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A critical East Med crisis

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The Eastern Mediterranean and its adjoining regions remain an extremely turbulent and unstable neighborhood and the security environment continues to be “Hobbesian”. The region has evolved into a multi-player security system, as non-western powers have been steadily increasing their presence and influence. Given that it remains a region of critical importance for Europe and the US, it is quite surprising that the very aggressive behavior of a member-state of NATO and a candidate for membership to the EU (Turkey), against another member-state of both NATO and the EU (Greece) and a member-state of the EU (Cyprus) is being tolerated. The continuation of Turkish gunboat diplomacy will undoubtedly lead to the further destabilization of the region, at the expense of Western interests.

More specifically, Greece’s relations with Turkey, already difficult and tense to start with, have deteriorated even further over the past few months as a result of hostile actions, such as the deliberate use of migrants as a ‘battering ram’ to forcefully breach the Greek border at the Evros region. The aim was was to blackmail the EU institutions and individual European governments to provide additional economic assistance and other concessions (such as a visa waiver, a new Customs Union, etc.) to Turkey.

Additional hostile actions included frequent low-level overflights of Turkish military planes over Greek islands or even over the border region in Evros and an announcement for seismic research south of the Greek island of Kastelorizo in late July, a crisis averted because of the quick deployment of the Greek fleet and the diplomatic intervention of Germany.

Turkey’s seismic exploration vessel Oruc Reis sails on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, 21 November 2018. The latest  Ankara-Athens dispute escalated when Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dispatched the Oruc Reis to an area just off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, accompanied by Turkish naval vessels. EPA-EFE//TOLGA BOZOGLU

Turkey has also tried to project its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean not through structured multi-year legal negotiations like those Greece signed with Italy and Egypt, but rather through a hurried alliance with one of the warring factions in Libya via an illegal memorandum of understanding. In exchange for this deal, Turkey is now providing active military assistance to one side in a civil war.

Indeed, the Turkish-Libyan memorandum of understanding jokingly referred to among experts as the ‘legal contraption’, as well as Turkey’s extremely ambitious and blatantly maximalist ‘Blue Homeland’ concept has surely been drawn by an admirer of the Impressionist school of art: clear lines, but no relationship with reality.

At the time of writing, Turkey has deployed a research vessel, escorted by several warships, in Greece’s maritime zones.  Ankara has announced a series of research and drilling activities that will last for several weeks and will bring Turkish ships only a few miles from Greek islands such as Crete and Rhodes. As a result, the possibility of military conflict is real and Greece has no choice but to prepare for all contingencies, although it strongly believes there is still room for diplomacy to prevent a flare-up. A military conflict would weaken both sides, as well as western institutions, to the benefit of our non-western competitors.

Turkey claims to be reacting to ‘efforts to isolate her’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, obviously referring to the tripartite cooperation schemes between Greece, Cyprus and Israel and Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, which are the only ‘game in town’ in a region lacking any formal agreements and institutions and any type of a regional security architecture. Other actors such as the US, France and Jordan have expressed various degrees of interest in such sub-regional cooperation schemes. The common interests of those countries are to increase stability in a highly volatile region and to promote cooperation in various sectors. They do not constitute an axis against a third country, nor is membership exclusive. Quite the opposite, as the addition of important regional players could be beneficial, overall. There are, however, some reasonable preconditions for participation and adherence to a non-aggressive code of conduct for interstate relations is the most important one.

Assuming that substantial additional hydrocarbon discoveries will be made, then the Eastern Mediterranean will eventually become more important not only for the regional countries’ economies but also for Europe’s energy security. The seven-nation Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, based in Cairo, is a model for peaceful regional cooperation. Agreements for the delimitation of maritime zones on the basis of international law is a necessary prerequisite for such cooperation. The International Court of Justice would be the proper institution to resolve disputes regarding the delimitation of maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A Greek F-16 takes off from Israel’s Ovda Airbase in the Negev Desert, near Eilat in southern Israel, during a joint IDF-Hellenic Air Force combat training exercise. EPA-EFE//ABIR SULTAN

Concerns about Turkish policies go well beyond its actions against Greece and Cyprus. Recently described by the New York Times as NATO’s ‘Elephant in the Room’ (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/world/europe/turkey-nato.html), Turkey has a growing number of strategic divides with its transatlantic partners on issues like Syria, its cozy relationship with Russia, including the purchase of the S-400 antiaircraft system, ‘the violation of the arms embargo in Libya, the constant demonization of Israel, its aggressive drilling in the eastern Mediterranean and its increasing use of state-sponsored disinformation’ and the disconcerting message from Hagia Sophia’s reconversion from a symbol of interfaith and intercultural contact to a mosque.

It is perhaps understandable that in the context of NATO, Turkey is ‘too big, powerful and strategically important to allow for an open confrontation’. However, NATO can hardly remain a passive observer when the cohesion of the alliance –already challenged by the current state of transatlantic relations- is at serious risk. Should there be a military confrontation between Greece and Turkey, NATO’s Secretary-General may find himself in the awkward position of delivering to his successor the Alliance minus its southeastern flank. Neither can the EU any longer afford to allow various third parties to shape its southern neighborhood without Europe’s active involvement.

Accepting that in almost every crisis there are risks are but also possible opportunities, is it realistic to expect that Turkey’s relationship with the EU and the West can be re-defined in the context of a more active European (and American) policy towards the Eastern Mediterranean? Here, we are at a crossroads of sorts. The EU needs to make a clear decision about re-setting its relationship with Turkey in a balanced manner, linking benefits with obligations and a code of conduct. Such a relationship cannot be exclusively transactional; values remain important.

In this context, accession negotiations should not be formally ended, despite the lack of progress. Also, a carrot and stick policy would be essential. Sticks would include a clear set of meaningful sectoral sanctions against Turkey, based on the Russian model. One hopes that their implementation will not be at the end necessary because Turkey will change course, but it is extremely important that they are in place.

French Rafale fighter jets stand ready on the deck of the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. President Emmanuel Macron has called the tense situation in the Eastern Mediterranean “worrying”, and has urged Turkey to stop its “unilateral” actions and allow for a “peaceful dialogue” between NATO members. EPA-EFE/STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

At the bilateral level, Athens is ready for the resumption of the so-called ‘exploratory talks’, suspended by Turkey in 2016. Prime Minister Mitsotakis believes Greece can be a bridge between Turkey and the rest of Europe. Greece stands ready to engage, in good faith, in a dialogue with Turkey that is based on responsible behaviour and respect for international law. One could hardly agree more with High Representative Borrell’s statement that ‘Maritime boundaries must be defined through dialogue and negotiations, not through unilateral actions and mobilisation of naval forces. Disputes must be solved in accordance with international law.’

We strongly believe that international law can provide just and acceptable solutions, provided the discussion agenda is not overburdened with fictional items or ‘joker clauses’. A positive bilateral agenda should also be sought, focusing on common interests and prospects for cooperation in the so-called low politics sector (COVID-19, organized crime, climate change, changing regional supply chains, terrorism, refugee/migration management -where Greece and Turkey are not on different sides, as Greece acknowledges the latter’s burden-, etc.)

The American guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul transits through Souda Harbor on the Greek island of Crete while on its way out to sea in the Eastern Mediterranean. The US Congress has been quietly blocking multiple arms sales to Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. EPA-EFE//PAUL FARLEY/HO

Given the state of the Turkish economy and the multiple external and internal issues Turkey has to manage (a classic case of strategic overextension), it is imperative for its own self-interest that Ankara makes a strategic choice regarding the nature of its relations with both neighbouring Greece and Cyprus, as well as its main economic and political partner, the EU.

Because of its importance as a strategic partner, either in trade or in refugee/migration management, Greece’s preference is for Turkey to decide to remain part of the broader European and transatlantic ‘family’, but such membership cannot be unconditional and the partnership needs to be balanced and rules-based.

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