What is at Stake in the Eastern Mediterranean

The row between Turkey and its neighbors has drawn in other powerful states. While all EU member states have sided with Cyprus, there are those who believe that Turkey is too important to alienate. Germany is most prominent within this group.

Turkey’s relationship with the EU has never been problem-free. From Ankara’s frustrated accession bid to European politicians’ criticism of the authoritarian backsliding under Erdogan, and from the Turkish complaints of being left alone to look after 4 million Syrian refugees to Brussels’ refusal to update the 1996 Customs Union, grudges go in both directions. Yet now geopolitical tensions are fanning the flames even further.  EU members Greece and Cyprus view Turkey not as just a difficult partner, but rather as an existential threat. Disputes over sovereignty and maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, escalating since 2018, have brought back eerie memories of the mid-1990s. It was at this time that Athens and Ankara came dangerously close to a military showdown. Europeanization was supposed to mitigate the Greek-Turkish conflict and usher in a new era of cooperation and economic interdependence. Sadly, current realities have been much grimmer.

The Republic of Cyprus and Greece have been at odds with Turkey with regard to sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since February 2018, Turkey has despatched three drillships – Fatih, Yavuz (both named after prominent Ottoman sultans) and Oruc Reis (carrying the name of a famous naval commander cum corsair from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) to probe for oil and gas off the shore of Cyprus. They have been escorted by the Turkish navy to send a signal to Athens and Nicosia and flex muscles in order to rally public opinion at home. Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland), a doctrine developed by naval officers with nationalistic leanings suggesting that Turkey has a right over large swathes of the Mediterranean, has become an article of faith. Ankara has shown the resolve to use its military might to advance the claims. Turkish ships have occasionally blocked vessels, operated by energy firms licensed by Cypriot authorities to prospect for oil and gas, such as Italy’s ENI.

An Assertive Strategy

The essence of Turkey’s position – which predates Erdogan’s rule by a long stretch –  is that the state of Cyprus, established in 1960, no longer exists. Greek Cypriots’ unilateral actions in 1974, Ankara claims, have led to the dissolution of the polity. The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) therefore has sovereign rights over the hydrocarbon deposits around the island to the same extent as the “Greek administration of the South”, which Ankara does not recognize. Turkey has upped the ante after the latest attempt at reunification talks in Cyprus (2015-17) ended in failure. Offshore hydrocarbons were an incentive for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to seek a compromise. The collapse, however, of the negotiations saw Ankara adopt a more assertive strategy with the ostensible aim of securing the rights of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus against unilateral decisions taken by the Greek South. Ankara’s position is that the Republic of Cyprus – or the Greek administration in the South as it calls it – has no exclusive claim over the waters in question. The Turkish North should share the proceeds and is also in its right to issue exploration licenses to oil and gas companies, such as Turkey’s TPAO.

Offshore hydrocarbons were an incentive for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to seek a compromise. The collapse, however, of the negotiations saw Ankara adopt a more assertive strategy.

The issue with Greece is of a slightly different nature. Turkey is not a party to the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, among other things, allows islands to claim continental shelf as well as to provide the baseline for drawing an EEZ (exclusive economic zone). Kastelorizo, a stone’s throw from Turkey’s shore, but also the much larger Crete are instrumental to the Greek case for rights to a vast area spanning the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has long disputed such claims and called for boundaries to be drawn as a result of intergovernmental negotiations, rather than unilateral acts legitimated by UNCLOS. In late 2019, Turkey put forward a counterclaim over much of what Greece considers its own EEZ west of the 28th meridian based on an agreement signed with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya on 27 November 2019. Although Turkey’s claims span much of the Eastern Mediterranean, there have been no drilling activities in the zone that overlaps with Greece’s EEZ. Turkish exploration is focused on Cypriot waters where there are already proven oil and gas reserves.

Macron’s Call for a Robust Response

Tensions with Greece have been rising. In response to the Turkey-Libya agreement, Greece adopted the EEZ delimitation deal with Egypt in early August 2020. It follows in the footsteps of the agreement Cyprus signed with Egypt (2003) and Israel (2010). In January 2020, Greek and Israeli Prime Ministers Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Benjamin Netanyahu, along with President Nikos Anastasiades of Cyprus, agreed on the construction of the East Mediterranean Pipeline intended to ship natural gas from the offshore Aphrodite Field belonging to Cyprus and next door Leviathan, under Israel, to Greece and the EU. Greece has also deployed its navy to show resolve to Turkey. Last August,  the  Greek frigate Limnos, shadowing the Oruc Reis in the waters between Cyprus and Crete, collided with Kemal Reis, a Turkish war vessel escorting the drillship.

The row between Turkey and its neighbors has drawn in other powerful states. Indeed, Greece and Cyprus have recently been joined by France. President Emmanuel Macron believes that a robust response to Turkey’s use of the threat of force as a means of extracting concessions in the East Mediterranean tests Europe’s position in its southern neighbourhood as well as the French vision of the EU moving towards ‘strategic autonomy’.  “Turkey has a bellicose attitude towards its NATO allies,” said Macron in October, hinting that Erdogan could be swayed only if faced with force.

Paris has provided military and diplomatic support to Athens and Nicosia, e.g. sending a frigate and three fighter jets to a naval exercise Greece carried out jointly with Cyprus and Italy in August. In effect, France has sided with the four-way alliance including Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, co-founders of the so-called EastMed Gas Forum. Dating back to January 2019, the quartet is seen by Turkey as a hostile grouping. The fact that the EastMed grouping is also backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which like France is on the other side in the conflict in Libya, adds to Ankara’s consternation.

The New Adversary Number One

Anti-French rhetoric has been on the rise in Turkey as a consequence. Erdogan went as far as questioning Macron’s mental health. He also called for a boycott on French goods, enraged by the Elysee’s support for the right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Whereas in 2017-8, Erdogan’s wrath was directed at Germany and the Netherlands – which prohibited Turkish officials from carrying out a political campaign over diaspora populations – now France stands out as adversary number 1. Even France’s diplomatic overtures, in the wake of a devastating earthquake in Izmir (30 October), have not brought improvement. A new law Macron passed on combatting radical Islam has added even more fuel to the fire. What is at stake, according to Ankara, is France and its associates teaming up to deny the Turkish nation’s rightful aspirations to rise in the international pecking order. After all, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who along with Cyprus, effectively killed Turkey’s accession talks with the EU in the late 2000s.

Anti-French rhetoric has been on the rise in Turkey as a consequence. Erdogan went as far as questioning Macron’s mental health. He also called for a boycott on French goods.

France, Greece and Cyprus are trying to leverage the collective weight of the EU and put pressure on Turkey through economic sanctions. In November 2019, the EU Council adopted a framework which would allow it to impose sanctions (travel bans, asset freezes) on “persons or entities responsible for drilling activities related to hydrocarbon exploration and production not authorised by Cyprus within its territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf”. Foreign ministers also criticized the Turkey-Libya delimitation deal. Then, in February 2020, the Council blacklisted two senior officials at the Turkish Petroleum Organization (TPAO) involved in prospecting in Cyprus’s EEZ. Most recently, on 11 December 2020, the EU moved to expand the list of individuals and entities to face penalties. The member states took this decision in reaction to Turkey’s move to send back one of its drilling ships along with a naval escort to the Eastern Mediterranean in October, ignoring repeated warnings not to do so.

Erdogan’s own Carrot and Stick Game

The EU’s response has come as a disappointment to France, Greece and Cyprus which were lobbying for more substantial measures which would hurt Turkey’s economy. The reason is that there is no equanimity within the Council. While all the member states have sided with Cyprus, there are those who believe that Turkey is too important to alienate. Most prominent within this group is Germany. Heavily invested in the 2016 refugee deal and home to a substantial population of Turkish origin, the Federal Republic has been calling to Greece and Cyprus as well as to Turkey to sort out their differences through dialogue.  Berlin has furthermore floated the idea of a conference on the Eastern Mediterranean with the participation of all relevant stakeholders.

Germany already hosted a similar event on Libya back in January which brought around the table Erdogan, Putin, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo, Egypt’s al-Sisi, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, amongst other dignitaries. Chancellor Angela Merkel sees Germany’s role as a bridge between Turkey’s opponents and Erdogan. In August, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Athens and Ankara pleading for dialogue. When Turkey redeployed Oruc Reis in October 2020 around Kastellorizo, Maas hardened the tone. When the chips were down, however, Germany chose to tread with caution and lobbied for milder restrictions.

Berlin’s position is shared by many in Central and Eastern Europe. Bulgaria and Hungary are similarly appreciative of the refugee deal and, in the Bulgarian case, feel that accommodation is a more appropriate way to handle a large neighbor like Turkey. There are also Mediterranean countries like Malta and Spain who argue that the Eastern Mediterranean dispute should not hijack the entire EU-Turkey agenda. Like Turkey, Malta supports the GNA in Libya. In a recent interview, the Spanish ambassador to Ankara praised the benefits delivered by the Turkey-EU Customs Union. “What happens is that more and more Spanish companies come to Turkey to either open factories or contract with Turkish companies. For example, textile groups like Inditex, Mango and so on, employ no less than 400 Turkish companies to manufacture for them.” Erdogan has thus far benefited from such divisions. He has been playing his own carrot and stick game: withdrawing the ships from the Cyprus coast on several occasions this fall to extend an olive branch to the Europeans only to send them back to demonstrate Turkey is not walking back.

Bulgaria and Hungary are appreciative of the refugee deal and, in the Bulgarian case, feel that accommodation is a more appropriate way to handle a large neighbor like Turkey.

One of the beneficiaries in the standoff is Russia which thanks to the war in Syria has made a comeback in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow is keeping at an equal distance from Turkey and its rival bloc. It traditionally enjoys good ties with Cyprus and Greece, Israel as well as with Egypt, procuring a large amount of Russian weaponry lately. Putin has likewise developed a partnership with Erdogan since they reconciled in the summer of 2016 following a brief crisis in Russian-Turkish relations prompted by the war in Syria. Russia’s neutrality is interpreted as a friendly act in Ankara. Turkish commentators noted that Moscow asked the Turkish government to issue a navigational telex (NAVTEX) in September for a naval exercise it conducted in the Eastern Mediterranean. Previously, the Russians would turn to Cyprus.

Russia does have an interest that tensions around Cyprus do not get resolved. Divisions enhance its geopolitical leverage allowing it to play all sides.

Russia does have an interest that tensions around Cyprus do not get resolved. Divisions enhance its geopolitical leverage allowing it to play all sides. Eastern Mediterranean gas remaining under the seabed rather than being piped to customers in Europe or Turkey is welcome for Gazprom which holds a large share on many of the markets in question. In reality, however, offshore hydrocarbons may be a long way from fixing the EU’s energy dependency on external suppliers. Although Israel and Egypt are already extracting gas, the deposits Cyprus and potentially Greece hold may not be available at a scale and cost to make it economically viable for international energy companies. The conflict with Turkey, which under normal circumstances would be the logical market Cyprus would export gas to, makes production an even more distant prospect. Moscow need not worry about the Eastern Mediterranean, for the time being.

Dimitar Bechev

Dimitar Bechev is Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council. He is a regular contributor to Oxford Analytica, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy and openDemocracy. He holds a D.Phil. in Politics and International Relations from the University of Oxford.

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