By Beenish Ayub
Maritime tensions between Greece and Turkey, rendered in opposing mythologies of national sovereignty, are nothing new. The hostility between both states dates back to their founding periods. These conflicts have typically taken the form of a dormant conflict with periodic flare-ups.
As a result, the causes fueling the present crisis – which is the longest between the two nations since Turkey’s military entry in Cyprus in 1974 – must be investigated. Traditional sources of conflict between Turkey and Greece have exacerbated the dilemma by interweaving with a new set of geopolitical anxieties and energy disagreements in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and a group of other nations that includes Egypt, France, and the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates).
As a result, not only has the number of nations participating in the crisis increased, but so has the breadth of the problem, which now includes new challenges such as neoteric oil findings in the eastern Mediterranean and the ever-evolving Libyan situation. The essence of the issue has expanded dramatically as a result of these considerations.
The maritime grievance between the two countries – Greece and Turkey – is centered on three concerns: 1) differences of opinion over the Greek territorial waters’ boundaries and control of specific islands or isles in the Aegean Sea; 2) the controversy over the two governments’ EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) in the Mediterranean; and 3) the unsettled existence of the Cyprus conflict. Aside from these concerns, Turkey claims that a variety of other, such as the autonomy or demilitarized status of some Greek islands, are still unresolved and must be tackled. Greece, however, categorically opposes these proposals as an infringement of its sovereignty.
Two independent geopolitical trends, particularly energy extraction and the Libyan imbroglio, have deepened and compounded the problem. It also demonstrates that the contemporaneous conflict is more threatening than any of the previous ones as a result of two systemic adjustments: 1) the vacuum of power created by the United States’ narrowing its regional role in the eastern Mediterranean or the Middle East; and 2) the alienation of the European Union (EU) accession schema. The vacuum left by the US – looking at the scenario through the lens of realism – has sparked a tussle for influence and power in the Mediterranean, which shall prompt the EU to take it as a warning sign for stepping up and playing a greater role in de-escalating the conflict. Finally, given the substantial participation of three EU member states, particularly France, Cyprus and Greece, this is not only a crisis in Europe’s region, but also a crisis within Europe.
Gas deposits – catalyst of the crisis, not the root:
Turkey’s demand for hydrocarbon exploration has grown as a result of major gas occurrences in the eastern Mediterranean, since the major source of the country’s budget deficit is energy trading. Similarly, Turkey has increasingly sought to be an energy center and gateway for Europe, and has inked a number of oil and gas pipeline agreements with Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq. Its ambitions, however, have mostly stayed unmet. Turkey, in a similar vein, desired that any eastern Mediterranean proposed pipeline project to Europe pass through it. However, given Ankara’s tense ties with practically all other nations bordering the eastern Mediterranean, this alternative seems exceedingly improbable.
Despite Turkey’s energy aspirations, latest eastern Mediterranean gas finds have raised fears that it may be left out of the region’s growing economic and security balance. This is due to two interrelated components: 1) the projected route for the eastern Mediterranean project of pipeline, and 2) the formation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).
With spillover repercussions throughout the eastern Mediterranean, the Libyan conflict has positioned Turkey against France, the UAE and Egypt. The UAE and Greece’s decision to launch military exercises in Crete during a times of heightened Turkish-Greek frictions, as well as the UAE’s reiterated manifestations of support for Greece’s stance in the eastern Mediterranean, are inextricably linked to the UAE and Turkey’s worsening antagonism across the region, notably in Libya. In a similar line, it is possible that the Greek-Egyptian maritime demarcation agreement would not have been signed, had there been no Turkish-Egyptian competition in Libya or a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement.
Similarly, because France and Turkey back opposing factions and have competing claims in Libya, the conflict has exacerbated hostility between them, intensifying the issue in the eastern Mediterranean. France has emerged as the most outspoken European supporter of the Greek-Cypriot cause, organizing military maneuvers with Greece.
In this regard, the eastern Mediterranean has presented France with a more mainstream means of expressing its opposition to and dissatisfaction with Turkey’s foreign policy, which in many ways stands opposed to France’s geopolitical ambitions. As a result, the geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates has spilled over into the eastern Mediterranean, creating yet another source of friction.
Future Prospects – Recommendations:
How can the participating nations figure a way out of the prevailing impasse in the eastern Mediterranean, given this overview and context?
- Pausing drilling and exploratory attempts:
Talking about resolving the issue is appealing, but it is unrealistic at this point, especially in such a short period of time. There is not just one but several issues to be resolved, as previously stated, for a long-lasting peaceful outcome. The conflicts between Turkey and France, for example, are distinct from the long-running maritime issues between Greece and Turkey. Instead of striking an immediate grand deal in the eastern Mediterranean, the EU should concentrate its diplomatic and negotiation efforts on countering the conflict between Athens and Ankara, thus isolating maritime issues between Turkey and Greece from regional geopolitical power struggles. If serious discussions are to begin, all sides must agree to cease drilling and exploratory activities in the disputed seas for at least some amount of time.
- Holding international forums to encourage communication and de-escalation:
Similarly, a series of international conferences and meetings may be used to de-escalate the situation. Turkey originally suggested for Eastern Mediterranean coastal countries’ meeting to settle their differences, while European Council President, Charles Michel, has advocated for a global forum. An international meeting with representatives from states surrounding the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Europe and NATO, may be a viable place to begin coping with the situation in a multilateral framework at this point.
- To prevent narrative entrapment, toning down the hyperbole:
The eastern Mediterranean dilemma is a result of Turkey and Greece’s opposing viewpoints and perspectives on national sovereignty, rendering resolution exceedingly difficult. The distinctions between claims and rights, as well as conflicts and sovereignty, are lost in this setting.
In addition to this intrinsic challenge, when Turkish and Greek political leaders use maximalist and elevated rhetoric to describe their differences, any negotiation or concession is perceived as a vulnerability, and as a threat to the relevant state’s sovereignty. This, as a consequence, allows for narrative entrapment, which effectively eliminates any opportunity for conversation.
- Promoting an ambitious EU strategy for resolving the conflict:
The area will be at danger of additional crises as long as the contemporary eastern Mediterranean conflict is not resolved. Furthermore, each crisis creates an opportunity for entities like Russia to intervene. As a result, Europe must pursue a more innovative foreign policy and a major regional vision. Indeed, during the course of ongoing crisis, there have been demands for a new Schuman Plan or a new Barcelona Process, alluding to Europe’s past visionary triumphs.
The eastern Mediterranean dispute is expected to cycle through escalation, de-escalation, and re-escalation, therefore any brief reduction in tensions or hostilities in the crisis should not be mistaken for complacency. Instead, Europe and the parties involved should seize this limited window of opportunity to develop a more visionary plan and policy for the eastern Mediterranean, one that can serve the common security, economic, and energy aspirations of all major players. In this context, the EU could either endeavor to expedite Turkey’s membership in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum or create a trilateral format in which the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum nations, the EU, and Turkey may discuss methods to resolve their differences and collaborate.