The recent COVID-19 pandemic outbreak marked a severe blow to the world system, no government excluded, revealing itself as one, if not the greatest crisis ever faced after World War II. And while some governments coped better than others with the emergency, no one was spared. Besides causing a considerable number of casualties, the virus coincidentally revealed already existing problems, emphasizing the weaknesses and limitations of some of the major governing institutions. More precisely, the virus had a profound impact on the European Union, shedding light on the old dichotomy National vs. European Identity. Alongside the health crisis and the ensuing economic one, Europe is now conjointly faced with an identity emergency.
By initially favoring national lines of conduct to solidarity, the behavior of some EU member states highlighted a lack of confidence in the community’s operate itself. Evidence includes the recent Eurobarometer survey, according to which EU support registered a drop, especially during April. In Italy, for instance, EU support fell by 16%, reaching one of the lowest levels ever registered. Furthermore, conforming to the data, the COVID-19 outbreak is stated to have weakened the Union, with Italy, France, and Germany being the main supporters asserting that Brussels would not have done enough to support their countries during the crisis. Rather than evidencing a novel phenomenon, however, it would be more appropriate to see this as the latest manifestation of a long-standing issue: namely the lack of “Europeanness”, a strong sense of identity binding the EU community together.
If the health emergency represented an unprecedented situation for the European community, the lack of trust in its institutions did not. The existential crisis, as the former president of the commission, Jean-Claude Junker described in 2017, has been going on for a long time. “Never before have I seen such little common ground between our Member States. […] Never before have I heard so many leaders speak only of their domestic problems.” From the 2008 financial crash to the refugee crisis, to the rise of populism and extremism to eventually Brexit, Euroscepticism saw a continuous and consistent surge over the years.
What Defines European Identity?
In its broader sense, identity can be classified by its disruptive element, distinguishing those who are part of the group (“we-feeling”  from those who are not; in this case, EU vs. NON-EU. Conversely, with regard to European identity specifically, two intrinsic elements are identified: plurality and individuality.  Plurality refers to the sense of belonging to a community that shares a common culture, values, and history, “a nation comprising several” (Montesquieu). Conversely, individuality stems from the strong regional and individual national identities present on European soil. It is from these two intrinsic elements that Europe will generate its own identity, finding its way between the global and the local . The two aspects are not mutually incompatible. In an example given by Halbig, reference is made to the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, both of which are very strong in terms of regional identity but also very active in terms of European sentiment.
Why is The Development of a Shared Identity so Fundamental?
According to Paul Collier, professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford University, at the root of any economic development lies a sense of identity . Every society presents a dual composition, a power structure, and an identity component. In the absence of the latter, power dissolves into a theatre, meaning directives are less likely to be respected (e.g., different member states’ response to the refugee crisis). When considering the EU, a mismatch between the power structure (supra-national) and the identity component (national) is observed. In order for the Union to work more efficiently, therefore, a move of the identity component, at present almost exclusively national, toward the structure of power is suggested. Such approach does not equate to the erasure of national identity, an essential element at the core of the European Union, as evidenced by its motto “United in Diversity.” Furthermore, as already stated, National and European identities are classified as not exclusive to one another, meaning the presence of one does not exclude that of the other, with the supra-national identity constituting a powerful addition to the national one . While, at the individual level, identity drives behavior, at the supra-national dimension, a sense of belonging to the same community will serve as a prerequisite for further growth, for it will foster future trust and simplify cooperation  .
As further proof of the lack of a sense of collective identity, Eurobarometer surveys will now be taken into account. When analyzing the data, particular interest is given to the “Moreno question ” section. If the fact that the values collected do not show any particular changes over the last twenty years could, at first glance, be interpreted as a positive variable, it is precisely the lack of growth itself that sets the alarm bell off. Moreover, whilst at the European level values have remained nearly unchanged, at the individual state levels, data shows to have undergone some changes. A significant disparity is registered among different countries, a variable that has changed over time. Among the EU founding members, France and Italy registered a drop in EU identification. Severe variation is also reported on the basis of different socio-economic and demographic factors at an individual level. Those variables include age, level of education, occupation, socio-economic condition, etc. Not very surprisingly, the group more likely to show a higher level of identification with the European Union is composed of young, relatively wealthy, well-educated, eager to travel, work and study abroad people. Namely, those who had had the opportunity to experience free mobility at first hand, along with its benefits.
What are the Processes Through Which Identity is Created?
Before embarking on the policies employed to meet the European challenge, it is necessary to define the processes through which identity is created. In determining the mechanism through which identity is created, two distinct paths are distinguished: information-based and experience-based components . Information-based mechanism rests on the effectiveness of convincing messages as a source of group identification, as well as on the level of accessibility and exposure citizens get from those messages. Messages’ supply will rely on the political elite as well as the media outlets. At the same time, exposure to Europe-related information will be more dependent on the level of attentiveness and interest dedicated by citizens to such type of message. Conversely, experience-based mechanisms lie on the idea of personal contact and direct experiences as a source of identification. Increased contacts and personal connections (e.g., Erasmus exchange program) are said to have an impact on group members’ perceptions.
What are the Problems at the Root of the European Identity Crisis?
To adequately respond to the current crisis due to the European Union’s lack of identification, it is necessary to become more familiar with the underlying problems of this trend. Of particular interest in this respect appears the European Research Project PERCEIVE. The project’s scope lay in the investigation of Cohesion Policy in creating a shared sense of European identity and a broader adherence to Europe’s values among citizens. The policy (2007-2013, 2014-2020) aimed at eradicating inequalities among member states, as well as at the development of a sense of belonging to a shared community. Although the research was explicitly tailored to the European Plan’s success, the identified issues appear to carry a much more general nature. In particular, three major problems were identified.
The first issue to be identified lies in communication. According to findings, one of the reasons why the European Plan proved to be unsuccessful in gaining support for Brussels derived from the way it has, or better, has not, been presented by local governments and media outlets, namely how much coverage was dedicated to EU-related information. When working toward the implementation of a sense of belonging, Europe must thus learn to communicate its policies better. In this regard, communication channels, social media platforms included, appear crucial.
Secondly, it was noted that the allocation of structural funds does not necessarily equate with a rise in EU support, nor with a surge in identification with the community. In this regard, reference is made to Calabria (Italy). Although a large amount of funds was allocated to the region, 34% of the respondents still viewed their country’s EU membership negatively. According to the researches in order for funds to create support, they do not only need to be allocated, but also, they need to be spent well, as well as promoted in relation to the results obtained.
Lastly, the third problem to be identified related to awareness. When asked about the EU Cohesion Plan, less than 50% of EU citizens surveyed were familiar with the EU Cohesion Policy. The finding suggests that being unfamiliar with EU Policies and Initiatives at a broader level, citizens will likely not be aware of the benefits they provide, hence the importance of raising awareness.
What Kind of Initiatives Have Been Employed to Promote a Sense of Identification in the European Community?
In outlining the strategies implemented by Brussels aimed at developing further cohesion between member states, two different identity components need to be further distinguished: civic and cultural . The distinction appears useful as it allows us to distinguish two different lines of action to implement the policies of identification with the European Union.
A European “Civic Identity” would, therefore, refer to the perception to be part of a European political system, defining rules, laws, and rights concerning the individual citizen’s life. When targeting the civic component, European initiatives should thus aim at generating a sense of communal participation in the Union’s decision-making processes, stressing the involvement of one common political system. The primary purpose, more generally, should, therefore, consist in making institutions more efficient and transparent, as well as more accessible to European citizens. The result would lead not only to greater participation in European political life but would also increase citizens’ awareness of the European institutions as well as of the benefits to which they have access. Among the European initiatives that have been undertaken in accordance to these lines are the following: European Parliament’s elections, citizen’s project initiatives and dialogues, a common passport, uniformed license plates, free mobility, free-roaming, MEP (Model European Parliament) and the EU-wide job agency (EURES).
In contrast, “Cultural Identity” is defined as the component, independent from the above-mentioned political perceptions, stemming from the idea that Europeans are closer than non-Europeans due to a rich set of shared values, as well as a shared culture and history. By emphasizing the commonality derived from a shared past between EU members, initiatives will be implemented in order to raise a sense of alignment between citizens of the same group. Examples include Erasmus+, free interrail tickets, town twinning programs, European Capital of Culture, a pan-European TV Channel (Euronews), as well as shared symbols, such as the European Flag, European Anthem, a common motto (“United in Diversity”), and a shared festivity, Europe’s day (9 May).
Reshaping the EU, What Can be Done in Order to Develop a Sense of Identification?
Following the Italian unification in 1861, Massimo d’Azeglio, Italian politician and writer, said, “once Italy was made, now we must make Italians.” And the same logic applies to Europe. Being a relatively young system, not even 70 years old, and undergoing continuous development, in order for Europe to act more efficiently, proper attention must be paid to policies aimed at implementing a shared identity, rather than focusing solely on its economic aspect. In this regard, as already mentioned, the discrepancies recorded in the various Eurobarometer surveys appear of particular interest.
More specifically, as suggested in a recent report published by ECONPOL, “What a feeling?! How to promote European Identity“, experts identified in adults, pensioners, and more generally less socio-economically advantaged people the main targets of a new identity plan. According to surveys, these categories have proved to be the least likely to develop a sense of EU cohesion, hence the need to focus on them. While young, well-educated, and generally wealthy people tend to present higher trust rates, mainly due to the free movement policies allowing students and young professionals to create valuable transnational contacts, staying at home and being exposed to European tourists does not seem to have the same effect. According to experts, in order to create a more inclusive identity, more focus should be put on those people less likely to experience the benefits of their country’s EU membership.
In addition to providing a list of possible targets to be included in a potential new plan for the development of a European identity, several suggestions were presented in the report. These suggestions will be listed below, distinguishing between their civic and cultural dimension.
Among the suggested civic initiatives, we find the creation of supranational party lists. The idea is not entirely new, as several politicians have already proposed such a plan, including the French President Emmanuel Macron. According to scholars, the creation of supranational lists would guarantee a more pronounced loyalty to the party’s key idea, resulting in a greater party accountability. Simultaneously, the existence of transnational parties could generate more public interest and contribute to greater participation in parliamentary elections. Secondly, among the various propositions, the establishment of European embassies is presented. Such offices would provide consular services for all EU citizens, while foreign policy would remain of national competence. Working at a supranational level would hence contribute to the message of a more present and helping Europe. At the same time, their creation would ensure consistent money-saving as well a higher level of efficiency, resulting from the standardization of the procedure. Finally, city assemblies, where citizens could meet to discuss European issues, the content of these meetings then being brought before the EP, are also proposed. This practice, already in use in Ireland, would thus increase the sense of citizen involvement.
Simultaneously, from a cultural point of view, several initiatives are also suggested. Among the most significant ones, we mention the creation of different exchange programs targeting adults (European Waltz), to create an on-the-job experience exchange, as well as pensioners (Pensioners’ Erasmus), to support those eager to learn and get to know more about European countries and their cultures. Concurrently, the creation of an EU Public Service Broadcaster, active in several EU languages, and thus facilitating access, is proposed. The platform would air daily, covering EU-related news as well as all public meeting and hearings of European Institutions. In order to meet its purpose, the broadcast should present a high degree of independence from politics, providing its viewers with objective information.
Rather than being regarded as a threat to one’s identity, fostering European unity should instead be perceived as a benefit. A “community of communities” working together for a common good. If, in accordance with the theory of social constructivism, social processes are at the core of the construction of ideas, then the legitimacy of the European Union itself will also be partly defined by the existence of a strong European identity. As opposed to being merely regarded as a challenge, COVID-19 pandemic provides all the necessary elements to be the turning point Europe needed to reshape its position. Besides addressing health and socio-economic issues, institutions should also focus on fostering a shared EU identity.
On 13 December 1973, the then Nine Member States signed the European Declaration of Identity in Copenhagen. Although the document was drafted almost 50 years ago, some of the directives remain relevant today. When assessing the extent to which the Nine were committed to working together, European unity was praised as the basic necessity to ensure the survival of the civilization they had in common. At the same time, legal, political, and moral national orders were stated to be preserved. (ART 1). Furthermore, to ensure the respect of national identities, diversity was praised as the fundamental element giving the community its peculiarity and dynamism (ART 3). When addressing the current geopolitical issues, the Nine reaffirmed their willingness to act together as a large community. A community that, in order to fulfill its aims, cannot only be economic. (ART 7).
“Although in the past the European countries were individually able to play a major role on the international scene, present international problems are too difficult for any of the Nine to solve alone. International development and the growing concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of a very small number of great powers mean that Europe must unite and speak increasingly with one voice if it wants to make itself heard and play its proper role in the world.” (ART 6)
“Unite and speak increasingly with one voice,” suggesting that in order for a system to function correctly, it needs to be accompanied by a great sense of cohesion and belonging.
1. Easton D. A system analysis of Political Life (1965).
2. Halbig, T.E., (2019) Creating an European Identity, Volume 4 pages 75-79.
3. Chopin T. (2018) Europe and the identity challenge: who are “we”?, Robert Shuman Policy papers.
4. From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development, Paul Collier, Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.
5. Troitino, D.R. (2009) Creation of European Identity in the European Union, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330712624_Creation_of_European_Identity_in_European_Union_Creation_of_European_Identity_in_European_Union.
6. Ciaglia, S., Fuest, C., Heinemann, F. (2019) What a feeling?! How to promote European Identity, ECONPOL.
7. In the near future, do you see yourself as: (1) [nationality] only, (2) [nationality] and European, (3) European and [nationality, (4) European only.
8. Bergabauer, S. (2018) Explaining European Identity Formation.
9.Bruter, M. (2003): Winning Hearts and Minds for Europe. The impact of News and Symbols on Civic and Cultural European Identity.
10. Damaso, M., Davies, L.J., Jablonowski, K., Montgomery S. (2019) Acting European, Identity belonging and the EU of tomorrow.
From our partner RIAC
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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