By Furkan Naci Top
Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has described the first presidential visit from Turkey to the Mediterranean country in 65 years as "a chance to take bold steps forward".
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Tsipras answered questions on the EU-Turkey refugee pact and the case of ex-Turkish soldiers claiming asylum in Greece after being linked to last year’s coup plot.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be the first Turkish president to visit Greece in decades, when he makes his official trip to the country on Thursday and Friday.
When asked about the agenda for Erdogan's visit, Tsipras said: "Firstly, we must develop our positive agenda on migration cooperation, the economy and people-to-people contacts."
"The EU-Turkey Agreement on migration as well as our bilateral Readmission Protocol must continue to be implemented as effectively as possible," the Greek premier said.
Tsipras also touched upon the two countries' bilateral relations, saying they "must develop on the basis of solid foundations of mutual respect, international law and full respect [for the] Treaty of Lausanne".
"We need to make sure that the Aegean and the Mediterranean are seas of peace and dialogue and not of tension or confrontation," he said.
"It is high time that we revitalize our discussions on Confidence Building Measures and the Exploratory Talks," Tsipras said regarding an airspace row over the Aegean between the two nations.
Tsipras also said it was important that Turkey and Greece "send a message of support on the restarting of the talks for a just and viable solution in Cyprus, on the basis of UN Resolutions".
"These talks must start when the two communities are ready and must be prepared well in order to ensure success," he said.
The Eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974, when a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by violence against the island's Turks, and Ankara's intervention as a guarantor power.
'Coup-plotters not welcome'
When asked about the ongoing case of eight ex-soldiers -- who are accused of being involved in the defeated coup -- seeking asylum in Greece, Tsipras said he could not comment on decisions that have to do with the judiciary.
"It is independent from the executive and its decisions on individual cases are, of course, fully respected," he said. "From that point on, my position has always been absolutely clear that coup-plotters are not welcome in Greece.”
"In this context we are continuing our security and judicial cooperation," he added.
Greek courts earlier this year refused to extradite the eight asylum-seeking ex-soldiers to Turkey.
The Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) and its U.S.-based leader Fetullah Gulen orchestrated the defeated coup attempt of July 15, 2016, which left 250 people martyred and nearly 2,200 injured.
Turkey also accuses FETO of being behind a long-running campaign to overthrow the state through the infiltration of Turkish institutions, particularly the military, police and judiciary.
Regarding bilateral relation between Turkey and Greece, Tsipras said: "We have faced challenges and difficult moments in our relations. But we should be guided by the increasing support that our peoples show to each other in difficult times, such as natural disasters, the Greek economic crisis, terrorist attacks, or the heinous military coup attempt in Turkey."
"I believe that the first visit of the president of Turkey to Greece after so many decades is a chance to take bold steps forward," he said.
EU-Turkey agreement on refugees
When asked about the current course of the EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement and whether the EU was doing its part, Tsipras said the agreement "was a difficult but necessary initiative, particularly following the unilateral closing of the Balkan route in our northern borders".
"Turkey has shown its commitment in fulfilling it and rapidly decreasing migration flows in the Aegean," he said.
"Nevertheless, the situation in the islands of the Eastern Aegean remains difficult. I will be discussing its implementation with President Erdogan as well as EU leaders."
A Turkey - EU refugee deal reached in March 2016 aims to discourage irregular migration to Europe through the Aegean Sea.
The deal included a €6 billion ($6.8 billion) aid package to help Turkey care for millions of refugees hosted in the country. However, Turkey has so far received only €677 million ($716 million). The agreement also allowed for the acceleration of Turkey’s EU membership bid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals within the Schengen area that comprises most EU states.
Tsipras also said that an understanding in many EU countries that the refugee issue should be considered as a Mediterranean problem is "a wrong perspective".
"..[It] is a wrong perspective that only serves to strengthen the extreme right and alienate countries such as Greece or Turkey that hosts over three million Syrians," he said. "We need a system of solidarity in managing refugee flows that consolidates a mechanism of returns and resettlement and provides the necessary support to countries that are at the forefront of this challenge."
Turkey's challenges in EU membership
On a question about far-right parties' recent gains in Europe and Chancellor Angela Merkel's suggestion of freezing EU-Turkey relations, Tsipras said "extreme-right forces in Europe are very disturbing".
"But I believe the best response to these forces -- that use racism and Islamophobia -- came from the people of Greece during the refugee crisis. Like the Turkish people, the Greek people proved their solidarity and hospitality, despite the difficulties they face in their everyday lives," he added.
"The challenges of migration and security make it even more important to preserve the EU-Turkey relationship as a mutually beneficial one," Tsipras said.
"At the same time, I strongly believe that the accession process contributes to preserving and promoting crucial democratic reforms and good neighborly relations. In this context, Turkey’s accession process and the EU-Turkey dialogue is today, as important as ever."
"We live side by side. As Greeks, we will always support democracy in Turkey and a Turkey that looks to Europe. I believe the EU must be clear in its positions and its commitments and Turkey must find its way in this direction, after a very challenging period."