The Eastern Mediterranean heats up

Opinion piece (Encompass)
26 August 2020

Summer may be drawing to a close but tensions are still heating up in the Eastern Mediterranean. A succession of dangerous military incidents between Turkey, France and Greece has raised the risk of conflict in the region. But European governments remain divided over how to deal with Ankara. Relations have been tense since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown after an attempted coup four years ago. The bilateral relationship has become increasingly cold, with the EU and Turkey focusing on a 2016 deal to prevent migrants from coming to Europe. But even transactional co-operation has become difficult, as Ankara has clashed with Cyprus, France and Greece.

Competing claims over maritime borders, partly fuelled by the discovery of large natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, are the main source of friction. Ankara, which has poor relations with virtually all its neighbours has been excluded from joint efforts to exploit and market the region’s gas. Turkey contests the Greek and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), claiming a larger maritime zone for itself, and argues Cyprus has no right to exploit its gas resources until it agrees to share them with Turkish Cypriots. Of course, advancing maximalist claims is also a way for the government to deflect attention from Turkey’s ailing economy.

Ankara has tried to assert its claims by sending ships to explore for energy resources inside Greek and Cypriot waters, and preventing others from doing so. In an attempt to bolster its position, it intervened in Libya, turning the tide of the civil conflict in the north African country in favour of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) by ending rival commander Khalifa Haftar’s siege of Tripoli. In exchange for Ankara’s support, the GNA signed an agreement setting a maritime boundary between Turkey and Libya that allows Turkey to lay claim to part of Greece’s waters.

The EU views Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya as unacceptable and argues that any disputes should be resolved through negotiations, not under pressure. The EU rejected the maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya, and in February imposed sanctions on Turkish officials involved in gas exploration activities near Cyprus. The Turkish government encouraged thousands of migrants to cross into Greece, a move that called into question the EU’s migration agreement with Turkey. Ankara argues that the EU had not lived up to many of its promises in the 2016 migration deal, such as reinvigorating Turkey’s EU accession talks or opening negotiations on modernising the EU-Turkey customs union. The EU has been unwilling to move forward with these issues until there is a substantial improvement in civil liberties in Turkey.

Turkey’s policy in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean has added to Europe’s concerns about Turkey’s progressively more authoritarian government and its increasingly assertive foreign policy. But Ankara’s actions have also revealed divisions within the EU. Member-states agree that Turkey must stop its energy exploration and engage in negotiations to settle its disputes with Greece and Cyprus. But they disagree about how best to achieve this: France, Greece and Cyprus want a tough line, while Germany, Spain and Italy favour a more conciliatory approach.

France is the leading voice within the hawkish camp. Paris has come to see Turkey as a leading threat not only to its interests in the region but also to European security more generally. This can partly be explained by how France and Turkey have been at odds across the region. Paris has close relations with Ankara’s regional rivals, Egypt and the UAE. Together with them, France has supported Haftar’s attempt to seize power in Libya, in the hope he could stabilise the country and fight Islamic extremism. France thinks the only way to push Turkey to moderate its policy is to deter it, and has sent military forces to the Eastern Mediterranean to do so. Together with Greece, and Cyprus, France has also called for the EU to impose economic sanctions on Turkey.

However, other member-states are more cautious. Germany has set itself up as an impartial mediator between Greece and Turkey. Together with Rome and Madrid, Berlin sees Turkey’s actions as problematic, but favours a milder approach towards Ankara. The scepticism from several member states about imposing economic sanctions on Turkey is in part due to Paris’ failure to effectively co-ordinate its policy in the region with its partners, which has led some European capitals to view some of France’s actions as unilateral and unhelpful.

Sceptics of a tougher EU approach argue that sanctions may not achieve their intended aim of pushing Turkey to stop its energy exploration near Greece and Cyprus or change its policy in Libya as Ankara sees these as core interests. Moreover, Turkey’s government could retaliate by encouraging migrants to enter Europe, including from areas under its influence in Libya, and reducing counter-terrorism co-operation.

Sanctions sceptics also argue that Turkey’s political balance is shifting, with opposition parties becoming stronger while the government loses support. They argue that sanctions could backfire by helping make Turkish public opinion more nationalist and anti-Western. Similarly, ending Turkey’s bid to join the EU could only encourage Turkey’s leadership to stoke anti-European sentiment amongst Turks. Sanctioning Turkey may also lead Ankara to complicate NATO’s defense planning more than it is already doing, and to embrace Moscow more closely.

France, Greece and Cyprus are increasingly frustrated that they are not receiving more EU support. However, member-states are slowly shifting to a tougher stance towards Turkey. The mood in the debate about how to deal with Ankara has echoes of the 2014 discussions over whether to sanction Russia for its intervention in Ukraine. Europeans were divided, and it was only after pro-Russian forces shot down a Malaysia Airlines flight that the scales tipped decisively in favour of sanctions. The more Turkey turns up the heat in the Eastern Mediterranean, the likelier it is that it will push the EU to adopt a tougher approach.

Luigi Scazzieri is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.