Greece and Turkey play slow game of tennis where neither wants to be there

Greek Letter: The net is the entire maritime region of islands and their oil and gas

European history is full of treaties that create misgivings and recriminations between their signatories – compromises that satisfy neither side but bring the kind of peace “agreements” that harbour mutual resentment, suspicion and distrust.

In 1699 the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires – which between them controlled almost all of eastern Europe – "agreed" the Treaty of Karlowitz, which ended a 13-year war and signified the first major decrease in Ottoman power: transfer of lands and people from one power base to the other.

The long-term consequence was the period 1911-1922, which saw Europe engulfed in wars of identity, culture and boundaries, and at the “peace” conferences that followed each outbreak, Europe was once again divided by the victors.

And in 1944 more victors, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, divided up eastern Europe, giving Greece to the Anglo-American sphere of influence and thereby relegating the Greek "left" to political limbo.


In the 1990s we had the Balkans war following the break-up of Yugoslavia, with, as a legacy, the continuing scar of Kosovo and the Greek-Macedonian argument over the naming of "Fyrom" which, despite the "agreement" of 2018, is still providing aftershocks.

In the years 1911-1913 Greece did well from its Balkan wars. But in 1919 the Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, engaged in intense bargaining with the major powers in the fallout from the first World War. He was cynically prepared to leave more distant Greeks out of the equation if he could embrace the Dodecanese islands, Cyprus and Asia Minor. He lost on almost all counts.

Today, the EU (a modern-day equivalent of the Hapsburgs) is attempting to reach an understanding with a Turkey that shows every sign of re-establishing an Ottoman and Islamic hegemony in eastern Europe. But each step suggests more of a misunderstanding, while Greece, with little EU support, is separately negotiating its maritime status with an adversary whose main game plan is to shift the goalposts and rewrite the language of diplomacy. Today, Turkey wants to rescind the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 (to which it was a party), which apportioned most of the islands of the eastern Mediterranean to Greece.

Slow tennis

Observing the careful exchange of diplomatic barbs between Greece and Turkey is like watching a game of slow tennis where both players wish they were somewhere else.

The play is imaginary, the rules are Byzantine (literally) and the characters are almost cartoonish.

There are two sets of players: at principal level, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish president Recep Erdogan, and at the level of foreign minister, Greek Nikos Dendias and Turkish Mevlut Cavusoglu, who claim to be good friends, divided only by their countries' fundamental differences.

Occasionally, all four players constitute a doubles match, but usually it’s Dendias and Cavusoglu slogging it out. The net, of course, is the entire maritime region of islands and, more importantly, the oil and gas deposits.

Sometimes they are up at the net, viciously volleying, at others, back on the base line.

Dendias serves a ball of fact, Cavusoglu doesn't refute it, but, like any good tennis player, sends it back with a spin on it. When one side serves a fault (for example, Turkey declaring that the basilica of Hagia Sophia should now be a mosque, or reneging on its undertakings on the refugee crisis), the umpire (either the EU, Nato or the UN) looks the other way, especially where the innocent are concerned.

What lies beneath

The people of the islands are sometimes of less importance than what lies underneath their homes. In recent years, Kastellorizo, one of the smallest Greek islands and as close to the Turkish mainland as it could be, has been hailed as a sacrosanct emblem of Greek territorial integrity. I was shocked recently to learn that, in 1964, prime minister George Papandreou was prepared to cede Kastellorizo to Turkey if the Cypriot crisis could be resolved. I should not have beeen shocked. As with the partition of Ireland in 1922, lines are drawn not where they should be, but where realpolitik demands.

Greece and Turkey have spent the last 20 years avoiding discussion of what Turkey calls the “casus belli” of Greek occupation of the smallest islands. They have spent the past 47 years avoiding discussion of the illegal Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus. And today they are agreeing not to discuss any hot issues so that, in their own words, we can have a cool summer. Like a tea break during tennis.

The prospect of Greece and Turkey reaching any negotiated agreement in the eastern Mediterranean – even with international arbitration – is as remote as Donald Duck winning Wimbledon. But the need to keep an argumentative peace, rather than going to war, means that the show – or should we call it the racket? – must go on. The one call you won’t hear from the umpire is “love all”.