Greece and Turkey: is the eastern Mediterranean Europe’s new conflict zone?

Europe's World

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 NATO

When I started to work at NATO in the early 1980s, the annual August vacation period proved to be not the most relaxing but the most stressful period in the alliance’s annual calendar. No NATO Secretary-General dared to venture too far from Brussels during August as almost inevitably there would be a clash between the two neighbours and allies: Greece and Turkey. The Aegean was always the focal point with mock dog fights between the two air forces, accusations of airspace violations, intimidating maritime exercises and disputes over the military status of the numerous Greek islands – some of which are only a couple of kilometres off the Turkish coast. Both Ankara and Athens would accuse the other of responsibility for starting the hostilities and successive. NATO Secretary Generals would spend many miserable days adjudicating the rival claims and persuading both Athens and Ankara to back off before they came to real blows. The Greece-Turkey dispute was always a thorn in the flesh of an alliance designed to protect its members from external threats, not from each other.

Because these incidents in the Aegean happened so regularly, it was difficult to know when the two sides were posturing or bluffing or when they could truly be on the brink of war.   But NATO was right to be alarmed as on at least three occasions since the 1970s Athens and Ankara have manoeuvred themselves into a crisis where fighting would seem inevitable, the most serious being in 1974 when Turkish troops invaded Cyprus and occupied the north of the island. They are still there 46 years on. In the 1990s Greece and Turkey almost came to blows over an uninhabited rock with only a few sheep present. On that occasion the US diplomat. Richard Holbrooke, famously declared that he worked the phones all night while Europe slept. This barb spurred the EU to start thinking more seriously about a common security and defence policy.

From time to time we NATO officials hoped that Athens and Ankara would put aside their historical grievances, as so many other European nations have successfully done. The UN-mediated talks on Cyprus and the Annan plan for the reunification of the island were a chance to resolve the major sticking point, but the Greek Cypriots rejected it in a subsequent referendum. Perhaps the EU should have pushed harder to link the EU membership of Cyprus to reunification, which would have brought a sizeable ethnic Turkish population within the EU’s borders.  But that chance was missed. Afterwards there was the occasional. temporary rapprochement between Athens and Ankara initiated by reciprocal humanitarian assistance after natural disasters such as earthquakes and forest fires, but no durable breakthrough. Hopes were then pinned to Turkey’s opening of membership negotiations with the EU.  Going through this process would lead to more democracy in Turkey and more incentive to cooperate with Greece as Ankara would ultimately need the support of Athens (as well as Nicosia) to get through the EU door.

As Turkey has become more isolated, it has become more assertive in its own claims and perceived sense of injustice

These hopes have been dashed and we seem back to square one. Over the last few months the rival exploration activities of both countries for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean have led to ever more heated rhetoric and a spiral of military escalation that neither side may be able to control. We are back to mock dog fights in the air and almost constant exercises. A Greek ship recently collided with a Turkish ship, and Greece has just announced a big hike to its defence budget and the plan to procure new aircraft, ships and missiles. Moreover, time round other countries are getting involved too. France has sided with Greece in the wake of its rapidly deteriorating relations with Turkey over Libya and sent ships and fighter jets to the region to join Greek and Cypriot exercises. Egypt and Greece have concluded an agreement on maritime zones for exploration and drilling. This is in reaction to the earlier agreement between Turkey and Libya to carve out an extensive stretch of the eastern Mediterranean as their joint economic zone, a move the EU condemned as contrary to international law. As Turkey has become more isolated, it has become more assertive in its own claims and perceived sense of injustice.

So is the international community helpless as the eastern Mediterranean turns into Europe’s new conflict zone?  Certainly not. There is still time to pull things back from the brink with a strategy in four parts.

First NATO is reverting to its traditional role by holding “technical talks” at its Brussels headquarters between Greek and Turkish military representatives. The alliance can serve here as an honest broker to investigate incidents and to monitor sea and airspace to warn Greek and Turkish forces to stay away from each other. NATO can push Athens and Ankara for more transparency and early notification about exercises and military deployments. Its own multinational standing maritime forces can patrol the eastern Mediterranean to ensure both countries stick to agreed operational zones and to serve as a conduit for communications. NATO ships have successfully played this role (together with EU Frontex) in helping Greece and Turkey to regulate illegal migration from Turkish territory across the Aegean; and recently the NATO Military Committee helped to defuse a dispute between France and Turkey over the implementation of the Libya arms embargo.

EU-Turkey relations have plunged from one crisis to the next

Second this is the time for the US and Germany to put aside their differences Over issues like the Nordstream 2 pipeline and NATO burden-sharing and come up with a political de- escalation plan to present to Athens and Ankara. These are the two powers with the greatest leverage over Turkey and Germany’s weight in the EU is needed at the moment to prevent Paris from driving the bloc in an anti-Turkey direction with further EU sanctions being threatened against Ankara. The EU will obviously want to support its members, Greece and Cyprus, but it also has to retain some influence in Ankara while nudging Athens and Nicosia to the negotiating table. This will be the test of its ambition to act geopolitically. Elements of a political de-escalation plan could be a halt to all exploration and drilling activities for the time being and to refrain from declaring more national economic zones. Both sides could agree to submit their dispute to international arbitration (for instance by the ICJ in The Hague) if their bilateral negotiations do not produce a solution within a given time frame. Other powers could pledge to desist from further involvement in military or economic activities related to the dispute while negotiations are going on. Both Greece and Turkey could accept an international group of eminent persons to help them quietly to define a mandate and parameters for negotiations.

Next would be for the United Nations to prepare to convene an international conference as the EU Council President, Charles Michel, has proposed. The nature of the Aegean with Greece possessing hundreds of islands right up to the Turkish coast gives Athens a massive advantage in terms of territorial rights under the UN Law of the Sea Convention and international law. Yet it is the interest of long term stability that Athens and Ankara agree to share the resources and transport routes in the eastern Mediterranean in an equitable manner. After all international investors and oil and gas companies are hardly likely to come into the region if military clashes or harassments can occur at any moment.  If they want to reap all the economic gains of the oil and gas reserves Turkey and Greece will need to come to an equitable sharing arrangement and learn to work together. Recently Turkey has discovered a major gas field in the Black Sea. This may make it less interested in the eastern Mediterranean. But a deal could be struck giving Greece access to the Black Sea exploitation in exchange for Turkish access to the areas close to the Greek islands.

Finally the oil and gas issues are but a sub-set of the broader issues between Greece and Turkey (which have their roots in the wars and mass expulsions in 1922-1923 and the Cyprus division) and the unfinished business of Turkey’s integration into the EU and the European political and civilisational space. This has not proven easy in recent times as Turkey has veered in a more nationalist direction and EU-Turkey relations have plunged from one crisis to the next. It is easy for some political forces in both the EU and Ankara to see this as mission impossible and throw up their hands in despair. Yet as the 7 EU Mediterranean countries meet this week in Corsica under President Macron’s chairmanship they should take a break from the discussion on the next package of sanctions against Turkey to debate the real strategic question of how they can induce this country to return to its former pro-Europe course.

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