The United States’ geopolitical retreat and China’s growing aggressiveness, together with the latter’s normative incapacity to lead, should impel Europe to adopt a new, more assertive global role. Indeed, the new European Commission has explicitly laid claim to want to be a “geopolitical commission”. Given this, the European Union should now move to upgrade its policy on its immediate neighbourhood. One of the regional theatres where the EU has large and direct stakes is the eastern Mediterranean.
The significance of the region is huge because of European strategic decisions in the last half-decade: namely, for Europe to make itself independent from Russian hydrocarbons; and to deter new waves of refugees and economic migrants who are likely to make for western and central Europe.
The eastern Mediterranean itself is a complex amalgam of territorial disputes, longstanding energy antagonisms, and historical and religious conflicts. Until now, the EU has been engaged in the region through the activities of certain member states, particularly Greece, Italy, France and, in the past, the United Kingdom. Together their national interests and goals sometimes converged and on other occasions conflicted. At the same time, Turkey’s actions under Recep Tayyip Erdogan have caused new instability in the eastern Mediterranean, given its own faltering economy, its engagement in major fronts on three continents, and its aspirations to transform itself from regional power to global competitor with the West.
Potential military tensions in the Aegean Sea and any demands within NATO to support Greece in a dispute with Turkey would likely to disrupt NATO’s internal cohesion, destabilise Turkey’s relations with the US and Russia, and at the same time cause problems in the Balkans, the Adriatic, Israel, and elsewhere in the Middle East. For an EU that wishes to gain access to the hydrocarbon resources of the eastern Mediterranean and avert new refugee flows, the nurturing of stability should be a core objective.
For coal and steel in the 1950s, read oil and gas in the 2020s.
Greece stands alone in dealing with everyday Turkish challenges, be they diplomatic or military. However, what is reassuring, when one thinks of the scenario of an escalated challenge, is that Greece shares interests of major importance with its allies. Both Western interests and perceptions of what is right and wrong are now more than ever aligned with Greek interests and views. Disputes between Greece and Turkey as well as those between Turkey and Cyprus are no longer bilateral disputes. They are European and have to be addressed as such.
Europe should make the promotion of multilateralism in the eastern Mediterranean its core objective and modus operandi, The first step to achieving this is to look at its own history. In the early years after the second world war, the heart of the Schuman Plan was the establishment of a superior single authority to control the production of steel and coal – the driving forces of the world economy at the time. Everyone would have access to natural and human resources, networks, and technical means; and thus to prosperity and peace.
Today, Europe should pursue a similar multilateral plan for peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean.
For coal and steel in the 1950s, read oil and gas in the 2020s. In a modern eastern Mediterranean version of the Schuman Plan, oil and gas could be treated as goods under joint administration and management. A single authority could be created, in which every state involved would cooperate on sharing technical know-how and allocating infrastructure (from pipelines to depositories), thus spreading the burden of paying for national infrastructure and security resources. A core goal of this authority should be to bring about a multilateral shift in the region that eases tensions and guarantees a certain amount of stability.
Every state that plays an important role in the energy landscape of the eastern Mediterranean should be involved, given both their resources and competitive advantages and their limitations. Crucial to the success of such an ambitious project is to ensure it is a prosperity incubator, not just for corporate oil giants but also for the people of the region.
At this time of tensions and uncertainty, the EU’s stakes in the eastern Mediterranean should convince it to play a more active and engaged role. The EU should act as hard-headed peacemaker: hard-headed because it needs to secure its own vital interests in the region, including facing down Turkey if necessary; and peacemaker because the EU’s own history shows the way to establish stability and multilateralism through innovative economic institutions, especially in times of great uncertainty.
Anna Diamantopoulou is an ECFR Council Member; President of DIKTIO – Network for Reform in Greece and Europe, a leading Athens-based think-tank; and a former European Commissioner.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.