Greece on Monday said it would be extending a wall along its border with Turkey to prevent potential mass crossings by migrants into its territory.
The move, seen as the latest sign of fast deteriorating relations between Greece, a European Union member, and Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, comes months after a spike in border tensions after Turkey said it would not be stopping refugees from crossing into Europe.
Additionally, on Tuesday, the Greek foreign ministry was reported to have written to the EU to consider suspending its custom union agreement with Turkey, which has been in force since 1996. A Bloomberg report also said Greece had called on three EU partners, including Germany, to halt arms exports to Turkey.
Relations between the NATO allies, which have been contentious for decades, have nosedived this year; the two countries have been bickering over a range of issues, including refugees, oil exploration and the Hagia Sophia monument.
Explained: The Greece-Turkey migration dispute
Since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, vast numbers of displaced Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey. According to the latest known figures, Turkey hosts some 37 lakh refugees from Syria, and is feeling the socio-economic and political strain of their presence in the country.
In 2015, the refugee crisis reached its peak as thousands drowned while attempting to cross over to the West using water routes. Around 10 lakh reached Greece and Italy.
In 2016, Turkey agreed to prevent migrants from crossing into the EU, and the bloc in return promised funds to help the former manage the refugees on its soil.
However, in February this year, Turkey said it would not be honouring the 2016 agreement, asserting its inability to sustain another refugee wave. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would be “opening the doors” with Greece for migrants to cross through.
Critics blamed Turkey for using the migrant issue as a means to bring its western allies on board with its military campaign in Syria’s Idlib province, where hostilities had escalated in preceding weeks.
Greece said the migrants were being “manipulated as pawns” by Turkey, which in turn accused Greece of illegally pushing back migrants from reaching its island territories.
Now, the Greek government has said it would extend its already existing 10 km long wall with Turkey by an additional 26 km by the end of April 2021, spending EUR 63 million on the project.
Turbulent ties that are worsening
For centuries, Turkey and Greece have shared a chequered history. Greece won independence from modern Turkey’s precursor, the Ottoman Empire, in 1830. In 1923, the two countries exchanged their Muslim and Christian populations — a migration whose scale has only been surpassed in history by the Partition of India.
The two nations continue to oppose each other on the decades-old Cyprus conflict, and on two occasions have almost gone to war over exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.
Both countries are, however, part of the 30-member NATO alliance, and Turkey is officially a candidate for full membership of the European Union, of which Greece is a constituent.
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The Eastern Mediterranean dispute
For 40 years, Turkey and Greece have disagreed over rights to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, which covers significant oil and gas deposits.
Increasingly assertive under President Erdogan, Turkey in July announced that its drilling ship Oruc Reis would be exploring a disputed part of the sea for oil and gas. Greece responded by placing its air force, navy and coastguard on high alert.
After negotiations, the Turkish vessel retreated in September, but earlier this month resumed its voyage, conducting seismic surveys near the Greek island of Kastellorizo.
Athens, which considers the waters surrounding the island its own, has described the ship’s movements as a “direct threat to peace in the region”. A signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it maintains that its continental shelf should be calculated while considering its island territories in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On its part, Ankara, which has not signed UNCLOS, argues a nation’s continental shelf should be calculated from its mainland, and maintained that Oruc Reis’s activity was “fully within Turkish continental shelf”. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
The Hagia Sophia row
Greece was also irked this year after Turkey ordered the centuries-old Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, open to Muslim worship in July.
The Hagia Sophia was originally a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire before it was turned into a mosque in 1453, when Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman forces. In the 1930s, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, shut down the mosque and turned it into a museum in an attempt to make the country more secular.
Many Greeks continue to revere the Hagia Sophia, and view it as a key part of Orthodox Christianity.
On July 24, when Friday prayers were held at the Hagia Sophia for the first time in 90 years, church bells tolled across Greece in protest, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the site’s conversion an “affront to civilisation of the 21st century”, describing Turkey’s move as a “proof of weakness”.
Turkey’s foreign ministry hit back, saying, “Greece showed once again its enmity towards Islam and Turkey with the excuse of reacting to Hagia Sophia Mosque being opened to prayers”.
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