and open-minded approach.

In recent years, Ankara follows a more independent, some say anti-Western, foreign policy. It seems though that Turkey is trying lately to mend fences in many fronts. Why have you decided to change course now?

Since the establishment of the Republic, the overarching guiding principle in Turkish foreign policy has been “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”. Even today, this principle continues to guide us in the conduct of our foreign policy.

Today, we have to operate in a complicated regional and international environment characterized by growing uncertainty, and constantly challenged rules based order. This reality and our unique geographic location at the heart of a region surrounded by conflicts and crises forces us to adopt a more proactive and comprehensive approach in attaining peace and security. In a volatile region like ours, the cost of inaction can be very high.

Also, in an increasingly multipolar world, enhancing dialogue with a multitude of regional and international actors becomes a necessity, rather than a choice.

Turkey’s enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy, expanding ties with a variety of actors do not come as an alternative or at the expense of our ROBUST relations with the US, the EU or the NATO. On the contrary, they should be seen as an asset strengthening our contribution to the solution of many problems that also constitute a threat for our common interests and the security of Europe.

Last year, I wrote in the Greek press saying that, in safeguarding our legitimate rights, our preference is diplomacy and dialogue, but we are capable of going whichever way our neighbour Greece or other countries may choose. This still holds true today.

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