Europe: One side of the eastern Mediterranean fault lines
The eastern Mediterranean has become a nexus of flashpoints that drawing the European Union and Turkey deeper into an adversarial relationship. Once confined to territorial sovereignty disputes among Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey, the region’s offshore natural gas resources have transformed the eastern Mediterranean into a strategic region in which larger geopolitical fault lines involving the EU and the Middle East and North Africa converge.
Since 2015, Italian energy company Eni has been seeking to create an alternative natural gas supply to the EU by pooling Cypriot, Israeli, and Egyptian offshore resources, and by using Egypt’s liquefaction facilities for the cost-effective delivery of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to EU markets. This LNG export scheme undermines plans that Turkey had previously developed for a regional energy hub. In February 2018, Turkey expressed its displeasure at these developments by sending its navy to prevent an Eni drillship from reaching its destination in Cypriot waters, forcing the company to withdraw the vessel.
While Italy has long been among the strongest advocates of closer EU-Turkey relations, the Turkish intervention brought Italy closer to the Republic of Cyprus and Egypt on eastern Mediterranean energy matters. With Italian encouragement, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was formed in 2018. Headquartered in Cairo, the organisation counted Italy among its founding members, along with Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. Eni also partnered with French energy giant Total, the EU’s third-largest company by revenue, in all seven of Eni’s Cypriot licensing blocks.
Turkey regards France’s deepening involvement in the eastern Mediterranean as further provocation near its shores. France has established significant security partnerships with Turkey’s Middle Eastern regional rivals, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. France is Egypt’s third-largest weapons supplier and maintains a naval base in the UAE. This relationship extends into North Africa, where Paris cooperates with Cairo and Abu Dhabi to support the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his war against the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Ankara supports the GNA.
In 2019 Turkey doubled down on its gunboat diplomacy by sending exploration and drillships into Cypriot waters, each of which was escorted by Turkish warships. Ankara’s escalation drew strong opposition from Brussels, resulting in unequivocal EU condemnation and the activation of a limited sanctions mechanism. For Brussels, Turkey’s intervention in EU territorial waters crosses a red line – a position that reflects the consensus among seven southern member states (Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain) as expressed in their strong condemnation of Turkey on the issue at the annual Med7 summit in June 2019.
Paris went one step further by signing an agreement with Nicosia to service French warships at Cyprus’s Mari naval base. Addressing France’s senate, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summarised France’s position bluntly: “The Turks have started a drilling action in waters under Cypriot sovereignty … We will provide for a military presence in this area.” France, Italy, and Cyprus subsequently conducted a three-day naval exercise off Cyprus’s southern coast. In January this year, France formally requested membership of the EMGF.
France’s and Italy’s naval presence in Cypriot territorial waters is a critical policy objective for Nicosia, which seeks to translate those countries’ economic stakes in eastern Mediterranean energy into a form of security guarantee to defend its sovereignty. The Cypriot navy lacks warships and cannot deter Turkish movements in its waters.
Greece is also obliged to defend Cyprus from any attack by Turkey, as formalised in the 1993 Greece-Cyprus joint proclamation of Single Area Defence Doctrine. Greece hosts the annual Iniochos multilateral air force exercises, in which fellow NATO member Italy has twice participated in sophisticated military drills with Cyprus, Israel, and the UAE. These exercises build on the Greece-Cyprus-Egypt and Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral military relationships.
For its part, Greece also seeks to leverage EU opposition to the Turkish presence in Cypriot territorial waters to bolster its claims against Turkey in the Aegean. Greece has long argued that all of the 3,000 islands along Turkey’s western coastline – even those that are a few kilometres from Turkey’s shore – define the boundaries of Greece’s territorial waters and national airspace. This debate subsided when Turkey’s began the EU accession process a decade ago, but it is once again at the forefront of Greek foreign policy.
In November 2019, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement with the GNA, along with a military cooperation deal. This was part of a bid to break out of its regional isolation and gain greater legal standing to challenge the maritime borders Greece had established with Cyprus and Egypt – upon which their eastern Mediterranean natural gas development plans depend. The Ankara-Tripoli agreement is designed to maximise Turkey’s maritime zone by blocking Greece’s claim to some islands – most notably, Crete – the continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone, which provides sovereign rights over offshore energy resources.
The European Council took a strong stand against the Ankara-Tripoli agreement in December 2019, declaring that it “infringes on the sovereign rights of third States” and that the EU “unequivocally reaffirms its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus regarding these actions by Turkey”. Greece also responded to the Ankara-Tripoli agreement by coordinating its Libya policy more closely with Egypt, a key backer of Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA). One week later, the GNA invoked its military agreement with Turkey to request that Ankara intervene to stop the LNA’s assault on Tripoli. This linked an already tense maritime standoff in the eastern Mediterranean to a new escalation in the Libyan civil war.
The convergence of French and Italian policy around Cyprus has placed the EU’s eastern Mediterranean policy solidly behind the regional alignment of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and Israel, as well as the UAE in Libya. The one outlier and possible mediator in this may be Germany. Although Germany typically defers to France on Mediterranean policy, it is keen to preserve the relationship between the EU and Turkey. While the Turkey-GNA accord touched off a new round of diplomatic fireworks between Paris and Ankara, as well as renewed EU declarations of unequivocal support for Greece and Cyprus, Germany fostered a more conciliatory tone towards Turkey at the January 2020 Berlin International Conference on Libya. Germany may now be the only country that can help manage tensions and draw Turkey into a much-needed inclusive process able to resolve the dispute before it escalates further.