There is no end in sight to the dispute between EU member states and Turkey over maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean. In November 2019, Ankara and the Libyan Government of National Accord signed a memorandum of understanding designed to expand the area in which Turkey exercised its authority. Greece and Cyprus criticised this bilateral deal for violating the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, which Ankara has not signed. The European Union, for its part, stated that the Turkish-Libyan deal was not legally binding on third parties.
In August 2020, Greece and Egypt signed another memorandum of understanding that partially delimited their maritime zones. As some of the zones laid out in the agreement are incompatible with those in the Turkish-Libyan accord, Ankara responded by deploying its Oruc Reis research vessel on a mission to the eastern Mediterranean. Although the mission lasted for more than four weeks, the Oruc Reis did not enter the exclusive economic zones set out in the Greek-Egyptian agreement. The vessel sailed south of Kastellorizo, through waters claimed by both Greece and Turkey. Athens’s position, in line with the Convention on the Law of the Sea, is that all its islands have the right to a continental shelf.
Meanwhile, Turkey has continued the drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus that it began in 2018. These operations have not led to discoveries of hydrocarbon resources, but they are indicative of the tactics Ankara employs to exert its influence on the island and protect the Turkish-Cypriot community. Of course, the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus is grounded in international law, granting its government the right to develop the energy resources in this area. Yet the opportunity to exercise these rights is complicated by the fact that the broader Cyprus question remains unresolved, as it has since the Turkish military invasion of the north of the island in 1974.
As a matter of principle, Greece and Cyprus agree on how to deal with Turkish policies in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet the former does not negotiate on behalf of the latter. For example, Nicosia recently blocked a move to impose EU sanctions on Belarus without also imposing them on Turkey, but Athens did not follow suit.
The resumption of talks between Greece and Turkey is a good beginning, but they need to avoid their traditional dialogue of the deaf.
The EU needs a holistic approach to bringing peace and prosperity to the eastern Mediterranean. As the 2020 edition of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ EU Coalition Explorer shows, energy and foreign policy are among the top priorities of EU member states. And 61 percent and 59 percent of respondents to ECFR’s study want the EU to take the lead in decision-making on these issues respectively. The bloc should do so in the development of energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. This would align with all member states’ aim to reduce their dependency on Russia, as these resources provide an alternative to natural-gas imports.
It is difficult to imagine a lasting solution for the eastern Mediterranean that does not involve an agreement between the EU and Turkey on all issues. The expected resumption of talks between Greece and Turkey – which have been announced by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs – is a good beginning. Both Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remain committed to dialogue. But the two countries need to avoid their traditional dialogue of the deaf to make mutual concessions on the delimitation of continental shelves.
That said, it would be helpful if these bilateral talks formed part of a broader discussion of EU-Turkey relations on issues such as the management of the refugee crisis and a potential upgrade of their customs union. This would allow the EU to exert some pressure on Ankara without necessarily resorting to sanctions.
Greece will continue to count on European solidarity in dealing with Turkey – with or without such measures. While Germany favours a relatively mild approach to engaging with Turkey, France is assertive in responding to Turkish provocations. As could be seen at the recent MED7 meeting in Corsica, a combination of both approaches serves the interest of Greece at the EU level.
Moreover, the EU can play a role in guaranteeing a fair distribution of energy resources from the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, respecting the rights of Cyprus as a member of the EU and the UN. President Nicos Anastasiades has already proposed the creation of an escrow account for revenue from these resources. While this proposal has not met with enthusiasm in Ankara, the EU could play an important role by safeguarding the Turkish Cypriot community’s share of the proceeds from sales of natural gas. Of course, Turkey’s insistence on “political equality” for the Turkish Cypriot side complicates matters. The EU may need to link a final settlement of the Cyprus question with a mechanism for sharing energy resources.
Acknowledging the need for a holistic approach to the eastern Mediterranean, European Council President Charles Michel has proposed a multilateral conference on the region. While its timing and agenda remain unknown, such a summit could lead to a breakthrough. The EU has already requested observer status in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, comprising Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. This could provide the bloc with an opportunity to foster further regional cooperation. Nonetheless, the wars in Libya and Syria, along with disagreements over the political representation of the Turkish Cypriot community, pose challenges to the implementation of Michel’s proposal for a conference.
The good news for the EU is that it is has been able to mediate relations between states in a particularly volatile region largely without the aid of the United States. But the bloc can do more. Sixty-four per cent of respondents to the 2020 EU Coalition Explorer survey expect member states to act together in all policy areas. While some patience is required in waiting for European diplomacy to bear fruit in all areas, the EU – and the German presidency of the EU Council – will deserve credit if Greek-Turkish talks resume as expected, following weeks of uncertainty and instability. Such diplomacy has averted the risk of a military incident with unknown consequences – at least for now.
George Tzogopoulos is an ECFR research associate based in Athens.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.