BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December 2004, 12:10 GMT
Athens and Ankara strengthen ties
Decades of hostility between Greece and Turkey have mellowed into good-neighbourly relations in recent years, the BBC's Europe correspondent Chris Morris reports.

How times have changed.

Back in 1996, Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war in a dispute over a pair of uninhabited rocky outcrops in the Aegean Sea. Now Greece is an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey's membership of the European Union.

Greek coast guard
The political gulf between Greece and Turkey has reduced
How times have changed.

Back in 1999, Turkey's most wanted man - the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan - was found hiding in the Greek embassy compound in Kenya. This year, the Greek Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis, was the guest of honour at the wedding in Istanbul of the daughter of his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Things are not perfect. Turkey and Greece still have very real differences about Cyprus and about territorial disputes in the Aegean. But on both sides, strategic decisions have been taken that they should make an effort to get along.

The days when a Greek foreign minister described the Turks as "murderers, rapists and thieves" seem to have gone for good.

Earthquake diplomacy

How did it happen? Well, there had been pressure for years from within Nato and the EU for the two countries to resolve their differences in a more mature fashion.

And when Turkey and Greece were hit by devastating earthquakes in quick succession in the second half of 1999, politicians were quick to send rescue teams, clothing and food supplies.

Cyprus, and disputes in the Aegean, will have to be sorted out sooner or later

"Earthquake diplomacy" was born and ordinary people on both sides suddenly realised how much they had in common.

It set the mood for practical political co-operation on issues like tourism and environmental protection and over the last few years relations in the eastern Mediterranean have moved onto a more secure footing.

Greece in particular decided that encouraging Turkish membership of the European Union was in its interests. Better, the politicians reasoned, than an angry Turkey shut out of the European process and looking for someone to blame.

They have not convinced everyone, though. An opinion poll released in Greece this week showed ordinary people divided pretty evenly over whether Turkey should eventually be allowed into the EU.

There was only a narrow majority in favour. On both sides of the Aegean, residual nationalist suspicions linger on.

Cyprus issue

But if Turkey still has a real Greek "enemy" in the EU then he does not live in Athens. The Greek Cypriot President, Tassos Papadopoulos, is a wily hardliner who now sits at Europe's top table.

Greek and Turkish rescuers, Athens 1999
Earthquakes brought co-operation through a common cause
Since the enlargement of the EU on 1 May 2004, he holds a long-term veto over Turkey's EU application, and he will continue to apply pressure in various forms over the next few years.

When the two sides of Cyprus voted on a United Nations peace plan earlier this year it was the Turkish Cypriots, with the encouragement of Mr Erdogan's government in Ankara, who said yes. The Greek Cypriots, influenced by Mr Papadopoulos's tearful pleas on television, rejected the plan overwhelmingly.

Ironically, it meant the Turkish Cypriots were kept out of the EU, and away from the benefits it would bring. Any move to ease the embargo on the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state has been blocked by Mr Papadopoulos and his diplomats.

So there are still plenty of obstacles for the Turks to overcome in their efforts to enter the EU. Cyprus, and disputes in the Aegean, will have to be sorted out sooner or later.

It does not have to happen immediately, but both issues will continue to cast a shadow as long as they remain unresolved. Compromise will not be easy, but with better relations between Ankara and Athens, at least it no longer looks impossible.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific