The EU and the Eastern Mediterranean flashpoint

Opinion piece (Aspenia Online)
05 October 2020

Tensions are running high in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey disputes Greek and Cypriot maritime boundaries, and argues that Cyprus has no right to exploit its natural gas resources until it reaches a deal to share them with Turkish Cypriots in the divided island’s north. At the same time, Turkey advances claims to a large maritime zone, which it calls “Blue Homeland”.

To assert these claims, Ankara has engaged in brinkmanship, sending vessels escorted by its navy to explore for hydrocarbons, prompting Greece to mobilize its forces and France to boost its military presence in the region. In September, Greece and Turkey came close to a military clash. Tensions have now eased somewhat after Ankara paused exploration operations south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkey has toned down its rhetoric towards Greece, and Athens and Ankara have (re)started bilateral talks. However, Turkey has maintained the pressure on Cyprus, and continues to explore for hydrocarbons near Cyprus.

Tensions have partly been fueled by a desire to exploit the regions’ natural gas resources. Turkey has been excluded from efforts to develop gas resources because of a mix of commercial reasons and poor relations with virtually all its neighbors. Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel formed an anti-Turkey grouping, banding together to exploit the region’s natural gas resources. In early 2019, they founded the EastMed Gas Forum together with Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. And, in January 2020, Greece, Cyprus and Israel signed an agreement to build an undersea pipeline (the EastMed Pipeline) to bring Cypriot and Israeli gas to Europe.


Ankara’s expansive maritime claims and naval operations are aimed to show that it cannot be excluded from developing the region’s natural gas resources. Aside from sending vessels to explore for hydrocarbons, in November 2019 Ankara signed a maritime delimitation agreement with the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya, expanding its maritime claims. The agreement, which the EU swiftly rejected, set a maritime boundary between Turkey and Libya that did not take into account the presence of the Greek island of Crete, laying claims to large areas of Greece’s continental shelf. To reassert its maritime boundaries, in early August 2020, Athens signed a maritime delimitation deal with Egypt. This prompted Ankara to walk out of bilateral talks that were ongoing at the time, and was the immediate trigger for tensions in September.


However, gas is not the only driver of tension in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to establish Turkey as a major regional power detached from the West is an essential part of the picture. Turkey has strengthened its military, intervened in Libya, Syria and Iraq, expanded its influence in Africa, and supported Azerbaijan in its offensive to retake the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Ankara’s growing assertiveness is partly driven by a feeling of encirclement by an anti-Turkish alliance, formed not only by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, but also by France and the UAE. Finally, Turkish foreign policy is also extensively influenced by domestic politics. International disputes allow the government to distract public opinion from the county’s economic difficulties, and to silence criticism from the opposition. Indeed, Turkey’s opposition largely agrees with the government’s stance on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean comes at a low point in EU-Turkey relations. With the accession process frozen, the EU and Turkey had attempted a more transactional form of co-operation with the 2016 migration deal. But the deterioration of democracy in Turkey after the August 2016 coup attempt meant that the EU was unwilling to begin negotiations over a promised upgrade to the EU-Turkey customs union. Turkey’s October 2019 intervention in northern Syria led to a further worsening of relations. In early 2020, the EU imposed sanctions on officials from Turkey’s national oil company for its energy exploration activities near Cyprus. At the same time, EU-Turkey migration co-operation became increasingly acrimonious, with Ankara pushing thousands of migrants towards the Greek border earlier this year.

The European Union has condemned Turkey’s actions as unacceptable. Member states agree that Turkey should not engage in unilateral actions, and resolve its disputes with Greece and Cyprus through negotiations. They also aim to foster a less confrontational and dysfunctional EU-Turkey relationship. But they disagree on the best way to achieve this. However, member states differ over the best way to persuade Turkey to do so. Divisions were on display at the European Council on 1st 2nd October. Greece, Cyprus, France and Austria think that only being very firm with Ankara will push it to refrain from unilateral actions and engage in negotiations with its neighbors. But most member states do not support economic sanctions at this point. With the US remaining largely passive in the crisis, Germany has taken the lead in encouraging talks between Greece and Turkey. Italy, Spain and Poland have also taken a more cautious stance.

There are several reasons why some member states are skeptical about imposing sanctions. First, a solution to Turkey’s disputes with Greece will take a long time, and sanctions risk sabotaging dialogue before it has a chance to gain momentum. Second, while sanctions would primarily hurt Turkey, they would also hurt Europe. Third, even though Greece has hardened its border by pushing back refugees, reducing Turkey’s ability to threaten the EU with a new migration crisis, many member states fear Ankara could push refugees towards Europe in retaliation for sanctions. Fourth, sanctions skeptics think Turkey’s political balance has been shifting, with opposition parties becoming stronger while the government loses support. Sanctioning Turkey, or ending accession negotiations, could allow the government to stir anti-Western sentiment among the public. Finally, to many member states, NATO’s cohesion is of paramount importance, and sanctions risk complicating the Alliance’s workings, by pushing Turkey to be disruptive.

These divisions over the best way to approach Turkey have prompted the EU to essentially bide for more time. On 1 October, the European Council called on Turkey to halt its energy exploration activities and engage in dialogue, offering to relaunch a positive agenda based on renewing co-operation on migration and launching negotiations to upgrade the EU-Turkey customs union. The EU also said it would organize a multilateral conference on the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to ease regional tensions about gas reserves and maritime boundaries. Finally, leaders agreed that if Turkey did not halt its unilateral actions, the EU would use all “instruments and the options at its disposal”, a rather vague reference to possible future sanctions.

Member states are unlikely to agree to broad economic sanctions as long as Ankara refrains from unilateral actions towards Greece and continues to engage in talks with Athens. This means that, for the near future, the EU will be limited to diplomacy to try to steer relations with Turkey in a more constructive direction. Now the Union has set out a positive offer to Turkey, the ball is in Ankara’s court: a durable de-escalation of tensions depends on whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes he benefits more from confrontation or improving relations with Europe. Together with Turkey’s mounting economic difficulties and diplomatic isolation, the EU’s offer could help convince Erdoğan of the merits of better relations.

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