A New Rivalry

Greece and Turkey Squabble over the Eastern Mediterranean

9 September 2020

Turkey’s estrangement, together with growing disputes, such as migration or an increased presence in Libya, Syria and northern Iraq are making the relationship with the EU and NATO even more complicated.

It has been over a year since the beginning of a new wave of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. The enhanced assertiveness of Turkey triggered reactions from Greece, the Republic of Cyprus and the other neighbouring countries. It also called the attention and reaction of the European Union.

The possibility of escalation has been demonstrated, earlier last month, by the accidental collision of a Greek frigate and a Turkish warship – in contested waters. Despite mutual accusations of violation of sovereign rights and international law, neither of the two countries seem to have an appetite for war.

Yet, they continue to blame and provoke each other, as it has been noticed in the recent Greek declaration of expanding maritime borders to the West, in the Ionian Sea. The Turkish side responded that such action would be seen as a casus belli. This scenario constitutes a real threat and definitely a nightmare for both the European Union and NATO.

Driven by economic reasons

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The current brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean is the result of a series of escalating actions, mainly driven by economic reasons, outbroken after the finding of natural-gas deposits, and partially explainable through the historical tensions between the two countries over Cyprus.

Turkey’s militarisation of its foreign policy, also an element of concern for Greece, is framed as part of the “Blue Homeland” doctrine and a neo-Ottoman ambition – a new national strategy of forward defence and control of waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. Power projection activities by Turkey started with the February 2019 naval deployment, defined as “war rehearsal”; they further continued with the claims and violations of Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy explorations near the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

Finally, it reached the climax of hostility after the buying of Russian S-400 air defence systems; the unilateral intervention in Northern Syria; and the signing of an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord.

One of the main reasons behind this behaviour is the political and economic opportunity that Turkey – which imports more than 90 per cent of its energy – could derive from gas extraction and exploitation. Indeed, European countries are about to decide whether to build or not a gas pipeline from Egypt, Israel and Cyprus to Italy – the EastMed pipeline – and on whether to include or not Turkey.

The Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline could be an opportunity to become energy independent from Russia, allowing even some margin for exports. However, in order to accomplish this plan and be competitive in the international market, the project should be supported and financed by the EU.

The existence of this proposal helps us to understand the political and economic strategy of Turkey signing the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with Libya and violating Cyprus EEZ to make gas explorations. Turkey – a country whose economy is shrinking – would see a desirable advantage if it finds gas, participating in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and having political decision-making power.

Politically, it would showcase a leading role in the Middle Eastern area and an avenue to enhance its function as a bridge between that region and the European Union.

A concern for the next European Council

Ankara’s hostile behaviour has met little resistance, mostly statements of criticism from European and American authorities. The EU rejected the maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya and imposed sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for energy exploration in Greek EEZ after the first drillings.

More recently, at the Gymnich informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers, the possibility of imposing tougher sanctions that could hit Ankara’s economy have been discussed along with a diplomatic solution. Yet, any concrete decision on further sanctions will be a concern of the next European Council meeting, planned for the 24 September.

It could be argued that European states and allies neither have a coherent, nor a holistic approach to face Turkey’s aggressiveness, since some Member States, such as France, are aiming at stronger sanctions and deploying its naval forces along with the Greek, Cyprian and Italian ones for military exercises in the southern part of Cyprus; whereas others, including Germany, are hoping for a diplomatic solution.

The Visegrad group perspective is in line with these two different approaches too. Indeed, the strategic economic cooperation with Turkey – based on trade, nuclear energy use, development of transport infrastructures, and migration – has been praised by Visegrad countries’ heads of diplomacy earlier in June, after their meeting with the Turkish counterpart.

However, on the other hand, they share a concern about the recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau has expressed solidarity to Greece and Cyprus, at the Gymnich meeting, welcoming mediation efforts to solve the crisis, while stressing Turkey’s role as a vital EU and NATO partner, especially for migration and security affairs.

This overall lack of strategy is advantaging Ankara’s interests and the perception that following a foreign policy based on bilateral agreements will be more beneficial.

Posing new challenges to NATO

The spiralling increase of serious incidents involving Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean is deepening the divide between the European Union and Ankara. After decades of Kemalist identity, Turkey is moving from its secular European side towards a Islamic Middle Eastern side in order to be a leading geopolitical actor in the region.

This blueprint is, furthermore, pursued through the political use of the cultural and religious sphere, like the restoration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque portrays. This dangerous escalation, moreover, is posing new challenges to NATO regarding its role in the Mediterranean, and the cooperation with the EU. Indeed, tensions are escalating within NATO allies as well. While there is an increase of contrasts of values and interests with European countries, it is noticeable how Ankara is deepening the gap with Washington too.

The challenging task of negotiations is a European responsibility, especially after the difficulties seen within NATO in promoting dialogue between Turkey and Greece, with the latter refusing to participate until Turkish naval ships leave contested waters.

Turkey’s actions are seen as unfriendly by allies and neighbouring countries, following only national interests instead of advancing NATO’s and EU’s collective security objectives and values. This estrangement, together with growing disputes, such as migration or an increased presence of Turkey in Libya, Syria and northern Iraq are making the relationship even more complicated.

The European Union – in cooperation with NATO – needs to face in the near future this multi-layered insecurity scenario, bringing back stability and security in the Eastern Mediterranean, if it wants to be a strategic geopolitical actor. A shift from a confrontational towards a more cooperative framework is needed in the near medium-term scenario, bringing back Turkey under the NATO umbrella through a realignment of objectives.

De-escalation, however, can be reached only by increasing dialogue and diplomatic channels between the EU and Turkey, to engender a new alignment, with clear principles and limits – covering energy, maritime and security issues – in order to avoid further destabilisation.



Lucrezia Scaglioli is a Policy Assistant for the Future of Europe Program at GLOBSEC.


Disclaimer: The article expresses the views of the author. It does not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the organisation.

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