By Arab News
By Yasar Yakis*
The respite in tensions between Greece and Turkey as a result of Ankara’s withdrawal of its seismic survey ship Oruc Reis from contested areas in the eastern Mediterranean for “maintenance purposes” has proved to be short-lived.
Upon the suggestion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month made a gesture by withdrawing the ship from the area Ankara believes is part of its exclusive economic zone. He expected that this gesture would be reciprocated with a positive step from the EU.
However, the conclusions of the special EU summit of Oct. 1-2 did little to meet these expectations. It started with a positive narrative, but turned into harsher language and concluded with a threatening tone. The EU repeated the same attitude after the summit it held last Friday and could not refrain itself from again scolding Turkey. French President Emmanuel Macron said the European leaders had reaffirmed their support for Greece and Cyprus.
While the EU maintains this attitude, Ankara, on the other hand, is too slow to grasp the full extent of an important EU principle that requires it to act as a bloc on all issues that oppose any member’s interests when they clash with those of a non-EU country.
One may presume that Greece’s claims may have been contradicted by other EU members in the closed meetings, but experts in international relations would admit that, in a dispute where one of the parties is not represented, the bias tilts in favor of the party that is present, irrespective of how neutral this forum wishes to be.
As a political leader who is not averse to taking risks, Erdogan last week decided to send the Oruc Reis to resume its mission. Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez has said about 10 km of seismic survey cables have already been laid on the seabed, which means that, after having lost hope of a meaningful dialogue with the EU, Turkey has decided to turn a deaf ear to what the bloc has to say and go its own way instead.
Despite this attitude, one has to admit that Ankara weighs up the pros and cons of such operations with scientific accuracy. The most recent NAVTEX it issued was drafted with meticulous care. It covers an area south of Kastellorizo, a tiny Greek island that is only 1 nautical mile from the Turkish coast. The maritime area covered by the NAVTEX stops at a point half a mile from the outer limit of Kastellorizo’s territorial waters.
This meticulous calculation is not without reason. The Greek parliament adopted in 1995 a resolution authorizing the government to extend the breadth of its territorial waters to 12 miles — as allowed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Turkish parliament reciprocated immediately by authorizing its government to declare casus belli (just cause for war) if the Greek government put this decision into action. Ankara did so because, if Greece did extend the breadth of its territorial waters to 12 miles, Turkey’s Aegean coast would become almost land-locked.
Realistic people in Greece are aware of the Turks’ unease because many Greek islands are only a few miles away from mainland Turkey. Late Greek President Konstantinos Karamanlis has been quoted by the composer Mikis Theodorakis as having said: “Turks feel as we would if Salamis and Aegina (two small Greek islands in the Saronic Gulf close to Athens) were Turkish islands. I believe that we must comprehend the suffocation of Turkey and discuss lucidly here a realistic solution.” One can only wish such wisdom was upheld by more politicians in Greece.
The NAVTEX Turkey announced last week is due to remain in force until Thursday. The maritime area it covers comes as close as 6.5 miles to Kastellorizo, sending the message to Greece that the decision of casus belli is still valid. Greece, in turn, announced a counter-NAVTEX covering maritime areas that overlap with Turkey’s. The difference in the Greek message is that it covers a longer period, lasting beyond Oct. 29. This practice is at odds with a tacit agreement between the two governments not to announce a NAVTEX covering any national holidays. Oct. 29 is the anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, and thus a national holiday.
In light of the gradually melting leverage of the EU over Turkey, if Turkish-Greek relations are to be put back on track, it will have to be done by the two countries themselves without counting on third-party involvement. In case a fair deal can be worked out, Erdogan has the means of selling it to his electorate. Whether the Greek political leaders could do the same is up to them to judge.
* Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar