Turkey and Europe: Growing tensions and a hot summer in the Mediterranean

Europe needs a grand bargain with Turkey that can create a short- and longer-term conflict-resolution framework covering energy, maritime boundaries, the Cyprus conflict, and Libya.

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There was an odd scene during Joseph Borrell’s visit to Ankara in early July, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu handed him a fancy box labelled “a gift from the minister of energy” – who, of course, happens to be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law. The European Union’s top diplomat opened the big present only to find a tiny plastic bottle of hand-sanitiser. As the Turkish minister laughed, Borrell was caught with a frozen smile – half in disbelief, half bewildered by the Turkish joke.

That suspended response is exactly where the EU finds itself in its relations with Turkey. It is bewildered but composed – aghast at the rise of a resurgent Turkey but strategically immobile in reacting to its neighbour to the southeast. With its drilling projects in the eastern Mediterranean and a foray into the civil war in Libya, Ankara’s newly assertive foreign policy is no longer a distant phenomenon that Brussels can ignore. It is one that is on Europe’s periphery and that pushes Turkey towards a direct confrontation with EU member states such as France and Greece.

Yet there is no consensus within the union on how to move forward. While Borrell visited Ankara to propose a dialogue on the eastern Mediterranean, he did not exactly have the political mandate for a grand bargain with Turkey. This is because Europeans are divided in what they should do. Once a candidate for accession to the EU, Turkey is now seen as a difficult neighbour. But – while Italy, Germany, and Spain prefer a transactional approach to a modus vivendi with Turkey – France increasingly views its role as containing and constraining Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Historically, spats between Turkey and France have been short-lived – as occurred on issues such as the 1915 Armenian genocide and Turkish incursions into Syria. But, this time, things are more serious – perhaps even of existential importance. The two countries support opposite sides in the Libyan war, and there is no love lost between their presidents. France sees a dangerous ideological model in Erdogan’s Turkey and the latter regards French actions as being part of an effort to prevent its imminent rise.

On a more fundamental level, France views a resurgent Turkey that is keen to flex its muscles in Europe’s backyard as a strategic problem that ought to be dealt with through European policy. Erdogan’s Turkey wants its place under the sun and is keen to project power beyond its border – as it is already doing in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Paris has thrown its weight behind Ankara’s regional rivals, developing closer relations with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, while supporting Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

France increasingly views its role as containing and constraining Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Franco-Turkish dispute spilled into NATO territory on 10 July, when a French frigate attempted to inspect a cargo ship accompanied by Turkish vessels on suspicion that it was violating a UN arms embargo – leading to a standoff between the sides. Still-hotter days are ahead this summer. If the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord launches a Turkish-backed offensive on the strategically important towns of Sirte and Jufra, this will almost certainly cause France and the United Arab Emirates to reinforce their support for Haftar’s forces.

Meanwhile, oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean is another flashpoint that could soon draw Turkey into a direct confrontation with France or Greece. This brewing conflict involves old and new rivalries – with maritime disputes, competing claims for exclusive economic zones, and the decades-long unresolved Cyprus issue. Ankara has long complained about Nicosia’s decision to award drilling contracts to energy companies over the last few years, arguing that Northern Cyprus, which it backs and recognises, has been cut off from the region’s hydrocarbon resources. Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus have competing claims over their maritime borders. Turkey signed a maritime agreement with Libya in December 2019, asserting that its territorial waters now extended deep into the sea north of Libya. While most energy companies that operate in the area have stopped exploration and drilling due to low oil prices and covid-19, Ankara is keen to continue drilling in an area near Crete. All this could lead to new standoffs on the high seas.

Europe needs a grand bargain with Turkey that can create a short- and longer-term conflict-resolution framework covering energy, maritime boundaries, the Cyprus conflict, and Libya. But it is nearly impossible for EU member states to strike a grand bargain on such a vast assortment of problems, given that they disagree on what to do and how far to push Turkey. The more punitive approach advocated by Greece, Cyprus, and France – which call for economic sanctions – is often rebuffed by Germany, Italy, Malta, and other states that want to protect their relations with Turkey.

During a meeting of its foreign affairs council last week, the EU warned of sanctions against Turkey, but said it wanted to try dialogue first. “We are going to support a path that will contribute to lower tensions. And for sure, drilling in the disputed waters in Greece could be something that will increase tensions,” Borrell said. This was essentially a warning to Turkey not to continue with its oil and gas exploration off the coast of Crete, in an area that both Greece and Turkey claim as their exclusive economic zone – the latter on account of its maritime deal with Libya.

Yet Germany’s EU presidency could provide an opportunity for de-escalation. This week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Athens and Berlin to organise a new round of discreet diplomacy between Turkey and Greece.

Given that a grand bargain with Turkey looks unachievable, Brussels will have to take baby steps – to work on easing tensions between Turkey and Greece, and on starting a dialogue on sharing energy resources off the coast of Cyprus. The question is: what trade-offs will this require? Ankara seems to be open to a deal that involves what it calls “an equitable distribution” of hydrocarbon resources off the coast of Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots are a minority, but they want their share of the pie – and several parties already have various ideas about how to make this happen. It is difficult but not impossible to reach a deal, as the island’s two communities have been in talks for decades and there is an overall recognition that Turkish Cypriots should also receive the benefit of the wealth generated by the region’s resources.

Whether that is enough to convince Ankara to stop its own energy push in the eastern Mediterranean is anybody’s guess. But a Turkish-Greek or Turkish-Cypriot discussion on hydrocarbon resources off the coast of Cyprus would at least make everyone pause for a minute. On an optimistic note, it might even mark the beginning of a new age of partnership between Turkey and the EU.

And, in this era of unhinged geopolitical rivalry, that is no small feat.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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