Views from the capitals: Gas conflict in the eastern Mediterranean

Experts from ECFR’s national offices address the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over gas reserves

picture alliance / AA | Turkish National Defense Ministry ©

Introduction

  • Tensions between Europe and Turkey continue to escalate across the eastern Mediterranean. Recent incidents between French, Greek, and Turkish naval vessels, as well as increased military deployments, have highlighted the risk of military confrontation between NATO members.
  • Despite some mediation initiatives, Ankara has continued gas exploration activities in EU waters, while European divisions on the nature of their response have become ever more apparent.
  • Reflecting on these divisions, ECFR offers the perspectives of five European capitals involved in the conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. The analyses explore the interests, strategies, and actions of the different state actors.

Paris: Looking for a breakthrough (Tara Varma)

France and Turkey have been flexing their muscles in the eastern Mediterranean for some months now, especially since the rise in tensions between Greece and Turkey over the gas reserves located around Cyprus. Between Syria, Libya, and Europe, the list of sensitive topics in the region keeps on growing.

In June, a Turkish warship illuminated French frigate Courbet with targeting radar, an incident that left the French government dismayed as it felt its NATO allies “bur[ied] their heads in the sand” by failing to condemn the incident. Subsequently, France pulled, temporarily, out of NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean. The French have expressed increasing frustration with Ankara and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “expansionist policies”, which they argue are not compatible with European interests. France has organised military exercises in the region with Greece, Cyprus, and Italy in order to deter Turkey from pursuing forays connected to the gas fields.

Two camps are now facing off within Europe when it comes to Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. The ‘tough’ camp contains France, Greece, and Cyprus, which wish to threaten Turkey with sanctions. The more conciliatory camp includes Spain, Italy, and Germany, the last of which holds the EU presidency until the end of 2020. In yet another avatar of his en même temps logic, Macron reinforced French military presence in the region all the while congratulating Germany on its recent efforts to mediate between Greece and Turkey. In another overture that went mostly unnoticed at the Middle Eastern Mediterranean Summer Summit, Macron called for the creation of a Pax Mediterranea built around energy topics and for new grounds for political cooperation and governance in the region. He reiterated this call during the Med7 summit, held in Corsica on 10 September with Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, and France. But for the moment member states are waiting for the European Council meeting of 24-25 September before taking any decisions.

With talks ongoing between Greece and Turkey, it remains to be seen whether a relatively isolated France will manage to make its will felt in the eastern Mediterranean.

Berlin: Keeping the channels of dialogue open (Jana Puglierin)

Berlin has been trying for months to mediate in the growing conflict between Ankara and Athens over the eastern Mediterranean’s gas reserves. It has done so with little visible success so far. In contrast to Emmanuel Macron in France, the German government does not clearly take Greece’s side, but instead sees itself – also in the context of its EU presidency – in the role of an honest broker between the conflict parties. The foreign minister, Heiko Maas, emphasised in his speech at the French Ambassadors’ Conference in August that the German government and its European partners would no longer accept Turkey’s “destabilising policy” in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. But he also made clear that only dialogue could resolve the current crisis.

It is important for Germany to keep channels of dialogue with Turkey open despite the current difficult relationship with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In doing so, the federal government remains true to the tried-and-tested mantras of German crisis diplomacy – “readiness to talk” and “policy of détente” – as opposed to, say, sending frigates to the Mediterranean. Although the German and French approaches to Athens and Ankara differ substantially, Berlin is trying to keep these differences from becoming visible and not to endanger the Franco-German harmony that has just been restored by the Recovery Fund.

Within the EU, Germany has the most comprehensive economic, military, and political relations with Turkey. On the one hand, this might give the German government some leverage over Ankara. On the other hand, as many critics in France in particular argue, this calls into question Germany’s credibility as a truly “honest broker”. After all, Germany has a very significant Turkish community and it attracts a large proportion of the thousands of refugees in Turkish reception camps. That is why the Federal Republic, considered to be the originator of the EU-Turkey refugee deal, continues to have a strong interest in remaining on speaking terms with Turkey. In Berlin, Turkey policy is not only about geopolitics and security – it is at least as much about domestic policy and migration policy.

Rome: When stakes are high (Arturo Varvelli)

Italy is deeply involved in the eastern Mediterranean conundrum, not least because it was the Italian energy giant Eni that discovered the first massive natural gas field in the eastern Mediterranean in August 2015. Eni is also the lead operator in Cyprus’s natural gas development, and has headed a plan to pool Cypriot, Egyptian, and Israeli gas and use Egypt’s liquefaction plants to cost-effectively market the region’s gas to Europe as liquified natural gas.

But this strategy, although economically profitable, created a geopolitical bug: it left no role for Turkey, dashing Ankara’s in-progress plans to become a regional energy hub and contributing to its perception of regional isolation. But Rome also made a second mistake towards Ankara, this time one that ended up helping the Turkish side. In Libya, Italy was engaged in a search for equidistance between the two warring parties in Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Tripoli-based internationally recognised Government of National Accord. This caused it to lose the trust of GNA, forcing the latter to look for new friends – specifically, in the direction of Turkey. As a consequence, in November 2019 Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement with the GNA. The deal was an attempt to secure Turkey greater legal standing to challenge the maritime borders Greece had established with Cyprus and Egypt – upon which these countries’ eastern Mediterranean natural gas development plans depend.

Therefore, two issues are at stake for Italy in this highly convoluted scenario: energy diversification and its role in Libya, where Rome has vital economic and security interests. As a result, Italy’s position on the eastern Mediterranean geopolitical chessboard is cautious, as always. Italy’s ambiguity is currently epitomised by its dual commitment to both the Turkish-led naval operation Mediterranean Shield and to the Greek-led Quadrilateral Initiative Operation Eunomia. The Italian participation in Operation Eunomia is much more substantial than the small contribution Italy had made to Turkey’s Mediterranean Shield, but it is difficult to establish whether Italy is backing Turkey or Greece.

When Europe thinks in terms of constructive solutions in the eastern Mediterranean, it can count on Italy as long as the EU – driven by France – does not adopt a confrontational approach to Turkey. However, despite being able to speak to both sides, Rome still appears incapable of building a proactive policy or playing a leadership role in a broad diplomatic initiative.

Madrid: Exercising rhetorical containment (José Torreblanca)

The eastern Mediterranean crisis does not feature high on the political and media agenda in Spain. To start with, Spain is currently absorbed by the domestic politics of the next budget, with the government still not having secured a majority to pass it. The country is also of course consumed by the need to contain the second wave of the pandemic, which in Spain is unprecedented in Europe in terms of speed and depth. Secondly, located at the other end of the Mediterranean, Spain feels more concerned about the general stability of the eastern Mediterranean than by a desire to protect vital national interests, whether geopolitical or economic, which are not at stake or endangering partners or allies. If anything, Spain has had a good relationship with Turkey for some time, including for example the joint launch of the Alliance of Civilisations back in 2007. On key sensitive issues for Ankara, such as the situation of the Kurds, the Armenian genocide, or Syria, Spain has always exercised rhetorical containment, seeking to resolve differences in private. Spain has also historically supported Turkey’s EU membership bid.

Spanish diplomacy has therefore consistently supported Berlin’s attempts to de-escalate the crisis. The Spanish foreign minister, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, was well received in Istanbul at the end of July but also that month met with the Greek premier, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. While the Spanish foreign ministry is not happy with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric and even less with his authoritarian drive, it not only thinks that sanctions on Ankara will be ineffective in terms of bringing Erdogan to the negotiation table, it also thinks they could backfire and lead Turkey to put more refugee pressure on Greece and other EU members. As a consequence, it supported the framework agreement that Germany and the high representative, Josep Borrell, were recently promoting – until it was destroyed by a Greek-Egyptian agreement on territorial waters signed in August. For the moment, Spain wants to continue pursuing a policy of supporting de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Athens: Boosting the defence (George Tzogopoulos)

Turkey has directed provocative actions in the eastern Mediterranean towards Greece since the beginning of August. It had deployed a vessel, Oruc Reis, to carry out research activity close to Greek islands in maritime zones not yet delimited between the two countries. Turkey returned the ship to port on 12 September, a decision the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, called “a positive first step”. But the situation still looks uncertain.

Greece has responded to these challenges by boosting its defences and undertaking new foreign policy initiatives. Specifically, the country announced it would acquire 18 Rafale fighters, four new frigates, four Romeo naval helicopters, anti-tank weapons for the army, torpedoes for the navy, and guided missiles for its air force. It also plans to modernise four existing frigates and add 15,000 professional soldiers to its armed forces over the next five years.

At the EU level, Greece has sought to exert pressure on its partners to seriously examine the possibility of imposing sanctions on Turkey at the European Council planned for 24-25 September. Such a step would further hit the already weakened Turkish economy. Athens is strongly appreciative of the critical support Paris has given it and is exploring how it might expand its defence collaboration with its French partner. It also remains confident in its special relationship with Washington, which it strengthened after signing a mutual defence cooperation agreement in October 2019. Additionally, Greece relies on trilateral collaboration mechanisms with Israel and Cyprus as well as with Egypt and Cyprus. New regional dynamics, for example the normalisation of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, also create opportunities for new ways of acknowledging a common Turkish threat. Both Israel and the UAE have shown solidarity with Greece.

Athens and Ankara both appear prepared to start dialogue with each other. From a Greek perspective the agenda should not go beyond maritime differences, though. Greece feels threatened by Turkey and will start no discussions about issues such as the demilitarisation of some Aegean islands.

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

Authors

Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow
Head, ECFR Paris
Policy Fellow
Head, ECFR Rome
Senior Policy Fellow

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