Ivan Illich, a great advocate for intercultural communication, gifted us with a great insight. It is found in his book Tools for Conviviality. He wrote there that foreign languages ought to be pursued not so much to communicate with those native to them, but rather, so that we may listen to the particular silences found in the background of all languages, and thereby retrieve the original cultural humus from which they sprang. Notice the metaphor of the germinating seed in tandem with that of the historical journey, back to origins.
I would suggest that without an in-depth listening on both sides of the Atlantic pond, not only will the journey not begin, but any meaningful transatlantic dialogue may forever elude us. In this global village in which we live, there is an urgent need to return to the future for a novantiqua kind of civilization. It is good to have lights on a car to see what’s ahead, but a rear-view mirror is also necessary to avoid a disaster.
A fruitful dialogue is always underpinned by an exchange of ideas, the envisioning of new imaginative paradigms, and a courageous execution of those ideas and visions. Let us however be aware of Illich’s caveat: assuming that the soil is good, little will germinate and even less will be gathered in the spring, unless the seed has undergone the rigors and silence of winter. Within that silence we can hope to find the space and the courage for a convivial dialogue. Then we may hope to repair worn-out transatlantic bridges of understanding and retrieve shared values. I write this while many, on both sides of the Atlantic are urgently advocating the abandonment of NATO and the whole political structure of the Transatlantic Alliance. That alliance will certainly be in jeopardy should the worst happen at the November and Donald Trump is elected president.
It may prove helpful to keep in mind a few memorable quotes of famous cultural guides and heroes in various fields and have them function as a leitmotif of sort. I have chosen four to begin with. The first one is by the poet Paul Valery who wrote this refrain in an essay on European identity: “As far as I am concerned, any people who have been influenced throughout history by Greece, Rome and Christianity are Europeans.” The second is from a statesman, the founder of the European Union Robert Shuman, who said: “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.” The third is by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who in a lecture given at the University of Prague in 1935 stated this certainty of his: “I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism.” Finally, the fourth one is by a scientist, Albert Einstein, who declared that “perfection of means and confusion of goals seems, in my opinion, the character of our age.”
The above quotes illuminate each other and shed light on some of the false assumptions that have ill served Western Civilization in our times. It is generally assumed that a culture war is presently going-on between the two sides of the North Atlantic and we need wise leaders to show us the way to the future. The confirmation for this premise is identified on this side of the North Atlantic in the perception of as a pervasive anti-Americanism which has been present in Europe for a few decades now, while over there in Europe it is identified as anti-Eurocentrism, found especially in academic circles where one hears constant appeals to de-emphasize Eurocentric notions in the teaching of Civilizations, all in the name of political correctness, multiculturalism and a general relativism very much in vogue in the West.
In Europe one hears pleas for a return to a more authentic European cultural identity that distances itself from a globalizing, pervasive, technological fix-all, market oriented popular American culture contemptuous of regional cultures; it is that fear that fuels the anti-global movement. The French poet Baudelaire already in the 19th century had warned us that “technology shall Americanize us all,” but he was no anti-American. By technology he meant a rationalistic mode of thinking contemptuous of poetic and humanistic modes.
In any case, it seems to me that it is an erroneous assumption to conceive the two cultures as being on parallel universes, in different boats going their own direction toward different political destinies. To be sure there are cultural wars but they are internal more than external. They exist internally on both sides of the Atlantic. When in Europe I hear statements such as “you Americans…” I promptly interrupt and ask “which American?” If we recollect the first quote from Valery we may begin to perceive how misguided such an assumption is. It loses sight of the fact that, despite the particular cultural differences on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the integration of non-European and non-Western influences, the roots and the trunk of the tree have a common origin. The mistakes are also similar, since before we were all “Americanized” by a penchant for the technological fix-all, we were all Cartesian rationalists.
We are in the same boat, and it is called Western Civilization; in it we shall float or sink together. That thought alone ought to unite, more than divide us. This is a civilization that goes back to the ancient Greeks who perceived themselves as Westerners vis à vis the Persians. It goes back to the Romans, with Virgil as the grandfather of Europe and an empire that paves the way for the spread of Christianity and medieval Christendom and Scholastic philosophy in Europe, with a Dante advocating a United Europe in his political tract De Monarchia, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Moslem influence in the Dark Ages, Germano-Saxon ideals of freedom, the synthesis of Graeco-Roman civilization and Christianity that is Humanism and paves the way for the new beginning that is the Renaissance, the Enlightenment (that of Vico and Montesquieu as well as that of Voltaire)—all largely positive elements of Western Civilization.
When Valery says that anyone influenced by the universality of the idea of Europe is a European he does not mean it in a chauvinistic mode, nor as a geo-political reality, nor in Machiavellian-Nietzchean terms of “will-to-power,” or in terms of real-politik. He is simply stating a cultural reality shared by people in Australia and the Americas and even Africa and parts of Asia.
Contrast, if you will Valery’s statement with this one: “…by the favor of universal Enlightenment, it might become possible to dream, for the great European family, of going the way of the American Congress…what an outlook then of power, of glory, of well being, of prosperity! What a great and magnificent spectacle!” Notice if you will, the comparison with America; it looks as if the economic rat race has already taken off; notice also the stress on power and glory. I submit that this is the opposite of Valery’s idea of Europe. Try as you may, the word freedom is nowhere to be found in this statement proffered by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. That may explain why Beethoven withdrew his dedication from his Eroica symphony.
Indeed the cement for a genuine union of disparate people can only be found in the cultural sphere, and not in Machiavellian considerations of “real politick.” The lesson of Italian unification is instructive here: after it was achieved, Massimo Dazeglio, one of its architects, said: “now that we have made Italy let us make the Italians.” That was like putting the cart before the horse. Unfortunately, even nowadays cultural concerns are more often than not conspicuously absent from the pronouncements of our political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Gone are the Monets, the Shumans, the De Gasperis, the Adenauers, the De Gaulles, the Churchills of a generation ago with a vision of the spiritual boundaries of Europe and the assumption that Western Civilization is constituted by an idea.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that any European of any nationality and faith, or no faith, aware of her/his cultural roots, can also sincerely assert the second statement by Shuman. An atheist and an American such as George Santayana who left Harvard University to go and live and die in a monastery in Italy, did in fact assert it. As someone deeply concerned with the life of reason, he was acutely aware that one cannot understand the essence of Western Civilization by ignoring the positive contributions of its Christian heritage and reducing it to a shallow, and often slanderous, caricature. Which is not to deny other interrelated influences and shared values, such as democracy, free speech, free exchange of ideas, religious freedom, the philosophical and scientific spirit which have a common source in ancient Greece.
Europe in fact presents us with a Janus face: on one side Humanism which begins with Petrarch, on the other Enlightenment rationalism which begins with Descartes. This phenomenon needs to be recognized before we can even hope to recover lost humanistic modes of thinking, often misguidedly considered superseded or synthesized by the Enlightenment.
A common bank and a common army may be useful and even necessary, but they alone do not constitute the cement needed to hold together disparate people with different languages. Ideas and ideals are a sine qua non for a genuine union. Moreover, we ought to take heed of what Klaus Held warned us of a few years ago. At the end of a brilliant essay on the essence of European culture already analyzed in the Global Spiral and titled The Origins of Europe and the Greek Discovery of the World he writes that: “A European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states, would lack an intrinsic common bond and would be built upon sand.” And if indeed we are in the same boat running full speed ahead in the middle of the Atlantic, we need to ask: where are we coming from, where are we heading for, do we have a map and a compass, what are our shared values, what is our common identity as Westerners, what is our Leitkultur, what are our common dangers? Are there icebergs ahead? For indeed even luxury liners declared unsinkable even by God, have been known to sink, and as the Einstein quote powerfully suggests, it does no good to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. Great civilizations have been known to vanish, Plato called one such “Atlantis.”
A bit closer to our times, Jacques Ellul also sounds the alarm in his The Betrayal of the West. Moreover, Jacques Derrida, in a lecture given at the University of Turin on the 20th of May 1990 asked this crucial question: “To what concept, to what real individual can we today ascribe the name of Europe?” He answers his own question in an essay he wrote later titled “L’autre cap suivi de la démocracie ajournée” where he envisions a future Europe (more of a promise than a reality) that conceives of itself as an idea around the guiding principle of “a mature sense of democracy” placed within the context of Western Civilization. He even suggests that this mature Europe ought to get rid of a geographical capital and opt for a polycentric network similar to medieval universities. As he puts it: “Europeans need to re-discover their spiritual frontiers beyond petty nationalities around the idea of philosophy, reason, monotheism, of the Jewish, the Greek, the Christian, Islamic memory, around Jerusalem, around Athens, Rome, Moscow, Paris.”
If nothing else, Derrida has revived the notion that more than a geo-political reality Europe is a still largely unexplored and unrealized idea. Several philosophers have in fact explored this idea that is Europe and have attempted to answer the question of its essence and identity. Unfortunately, not many on both sides of the Atlantic bother to read what they have to say on the subject.
I have already mentioned Dante, but within modern times, besides Deridda, we could include at a minimum the following contributors to this idea: Leibniz in the 17th century, who first identifies the proto-language (Germanic-Celtic) as the fountainhead for the union of the people of Europe, and then Kant who promotes universal values with an ethical component, followed by Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Croce, Ortega y Gasset. With the arrival of the new polity called the European Union in mid 20th century we have Adorno, Berdjaev, Habermas, Gadamer, Havel, Levinas.
Finally, let us analyze the above mentioned quote from Edmund Husserl. What is he alluding to by that “mistaken rationalism”? As a philosopher, he cannot possibly be talking about the life of the mind or the life of reason. Rather, he is talking about a calculating kind of rationalism devoid of imagination that ends up making trains run on time but never asks where those trains may be headed for. A rationalism that rationalizes what ought never to be rationalized, that begins with the ego but, as Lévinas teaches us, fails to realize that there is kernel inside the ego with an ethical component called the self, thus ending up with the logos without the mythos. The kind of reason which has produced political ideologies that substitute religious dogma (the mythos without the logos), identified by Vico as a cancerous growth of Western Civilization and dubbed by him “the barbarism of the intellect.” More particularly, Husserl is referring to the major shift which occurs in the 17th century with the advent of Cartesian rationalism, followed in the 18th century by the age of Enlightenment.
The problematic of the Enlightenment seems to be this: When Descartes in his Discourse on Method does away with humanistic modes of thought, he ushers in rationalism which eventually becomes modern relativism and nihilism. When truth is instrumentalized it undermines the very truths that rationality espouses. So, it appears that we Westerners were all “Cartesian rationalists” in the 18th century before we are “technocratic Americans” in the 19th with a fascination, on both sides of the Atlantic, with technological wonders, and an obsession with rational computerized push-botton fix-alls.
The currents of civilizations’ influences on one another are indeed mysterious. Perhaps E.F. Schumacher explains the matter best when he writes in his A Guide to the Perplexed that: “The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that man may obtain of the highest things’ (Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was enlightenment of the person and his liberation; the purpose of the latter is power. ‘Knowledge itself is power,” said Francis Bacon, and Descartes promised men they would become ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ In its more sophisticated development, ‘science for manipulation’ tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people.”(pp. 53-54). Enter Machiavelli’s “real politik.”
The Enlightenment refuses to enlighten itself since it considers itself the culmination of full-fledged reason doing light unto itself; everything can be doubted except one’s own method. The concept, abstract reason, logical thinking is privileged at the expense of the poetical. It is reason eating its own tail with no outside point of reference and no reference to “common sense,” a sort of grammar of lunacy which begins innocuously enough with Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” The ability to hear the gods is lost. A sad condition indeed which Kierkegaard, in identifying the Hegelian totalizing tendency, calls “the sickness unto death.”
Vico who is the culmination of Italian Humanism, offers a corrective to Descartes with his “poetic philosophy.” He interprets wisdom and knowledge in a fresh new imaginative mode as “sapienza poetica,” (poetic wisdom) and alerts us that when reason detaches itself from “poetic wisdom” and refuses to retrace its steps back to the wonder of the child, it becomes pure rationalism or the “barbarism of the intellect,” perhaps best exemplified by Dante’s image of Bertrand del Born in a cave in hell, holding his own decapitated head as light unto himself. Vico on the other hand, keeps reason and imagination together, he blends the rational and the poetical to arrive at a new understanding of both image and idea, a synthesis that is novantiqua, in between Geist and Leiben which he calls “poetic wisdom.”
Closer to our times, Emmanuel Lévinas offers a corrective to the whole European philosophical tradition for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He indicts Western philosophers for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts such as Hegel’s “Spirit” or Heidegger’s “Being,” assimilating countless individuals to rational processes and negating their individuality. He argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers not excluded—interact with persons different from ourselves.
Vico, Havel and Levinas are modern examples of cultural guides for the construction of new paradigms, the new wineskins for the new Europe. The rest depends on our courage to take responsibility for our existential condition and do something about it.
Let me end with a thought from a former Spanish Euro-parlamentarian, Raimond Obiols, who on March 4, 2002 wrote the following in the Debate on the Future of Europe: “We Europeans should not ourselves be overwhelmed by the pessimism caused by an inappropriate comparison with the role of the US as a political military superpower. We should set ourselves the target of building up civilian power, with a growing capacity for political, diplomatic, cultural and economic influence capable of exporting stability and equilibrium, encouraging and creating positive international consensus by intelligently employing Europe’s enormous potential for “soft power.” And this is how Mr. Obiols defines soft power: “hegemony by means of asserting values, cultural influence, leadership in knowledge and communications. Getting what one wants through attraction rather than coercion.”
Obviously, Mr. Obiols is proposing the substitution of a Humanistic imaginative paradigm to a tired old Machiavellian one, a peace oriented one to a power-oriented one inevitably ending up in war and strife. In the old days, the days of Thoreau, Gandhi and King it used to be called “soul power.” Havel has a similar insight when he declared in his Politics and Conscience way back in 1984 that “impersonal manipulative forces can be resisted only by one true power we all possess, our own humanity.” In effect, Havel is calling Europe back home to its true identity, to the recovery of its soul rooted in Christian Humanism. He is asking her: Quo vadis Europa?
From Intellectual Powerhouse to Playing Second Fiddle
A multi-ethnic, multi-religious culture built Spain into an intellectual powerhouse so much so that after the reconquesta scholars from various parts of Europe flocked there to translate the scientific and philosophical works from classical Arabic into Latin triggering the European renaissance.
But soon there were other changes. The Holy Office of the Inquisition was born. Muslim dress, Arab names and the Arabic language were outlawed. A new inferior class of people emerged – Moriscos. They were Muslims who had converted to Catholicism under threat, usually of exile and loss of property. Many of course continued to practice Islam in secret.
Discrimination and mistreatment led to Morisco rebellions which were crushed. Eventually they were forced into internal exile to the northern provinces of Extremadura, La Mancha and New Castile where there was greater tolerance particularly in La Mancha.
In Toledo, the area around the cathedral gained fame as an informal school of translators. Often Morisco, these translators’ services were available to scholars or others requiring translation of Arabic texts. It is here that the narrator of Cervantes’ epic Don Quixote of La Mancha finds a translator for an Arabic manuscript, a supposedly historical account of Don Quixote’s adventures. The author of the fictional text is Cide Hamete Benengeli, a name that is clearly of a Morisco. If Spain was busy making Moriscos a non-people, Cervantes was reminding them of their heritage.
In 1492 when the last Arab Emirate (Grenada) was relinquished to Catholic Spain the treaty signed promised Muslims the right to their way of life in perpetuity. Their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand II and Isabella I soon reneged on the deal. Restrictions, internal exile, discrimination and forced conversions were the result. But even the converted were not safe. As Ottoman power expanded to the Mediterranean, Spain felt threatened. Morisco loyalty became suspect and in the early 17th century they were expelled from Spain as were the Jews. So ended 900 years of coexistence, fruitful and friendly that changed to suspicions and final expulsion under Catholic Spain.
And what of Spain? Having lost its intellectual dynamism, it took its brand of intolerant Christianity to the Americas and added it to European diseases to which the people there had no immunity. A devastated but Christianized population was the result. Time and immigration have changed demographics. A majority of Argentines for example have Italian ancestry; German influence in Chile which encouraged immigration from there in the 19th century is another example.
Our own Ferdinand and Isabella composite resides in the White House with a good chance he will not next year. Life will go on and people will continue to practice the religion of their birth or choice.
The 17+1 Framework between China and Europe
In March 2019, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang made a long trip to Eastern Europe.
The reference for that trip, full of bilateral meetings, was the one found in the Joint Declaration of the EU-China Summit of April 9, 2019.
A document in which, as usual, some key points are stated: firstly, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which reaffirms global strategic multilateralism, as well as “sustainable development” – whatever we may mean with this term – but in which, however, the EU reaffirms its One-China policy.
It also reaffirms support to the EU-China Cyber Task Force; the strengthening of the Addis Ababa Action Force; the funding to the joint migration agency; the will to achieve a global and inclusive economy; support to the Joint WTO Reform Group and further support to the G20; the joint action for the “Global Forum on Excess Steel Excess capacity”, as well as the reform of the international financial system and the review for the new IMF quotas; the “Paris Climate Agreement” and its Montreal Protocol; the Blue Partnership for the Oceans.
With regard to foreign policy – as if everything else were not- reference is explicitly made to the support of both players, namely EU and China, for the 2015 nuclear JCPOA with Iran. Also the peace process in Afghanistan is mentioned, as well as Venezuela.
In this list of bilateral issues there is also the request for a peaceful and democratic solution for Kabul.
Not to mention – of course – the Law of the Sea and finally the situation in Myanmar.
An encyclopedia of very important international topics, which are only proclaimed and mentioned as headings. But, as far as I know, not even in confidential talks they have gone beyond the good intentions with which, as we all know, the road to hell is paved.
In that Summit, tension could be easily perceived.
China wanted to have the EU on its side, at a time of maximum trade tension with the United States, while the EU had increasing doubts about the extension – the so-called 17+1 Framework – of the Belt and Road Initiative to the Balkans and former Yugoslavia.
It should be recalled that Italy, Hungary, Greece and Portugal broke EU unity towards China at that time.
Was it just a signal to the EU? Or a well-considered choice based on the fact that the EU was a technocrat structure operating side by side with Member States – as Germany said – but did not replace them? We do not know yet.
What is certain, however, is that the Chinese seduction towards the Mediterranean and Eastern EU is based on two facts: the U.S. slow disengagement from the NATO EU pillar, regardless of its future president, and China’s awareness that it has to deal with an EU which is now a “paper tiger”.
Nevertheless, China carried out an even more practical operation, at least following the Confucian logic: the support for a Belt and Road network, namely the “16+1 Framework of cooperation with countries in Central and Eastern Europe” -which is celebrating its eight anniversary -to which Greece joined.
The meeting about which we are talking took place in Dubrovnik in April 2019.
The logic of the Chinese Framework is to be closely related with the “Three Seas Initiative” of 2016, an EU initiative in which China simply participated.
As stated above, at the time Greece joined the group.
The Framework, however, had been created in Budapest in 2012 to foster cooperation between the (then) 16 European countries plus China, based on the new Chinese Silk Road and investment in infrastructure, with a view to creating the China-Europe land and sea express line.
Besides Greece, the European countries participating in the Framework are the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Among the current participants, 16 are EU Member States, five are members of the Euro area, four are candidates for participating in the single currency and one is even a potential EU Member State.
From the geopolitical viewpoint, China has built an ad hoc format basically within the EU, a mechanism that minimizes the risks of crisis in the Eurozone, creates an autonomous area of interest for China and can even create a Chinese mainmise within the EU, which could also undermine its future development – if any.
The Chinese consortium managing the operation is the China-Road and Bridge Corporation, a subsidiary of the China Communication Construction Company– a company included in the Fortune 500 list.
The Eastern European countries’ underlying idea was to use Chinese support to stimulate their development but, in a document of the Czech government, it is pointed out that the bilateral commitments are now scarcely honoured.
This is due to the coronavirus and the ongoing financial crisis in European countries, as well as to an often high debt burden on the Chinese side.
The EU, however, has changed its political and economic approach towards China – rather quickly considering its normal standards.
In January 2019, in fact, a paper was published by the Federation of German Industries (BDI), which defined China as a “systemic investor” and asked the EU to make its rules and regulations stricter in view of competing with China and protect its companies.
This was followed in March 2019 by a document from the European External Action Service, the Brussels-based structure that believes it is a secret service – often with comical results.
The document told us it was necessary a) to strengthen relations with China, albeit carefully, in view of promoting common interests at global level; b) to control Chinese investment in the EU, on an equal footing (fat chance) and c) to push China towards a “sustainable” economy.
A psycholinguist should still help us to investigate into the effects of the word “global” in the minds of current political leaders.
The document also informed us that the EU should seek a more robust and, above all, mutual relationship at economic level.
Finally, it was maintained- coincidentally – that the countries of the 17+1 Framework should operate in a homogeneous relationship with EU laws. We can rest assured they will do so.
Then there was the same old story about “human rights” and the obvious “sustainable” development, not to mention climate change, China’s claims on the South China Sea which, we imagined, would be pursued with or without the EU “fine souls”, as well as the request for a connection between China and the EU in Eastern Europe – apart from the 17+1 Framework – which would be anyway pursued until China saw its interest, and finally the substantial repetition of the above stated China-EU agreement of 2019.
Just to avoid remaining in an imaginary world, we should recall here a very useful Machiavellian concept: “There is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of others”.
Not to mention that “States are not ruled and maintained with words”.
What is the solution to the dilemma? In all likelihood, the EU has had a very strong warning from the United States, and is trying to bridle, slow down and restrict its relations with China.
With reference to the 5G, a key issue for the United States, the European Commission has signalled a series of “necessary measures”.
The EU document tells us that the 5G network is very important – just what we needed – and that the Union also supports competition and the global market. It then lists the European agencies that deal with it.
Finally, the solution for the EU is to foster cybersecurity “through the diversity of suppliers when building the network”.
It should be recalled that Japan signed an agreement with the EU on the same issues in September 2019.
Everything will be known, however, once the EU’s foreign investment screening mechanism has provided its results, considering that it was launched on April 10, 2019 and will be implemented by October 11, 2020.
It is connected to the Commission’s Communication “A New Industrial Strategy for Europe” which maintains that “we need a new way of doing business in Europe” and that this must “reflect our values and social market traditions”.
It also states that “our industrial strategy is entrepreneurial in spirit and action” but also that “scalability is fundamental in the digitalised economy” – and this is another key point for us.
An essential topic, but left on the sidelines.
Let us leave aside the other banalities and trivialities typical of the 1968 protesters newly converted to the market economy.
Obviously the new Agency will have the following aims: to create a “cooperation mechanism between the European Commission and the Member States to exchange information” – as if it were not already in place – to enable the Commission to make an evaluation (obviously a non-mandatory one) to stop the operations concerning any foreign investment- albeit is not clear whether for SMEs or otherwise – to be authorized by the Member States to “comment” on foreign investment in the EU; to list a sequence – albeit not exhaustive – of foreign investment sectors that could trigger an analysis by this very powerful organization: critical infrastructure and technology, critical inputs, access to personal data and finally guarantee of media pluralism – that has little to do with it, but “anything goes” and every little bit helps.
That is all, so far.
In December 2015, China set up the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force(PLASSF), the structure of the Chinese Armed Forces dealing with cyberwarfare, space warfare and electronic operations. Has the EU something similar?
Obviously not. Furthermore, NATO has a cyber-defence policy, defined at the Wales Summit of September 2014 and at the Warsaw Summit of 2016. But it has no joint agency for cyber policy, which is not only defence, but also attack.
Gas Without a Fight: Is Turkey Ready to Go to War for Resources in the Mediterranean?
Active exploration of gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean has boosted the region’s importance for the local powers. Most European states depend on imports of energy resources, which means that taking hold of new gas sources is an important element for strengthening their energy security and diversifying their sources of hydrocarbon supplies.
Currently, Greece, Cyprus, France, and Italy are among the main players that have divided up the known and future gas deposits in the Mediterranean among themselves. All these states are EU members. We should add that other EU states also indirectly benefit from new resources, even if they do not have immediate access to gas deposits. They will, however, gain an opportunity to diversify their gas imports and distribute their hydrocarbon dependency among a greater number of suppliers.
The discovery of a new treasure trove of hydrocarbons often produces not only profits, but also additional problems since natural resources frequently turn into a source of conflict. The case of the Eastern Mediterranean is no exception, as another power has staked its claim to a share of the region’s resources, a power that had officially received no piece of the gas “pie” that the European states had divided up among themselves. This power is Turkey, which has decided to actively explore the gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean and has also visibly increased its military presence in the region. Over the last few months, Turkish and Greek warships have been involved in several dangerous incidents, with both parties declaring their readiness to open fire at a pinch. Ankara has also warned that it would “not back down” in a potential confrontation. Like Greece, Turkey has already held military manoeuvres in the region.
Why does Turkey need the gas deposits of the Mediterranean? Today, Ankara is forced to import most of the gas it needs. According to 2016 data, imported gas accounts for 99 per cent of Turkey’s total gas consumption. Most of this gas (over 50 per cent) is purchased from Russia, with Iran, Azerbaijan, Algeria, and Nigeria being among Turkey’s other important suppliers. Multibillion natural resource purchases are a heavy burden on Turkey’s struggling economy. Its GDP has been stagnating since 2017, with a growth of just 0.877 per cent in 2019, compared to over 7 per cent two years ago . These negative trends have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. It has been a particularly painful time for Turkey, as the country has had to deal with the consequences of the lockdown, the partial suspension of economic activities and a sharp drop in tourist flows, which have always been an important source of revenues for Ankara. The timing of the shortened 2020 holiday season could not have been worse for Turkey. According to official data from the Turkish government, by June 2020, Turkey’s GDP had dropped by 9.9 per cent compared with the previous quarter.
It is extremely important under such circumstances that Turkey finds new energy sources: the gas deposits in the Mediterranean will lift the overwhelming burden on the country’s budget and give its weakened economy room to breathe. In such a situation, decreasing dependence on gas imports could be posited as the short-term goal. In the long term, Turkey intends to become a net gas exporter, which will require huge gas deposits, including those outside the Mediterranean.
Fighting for resources fits well into Recep Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy concept that envisions a Turkey that is more willing to engage in confrontation with Western powers. Additionally, the “neo-Ottoman doctrine” entails bolstering Turkey’s regional influence—and gaining new resources in the Mediterranean fits well within this task.
International Legal Conflicts within the Dispute
Ankara’s problem is that the formal provisions of the law of the sea do not allow Turkey to explore and develop potential and known gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. The situation, however, is complicated by the fact that the law of the sea, like any other international legal norms, has understandable problems in terms of compliance. Additionally, the provisions of the law of the sea are very complex, and different states frequently interpret them differently, which is true for both Turkey and Greece. For instance, Turkey is actively exploring gas deposits in the Aegean Sea, although legally it does not have the right to do this: under the law of the sea, virtually all of the Aegean Sea belongs to Greece’s exclusive economic zone due to a chain of Greek islands that are closer to Turkey’s coasts than to continental Greece itself. Ankara, however, insists that the islands should not be taken into account when determining exclusive economic zones, which has created the first international legal conflict in the dispute.
The second conflict pertains to another stretch of the Mediterranean between Italy and Libya. Turkey has staked its claim to this stretch, citing its agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord. The problem is that the GNA does not control all of Libya’s territory, which could put a question mark over the government’s legitimacy. On the other hand, the GNA enjoys international recognition, a fact that Turkey repeatedly stresses.
Another case is connected with gas deposits closer to the coasts of Cyprus. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus; it only recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (it is the only country to do so). Consequently, Ankara views exploring and developing gas deposits in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus as a violation of Turkey’s rights. In the meantime, the colossal Calypso gas deposit that was discovered off the coast of Cyprus in 2018 is one of the main bones of contention in the present energy dispute.
The Role of the European Union and Individual European Stakeholders
From the very outset, Brussels supported Greece and condemned Ankara’s aggressive actions. However, the European Union is not entirely homogeneous in its attitude to the dispute. Firstly, some of its members are locked in a confrontation with Turkey, such as Greece and Cyprus, and their stance in unequivocal. There are stakeholder states, such as France and Italy, two European Mediterranean powers that also have an interest in the region’s gas deposits. Their oil and gas companies, France’s Total, and Italy’s Eni, have already bought shares in the discovered Mediterranean gas reserves and made relevant arrangements with Athens and Nicosia. In the standoff between Greece and Turkey, Paris and Rome are solidly behind Greece. Moreover, France has not limited itself to rhetoric, and has sent warships to the Eastern Mediterranean, thus demonstrating its willingness to support the Hellenic Navy in a critical situation. This is a particularly important step, since it entails a radical shift in the military balance of power within the dispute.
Out of all the EU member states, particular mention should be made of Germany, which has a special connection with Turkey and currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Tellingly, Berlin also sided with Greece, although, unlike France, it has been far more restrained in its conduct. Germany did not send its Navy to the region. Berlin’s principal message is the need for dialogue between the opposing parties and a détente in the conflict. This is Germany’s typical foreign policy stance since it prefers to avoid exerting pressure by force. Additionally, Germany has no additional incentives within the dispute since it stakes no claim to the resources of the Mediterranean.
As for the European Union in general, the overall support for Greece is easy to explain. Brussels proceeds from the official provisions of the law of the sea and, unlike Turkey, it recognizes Cyprus and, consequently, the right of Athens and Nicosia to the gas deposits. In the long term, this new source of gas could help stabilize the European Union and serve as a safety net in the event of a crisis. It was not that long ago that the global financial crisis and the subsequent Eurozone troubles, which hit Greece especially hard, almost resulted in Athens defaulting and withdrawing from the European Union—a fact that could have set a very dangerous precedent and entailed a chain reaction in other Eurozone states with major financial woes (such as Italy). With this is mind, European politicians may very well count on the fact that the revenues from developing the gas fields will help keep the Greek economy on an even keel and insure both Athens and Brussels against possible new economic shocks. We should keep in mind here that the European Union had to establish a financial aid programme and spend significant funds to save Greece from bankruptcy.
Additionally, as we have already mentioned, the new source of gas will allow many EU countries to diversify their energy suppliers and thus to boost their energy security.
How Likely is the Dispute to Turn into a “Hot” Conflict?
Despite several critical incidents, an open conflict over the gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean is not particularly likely, mostly due to the forces being unequal. Turkey has found itself almost completely isolated, and the only agreement Ankara can rely on has been achieved with Libya’s unstable Government of National Accord. On the other side, there is an entire coalition of states, with Greece and France having already held joint military exercises.
France’s military intervention radically changes the balance of power. Turkey’s Navy is larger and stronger than Greece’s (149 warships vs. 116, according to the Global Firepower Index), but significantly smaller than that of France (180 warships). However, it is not only a matter of how many warships each side has. What is important here is their quality: for instance, France has four aircraft carriers, while Turkey has none.
The European Union’s general support for Greece is also important. The idea of imposing sanctions against Turkey was evoked at the most recent EU Foreign Ministers Meeting. Financial penalties could have a major effect on Turkey, given that the European Union is Ankara’s principal trade partner, accounting for 42.4 per cent of its exports and 32.3 per cent of its imports. In such a situation, trade sanctions may prove very painful for Turkey, especially given its stagnating economy and the significant losses it has suffered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, the scope of the European Union’s non-military leverage against Turkey is not confined to economic sanctions. In the event of an open conflict between Athens and Ankara, Brussels can strip Turkey of its current benefits in trading with European states. In particular, the question of excluding Turkey from the EU Customs Union may appear on Brussels’ agenda. Additionally, the European Union could take Turkey’s potential EU membership off the table forever and strike Ankara from the list of candidates.
Still, we should not discount the serious obstacles in the way of Brussels imposing sanctions against Turkey and using other measures to apply pressure on Ankara. One such obstacle is Ankara’s geopolitical significance for Washington. Despite all the recent complications in their relations, Turkey remains one of the key U.S. allies in the region and a NATO stronghold in the Middle East.
As for Turkey itself, a “hot” conflict could prove detrimental to the country in several ways at once. First, given the unequal military power, it is extremely unlikely that Turkey would emerge victorious from such a conflict. Second, a war will undermine Turkey’s global standing and its membership in international organizations. Third, Turkey cannot afford in its current economic state to either actively build up its military power (even though its authorities claim the opposite and have announced significant increases in the naval budget, with the construction on aircraft carriers being top of the spending list) or bear the burden of possible sanctions which, given the country’s many connections with the European Union, could prove very painful.
The rhetoric of the Turkish leadership is highly belligerent rhetoric, yet Ankara is very well aware of the real consequences of breaking up with Europe and starting an open conflict with a country that is a member of both the European Union and NATO. It is possible that, instead of instigating a “hot” conflict, Turkey could attempt to use its own instruments of applying non-military pressure, such as the huge number of refugees present on Turkish territory. Since 2016, Brussels and Ankara have had a refugee agreement in place. However, Recep Erdogan has already demonstrated in the past that he is capable of suspending this agreement and “cracking open” the door to Europe for migrants, which would set new crises in motion at the borders to the European Union.
Does the Gas Dispute in the Mediterranean Affect Russia?
Special attention should be paid here to the possible prospects for Russia in the ongoing dispute. Naturally, Russia has a very tangential relation to the confrontation in the Mediterranean, although the outcome of this confrontation may be important for Moscow.
On the one hand, Russia can hardly profit from Turkey gaining its own major sources of gas. Currently, Moscow is the main supplier of gas to the Turkish market. Undoubtedly, Russia is interested in preserving this status quo. The recent launch of the Turkish Stream confirms that Moscow intends to maintain its dominant standing in the Turkish energy resources market.
On the other hand, a new source of gas for European countries could shake Russia’s position in the even more important European market. It is no secret that the EU countries are attempting to diversify their resource suppliers for greater energy security. However, abandoning Russian gas is very difficult since a gas pipeline infrastructure has already been created in Europe, making Russian gas relatively inexpensive. Much will depend on whether Greece, Cyprus, and Israel will succeed in jointly building the EastMed gas pipeline meant to deliver gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece. Theoretically, EastMed could be extended to other European states. It currently has a design capacity of 10 billion cubic metres, which may be increased by tapping the currently unexplored resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is a very ambitious and expensive project, but if it does materialize, it could change the situation in the European gas market, since pricewise, it could compete with cheap Russian gas. If there is no pipeline running from the Mediterranean, Mediterranean gas will have a hard time pushing Russia aside in the European market: without the gas pipeline, gas will be shipped as liquefied natural gas (LNG), which will significantly increase its price and make it far less attractive to European countries.
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