A dispute over the right to exploit territorial waters in the Mediterranean has turned nasty after Turkey rebuffed German-led efforts aimed at rebuilding trust. Now Greece and Cyprus are calling on the European Union (EU) to help.
While Greece and Cyprus are facing a Turkey-sized issue over who can or cannot exploit the oil and gas resources of the eastern Mediterranean, if they want any assistance in solving the problem, it’s uncertain from where that might come.
A statement from the EU after Turkey sent a research ship to carry out seismic testing in the disputed waters around the Greek island of Kastellorizo may have led to Athens calling for an emergency meeting of foreign ministers this week, but it will ultimately show the lack of spine the bloc demonstrates when dealing with its tricksy neighbour.
A European Commission foreign affairs spokesman called the developments “extremely worrying,” but then went as weak as cold, milky tea.
“What is needed to be done is to engage in solving all the open issues in line with principles of good neighbourly relations, international law and positive engagement,” Peter Stano said.
It’s not likely that will have much effect on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is fully aware of the territorial claims of both Greece and Cyprus over the waters surrounding their islands, but interprets those claims very differently.
“We cannot allow [nations] to ignore a big country like Turkey and try to imprison us to our shores,” he said on Monday.
Look at any map of the region and you’ll see where he’s coming from. The Exclusive Economic Zone gives nations sovereignty over the seas up to 370km from their shore.
With so many islands in the Aegean Sea within clear sight of the Turkish mainland, the Greeks are in constant dispute with their neighbour, relying on common sense and mutual interest to reach an agreement. But when Turkey reaches the conclusion that talks are going nowhere, it simply pulls the plug and goes its own way.
A deal it signed with the UN-backed government in Tripoli last year divided up the waters between Turkey and the troubled North African nation, ignoring the existence of the Greek island of Crete, which is smack bang in the middle of the area.
It’s this sort of behaviour that bugs Brussels, but, at the same time, it is pretty much powerless to do anything that would make Ankara play fair. Threats against Turkey usually amount to nothing.
When Erdogan feels the EU is being unreasonable – and that’s most of the time – he raises the spectre of opening Turkey’s borders into the EU and encouraging a flood of immigrants from the war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria to make their way to the European capitals of their choice. It’s a simple gambit but it works every time.
It first worked way back in 2016, when he was annoyed at the cessation of EU accession talks, and he took the same approach in February this year, when he was facing domestic pressure from the sheer volume of migrants pouring into Turkey and felt that Brussels wasn’t paying enough attention – or money – for his help.
And, of course, it worked in October last year, when he sought to avoid condemnation for his incursions into Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Following that move against Damascus, the president could not have made his contempt for Brussels’ authority any clearer.
His comment at the time was: “Hey, EU! Wake up. I say it again: if you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, our task is simple: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you.”
The response to that from the EU? A few raised eyebrows in Brussels, some clicking of tongues and… nothing.
And that’s despite Erdogan’s actions at various times being described as “unacceptable” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, being told that “threats are not helpful”, and warned by former EU migration commissioner Margaritis Schinas that nobody could “blackmail or intimidate the EU”. Nobody, that is, except President Recep Tayip Erdogan.
So Greece and Cyprus can raise the alarm all they like in the corridors of power, as they look for strong and powerful allies to fight their corner over their right to exploit oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean. But it will take someone prepared to stand up to Erdogan, someone he’ll listen to, if they are to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution to this escalating dispute.
When Germany took over the rotating presidency of the EU Council, it pledged to get to grips with the relationship with Turkey. Admittedly, it did manage to broker a short period of calm, but that ended abruptly last week, following the signing of a maritime agreement between Greece and Egypt that Ankara said demonstrated Athens could not be trusted.
Turkey immediately organised further surveying of the disputed area, and announced it would issue seismic exploration and drilling licences before the end of the month. Italso ramped up the pressure, with various government officials tweeting pictures of their nation’s fighter jets and warships deployed at sea.
“Every drop of our blue homeland is sacred,” tweeted one, giving a clear indication of the shift in mood.
This is not a good sign for Germany, as it seeks to fulfil its ambition of re-setting ties between Brussels and Ankara, when the chances of success appear to be all at sea.