Geopolitics begins at home - and in the Eastern Mediterranean


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Two years ago, the incoming European Commission proclaimed its ambition for a more geopolitical Europe. The idea was to make the European Union a more powerful and influential player on the global stage by effectively combining its economic, diplomatic and military instruments to actively shape the future rather than simply respond on the backfoot to permanent crises. Yet just as charity begins at home, so do geopolitics. The EU’s ability to calm down tensions and resolve disputes in its own neighbourhood will be the inevitable test of whether the goal of “a more geopolitical Europe” is anything more than a catchy slogan.

In this respect, there is no shortage of crises on the periphery of Europe to keep the EU’s diplomats working long into the night. For instance, the Russian aggression against Ukraine and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas, the democratic backsliding in Georgia, the aftermath of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or the simmering tensions in the Western Balkans. Yet if there is one immediate flashpoint that could drag the EU member states into an armed conflict which could rapidly escalate beyond control, it is in the Eastern Mediterranean. So this is where the EU capacity for geopolitics will face its baptismal credibility test.

There are three drivers behind the current frictions in the Eastern Mediterranean. First is the historical dispute between Greece and Turkey over their territorial waters in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. This has been dragging on for decades and has gone through more than 60 rounds of bilateral negotiations, but regrettably, without bringing a solution any closer, let alone an agreement on the interpretation of international law that both countries are willing to adhere to. Greece insists on treating its Aegean islands, some of which lie just a few kilometres off the coast of Turkey, as the equivalent of mainland and reserves the right under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to extend its territorial waters around these islands to 12 nautical miles. This would reduce Turkey’s territorial waters to a narrow coastal strip. Yet Turkish ambitions are also exaggerated. Turkish politicians and military leaders often talk of a ‘blue homeland’ (or mavi vatan in Turkish) and show on television Turkish territorial waters occupying a space in the Eastern Mediterranean equivalent to two-thirds of the total size of Turkey itself. This would hem Greece in and split it off from many of its islands or from its ethnic brethren in Cyprus.

This is the first example of an ‘alliance within the alliance’ as NATO allies form pacts against each other

The persistence of these territorial disputes has led both Greece and Turkey to assert their claims by sending their warships and fighter jets into the contested zones. Too close a military proximity between rival powers is never a good thing, as we see between Russia and NATO in the Black Sea, or the United States and China in the Taiwan Strait. Thus we have become used to frequent military tensions between Athens and Ankara, particularly during the summer months when both sides carry out their major exercises. Preventing clashes escalating into outright conflict as Greece and Turkey simulated aerial dogfights or disputed the ownership of uninhabited pieces of rock off the Turkish coast kept my former bosses, the Secretary Generals of NATO, busy during the August holiday period as they had to knock heads together and convince both Athens and Ankara to de-escalate.

Recently Greece has become concerned by Turkey’s rapid military modernisation, fuelled by rising defence budgets and the procurement of large amounts of new weaponry (including from Russia), as well as by the growing appetite of the Turkish military for foreign interventions. Turkey has also developed a large scale and high-tech defence industry of its own, except in the aviation area. Buoyed by these new capabilities, Turkey’s forces have intervened in Libya, Iraq and Syria. The victory of Azerbaijan over Armenia last year, and its success in regaining part of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, was largely due to massive Turkish military support including intelligence, command and control, electronic warfare capabilities, and the decisive use of Turkey’s TB2 drones. Azerbaijan’s victory was celebrated on the streets of Ankara and by Turkey’s military with so much fanfare that the innocent observer would have believed that it was Turkey that had fought and won the war rather than Azerbaijan.

Consequently, Greece has turned to its allies for support and reassurance. Just last week, Athens signed a new defence agreement with the US. It has offered the US new and upgraded bases in Greece and the expansion of the Souda Bay naval facility in Crete to accommodate more US warships and training exercises. Athens has also drawn closer to France as Paris has become preoccupied with Turkey’s adventurism in Northern Africa and interference in Libya. France was also outraged when one of its ships, implementing the UN arms embargo against Libya and operating as part of an EU monitoring mission in the Eastern Mediterranean, was almost rammed last year by two Turkish naval vessels. France has concluded major arms contracts to supply new and second-hand Rafale fighter aircrafts and new frigates to Greece, and two weeks ago signed a military assistance alliance with Greece which is ostensibly aimed at Turkey. This is the first example of an ‘alliance within the alliance’ as NATO allies form pacts against each other while also upholding their Article 5 commitment to defend the same country they perceive as a threat against external aggression. It is not just Ankara but other NATO capitals too which have expressed their surprise at such a move.

The transition from fossil fuels and gas to renewables will make the value and importance of the Eastern Mediterranean reserves diminish rapidly over time

Second, Turkey has disrupted the status quo of Cyprus as part of its quest to become a revisionist power. Ankara is now advocating for formal partition and the two-state solution, in defiance of the UN and international consensus which stands in favour of the reunification of Cyprus through a federal or confederal political settlement. Recently Turkish President Erdoğan pushed the Turkish Cypriots to re-open and take over the ghost town of Varosha, abandoned since the conflict in 1974, and which was due to be handled as part of a final Cyprus settlement. Ankara has talked of setting up a drone base in Northern Cyprus and opening a permanent naval base, thereby increasing its military presence on the island, which is already 30,000 troops strong, and its use for Turkey’s regional power projection. The shift in Turkey’s Cyprus policy undermines the moves by UN Secretary-General Guterres to restart inter-communal talks and international mediation on Cyprus as it inevitably has hardened positions on both sides of the Green Line.

Third, the Eastern Mediterranean has acquired growing economic and geostrategic importance as major gas reserves have been discovered off the coasts of Israel, namely the Tamar and Leviathan fields, as well as Lebanon and Egypt. There could be similar reserves around the coasts of Cyprus and a US company, Noble Energy, has received a licence from the Cyprus government to conduct exploration. Currently the discovered Eastern Mediterranean reserves are estimated at 25tn cubic feet of gas. To exploit these resources, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have formed a consortium, known as the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, but without involving Turkey. Predictably Ankara has responded by demanding its own exclusive economic zone for exploration and drilling and also on behalf of Northern Cyprus, although no one excepts Turkey has recognised the north as a state. Turkey has sent its exploration ships escorted by Turkish warships into zones claimed by Cyprus and the well-known cycle of confrontation has started up again.

The strategy of the fait accompli has also moved ahead. Greece and Egypt have agreed on the construction of a new pipeline to send gas and electricity generated by solar power from south to north across the Eastern Mediterranean, while Turkey and Libya have concluded an agreement on maritime territorial demarcation by tracing a transversal axis across the region in defiance of most established principles of international law. Some experts believe that the transition from fossil fuels and gas to renewables will make the value and importance of the Eastern Mediterranean reserves diminish rapidly over time. Who will want to commit to a 20-year major investment in an energy source that may never find a market, with an over-supply of gas and gas prices that are due to go back down next year?

The EU needs to work hand-in-hand with the UN to defuse crises and to make the kind of practical progress

Yet other experts point to the EU’s growing dependency on Russia for gas, and to the ways in which Russia has used this for political and economic gain, limiting supplies and pushing its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as global gas prices spiral heading into winter. In this view, gas will be needed in large volumes for some years to come to facilitate the transition to renewables, such as solar and wind power, which will be expensive and not always reliable. Thus it makes sense to calm tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean so that the beneficial exploitation of its gas reserves can proceed without threats or disruptions and improve the EU’s energy security. These experts point out that most of the gas is not in the disputed areas.

The three drivers referred to above have put a multi-layered series of challenges on to the EU and NATO agenda.

In the first place there is the legal challenge. How can we convince Athens and Ankara to agree on a common framework of international law to solve their territorial issues? There are many precedents, such as Norway and Russia delimitating the continental shelf in the High North. Or just recently Greece and Italy agreeing on the delimitation of their territorial waters on the western side of the Eastern Mediterranean. Could Athens and Ankara agree to some form of arbitration led by the UN, such as the International Court of Arbitration, or the OSCE if after a two-year period they have failed to make progress in their bilateral negotiations? Would they accept some form of international facilitation of their negotiations led by a trusted ally similar to how the US has done for the Northern Ireland peace process and the decommissioning of weapons by paramilitaries, or for the resolution of the name dispute over North Macedonia?

Next is the diplomatic challenge. The EU needs to involve itself more in the Cyprus negotiations, and to dissuade Turkey from further militarisation of the north. Given that it was the Greek Cypriots who rejected the Annan Plan for the reunification of the island in a referendum 20 years ago, the task will be to persuade the government in Nicosia to engage constructively with its northern Turkish Cypriot partners and reduce the north’s economic and budget dependency on Ankara as well as its transport isolation. There have been some constructive steps by both sides to normalise day-to-day life and increase contacts and mobility across the Green Line, and these need to be built upon. The EU needs to work hand-in-hand with the UN to defuse crises and to make the kind of practical progress that will make it harder for Ankara to argue that partition is the only viable solution.

The Arab Spring turned Turkey into an anti-status quo power as it took up the cause of Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere

There is also the military challenge in inducing both Athens and Ankara to accept a package of confidence-building measures that would prevent dangerous incidents and keep their military forces farther apart in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. These measures could limit the size and number of military exercises, as well as specify their locations. They could provide for more transparency, advance notification and mutual observation. If Turkey agreed to remove its troops from Northern Cyprus or at least significantly reduce them, Greece could offer to limit its bases or troop presence on some of its islands or agree to the demilitarisation of islands very close to Turkey. This would be conditional on Turkey modifying its force posture to remove any direct threat to those islands. Most of this will be a bridge too far for both sides, but it is useful to creatively explore the options. The EU needs to work closely here with NATO which operates a recognised air picture over the Aegean to prevent, or if need be investigate air incidents. There is much that Turkey can do to make Greece feel more secure.

Finally, there is the Turkey challenge. There is no doubt that the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean has been fuelled in large part by the changes in Turkish politics and in the country’s strategic orientation over the past two decades. Turkey no longer sees itself as an annex to NATO or to the West in general in the Middle East or the Caucasus. Like the post-Brexit United Kingdom, it has become obsessed with its own sovereignty, its perception of its own national identity, and the pursuit of its complete freedom of action unrestrained by institutional or traditional multilateral ties. To quote the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II: “I go my own way”. The new Turkish elites in Anatolia originally favoured economic liberalisation and modernisation in order to increase their own role and status in Turkish society. But they have now embraced a nationalist and conservative outlook that sees Russia and China as a more suitable transactional models to economics and foreign policy to further Turkey’s power and influence on the global stage.

The Arab Spring turned Turkey into an anti-status quo power as it took up the cause of Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. It saw an opening to acquire regional hegemony by supporting its proxies throughout the region, often by sending them Syrian militia fighters trained and equipped by Ankara. It changed its concept of national defence to be more forward-leaning and assertive. It developed a notion of national pride that easily saw slights and insults whenever the international community failed to give Erdoğan and his government its full support. Even if Erdoğan does not win the next elections, seeing as his domestic popularity has declined recently, his 20 years at the helm will leave a lasting legacy.

Currently the Turkish accession process is frozen as Ankara has lost conviction and interest

This has confronted the EU with an unprecedented challenge in dealing with one of its immediate neighbours. Normally the EU accession process, with its 35 chapters of alignment to EU values, norms and standards, has worked over time to lead the candidate country towards secure democracy, the acceptance of the rule of law, and economic reform and integration. At least before accession, as we now see in the cases of Poland and Hungary, these advances are alas not irreversible once a country is inside the Union. Yet, and uniquely thus far, the tried and tested accession process has failed to work in the case of Turkey.

Since Brussels began its accession negotiations with Ankara in October 2005, the country has moved away from the EU and its membership conditionality rather than closer to it. Just last week the European Commission published its latest annual report on Turkey’s accession process, and the report was certainly the most gloomy and critical thus far. Currently the Turkish accession process is frozen as Ankara has lost conviction and interest. EU member states, such as Cyprus, Greece and France, have placed caveats on the opening of various EU chapters until Turkey changes its behaviour. This is the perfect storm for paralysis to occur.

So it is time for the EU to take a new approach, even if Turkey is unlikely to withdraw its formal membership application and the EU is equally unlikely to close its door to Ankara once and for all. This new approach has to be based on positive and negative incentives in each key area of EU-Turkey engagement. For instance, in exchange for Turkey showing a more restrained and cooperative approach to gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, the EU could offer negotiations on recognised exploration zones, including one for Turkey. The EU could connect the emerging pipeline system in the region to Turkey. As an energy-poor country, it too needs gas imports. As a reciprocal step Turkey could engage the Eastern Mediterranean countries on the development of its newly discovered gas fields in the Black Sea. All sides could agree on the environmental protection of the sea space in the wake of drilling and pipeline infrastructure building and cooperate on incident response.

The current mood of fatalism regarding Turkey’s inevitable turn away from Europe is not simply lazy but doesn’t serve our long-term interests

Another area is the strengthening of the EU-Turkey Customs Union which has been in existence since 1965. This project is often seen as the way forward on the bilateral relationship given the stasis in the accession negotiations. In exchange for Turkey removing trade irritants, in areas such as data protection, environmental and labour standards, and taxation and intellectual property protection, the EU could put an attractive package on the table. Similarly, with migration, the EU must continue to link its financial support for Turkey to the latter; treating migrants humanely, not using migrants as a destabilisation threat or weapon, as Belarus has been doing vis-à-vis Lithuania and Poland; and accepting to take back migrants who do not qualify for settlement in the EU. Given the prospect of large numbers of Afghans fleeing towards Europe in coming years, a comprehensive EU-Turkey pact on migration is an urgent requirement.

Another example is weapons sales, spare parts and servicing, which should be more closely tied to deterrence, de-escalation and agreement on the transparency and confidence-building measures mentioned earlier. The EU’s approach should be more for more and less for less. But this only works when the benefits are made real and tangible and the penalties harsh, palpable and painful.

At the same time, the EU must not abandon Turkey whatever the frustrations du jour. It is a major regional actor with a dense network of connections and influence in all directions: a NATO ally, a significant military power, and a potential bulwark for Europe against many of the instabilities coming from the south, north and east. A Turkey which is geopolitically inside the European tent, even if occasionally disruptive, is much better than a Turkey wholly without and trying to undermine the whole edifice. Albeit going through an authoritarian and nationalist phase, Turkey still holds democratic elections, it still has elements of a free press, a strong civil society and an opposition that can be effective if it unites. So the EU needs to move away from its current crisis-management posture towards Turkey and adopt a longer term strategy of engagement. The current mood of fatalism regarding Turkey’s inevitable turn away from Europe is not simply lazy but doesn’t serve our long-term interests.

We may then see at long last proof that there is still life in the geopolitical Europe – with the politics, and not just the geo

There is a final requirement. All major EU geopolitical initiatives require Germany and France to be on the same wavelength and to act in unison. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the case in recent years. Germany has insisted on maintaining close links to Ankara mindful of its 2015 migrant crisis and the millions of Turks who have settled in the country. This is notwithstanding the fact that Turkey arrested a number of German journalists and citizens during the Merkel era. France, by contrast, has taken a harsher stance seeing Ankara as a disruptive force in Syria and North Africa, and alarmed over its backsliding on human rights, democratic standards and political outreach to its Kurdish minority. It has also been focused less on Russia and more on the Mediterranean for its energy security. The formation of a new coalition in Berlin, which is likely to be more critical towards Ankara, and France’s upcoming EU presidency in the first half of 2022 present an opportunity for Paris and Berlin to conduct a rethink of their approach towards Ankara and carry the EU institutions and the rest of the 27 EU states behind it.

We may then see at long last proof that there is still life in the geopolitical Europe – with the politics, and not just the geo.

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