Turkey’s confrontational foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean

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Since August 2020, Turkey has been sending several drill ships to the Eastern Mediterranean, which raised diplomatic tensions in the area. The dispute started in July when Turkey put a naval alert informing that it was sending Oruc Reis research ship to carry out drilling operations close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkish and Greek officials have been holding technical meetings in Brussels since September 2020 to find a common ground on the issue. On the other hand, it has been said that in order to expand its drilling fleet, Turkey plans to acquire a fourth vessel from Norway soon. Therefore, the maritime border dispute does not seem to be resolved anytime soon.

The conflict between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) began in early 2000s and intensified with the discovery of natural resources in 2010. The Turkish expansionist Blue Homeland (“Mavi Vatan”) doctrine, which defines the country’s territorial waters, the EEZ and the continental shelf, is playing a part on the confrontation. It also emphasizes a naval superiority over the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Turkey also justifies its actions on the Eastern Mediterranean as a way to reduce its energy dependency from other countries.

There are many Greek islands within the sight of the Turkish coast in Mediterranean and Aegean, which lead to a complex issue of territorial waters. Greek and Turkish interests on the Mediterranean have always confronted with each other, with Athens accusing Ankara to violate its continental shelf, while Ankara responds that islands far from the Greek coastline and closer to the Turkish one cannot have a continental shelf of their own. The exploration of the natural resources might seem like the main point of tensions in the Mediterranean, but the roots of the problem are deeper than it seems.

Turkey’s Cyprus question

After a Greek backed coup in Cyprus in 1974, Turkish military intervened and annexed a part of the island under the name of protection of interests of the Turkish Cypriots. Now there are two States in the island, the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Over the years, Southern Cyprus, backed by Greece, got closer with  the EU and finally became a member state in 2004. Meanwhile, TRNC is only recognized by Turkey itself while the United Nations recognize it as territories belonging to the Republic of Cyprus that are occupied by the Turkish military.

Since 1974, there were several attempts at peacebuilding and reunification, the most famous of them known as the Annan Plan, but both sides never found a common ground, which led to the failure of the negotiations. Recently, the Turkish President Erdogan crossed out the possibility of a united federal Cyprus by accusing his Greek counterpart of being confrontational. He opted for a two-state solution as the only way to solve the conflict. Cyprus was also one of the main issues on the table for Turkish accession to the EU. Unless the problem is solved, Turkish membership does not seem likely, considering the Cypriot and Greek opposition inside the EU itself. Meanwhile, it seems like disagreements will continue and that the Cyprus question will isolate Turkey from the EU more and more.

Turkey’s isolation in the region

The prolonged talks, which resulted in the failure of the admission of Turkey to the EU, led Turkey to turn its back to the EU and to focus on being a strong, regional power. Now feeling isolated, Turkey is trying to assert its power throughout the neighboring territories. The recent involvements in the Caucasus and the MENA region support this argument.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s maritime accord with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) also created tensions with other regional powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, since they are the supporters of the Tobruk Government. The role of Egypt is actually an important point here, as it is also one of the interested parties on the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish claims on the Mediterranean also threatens Egyptian efforts to become a regional hub for natural resources. The maritime boundary agreement between Greece and Egypt, signed in early August 2020, also agitated Turkey even more and caused the renewal of the exploration efforts.

Exclusion from the EU membership was followed by exclusion from the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) as well, thus leaving Turkey no choice but to act alone. Established as an international body on 16 January 2020, the EMGF brings together Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine, with a possible future membership of France. The main reason for the exclusion of Turkey seems to be the US opposition to Ankara’s purchase of $400 missiles from Russia. Turkish politicians did not welcome this act well and interpreted it as a containment policy towards Turkey. The possibility of an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline through the EMFG member countries towards the European market, without including Turkey, is another concern of the government officials. They insist on the fact that they should be included to the Forum for the promotion of regional cooperation.

EU’s stance on the issue

The European Union should be careful to react since Turkey does not welcome very warmly the EU’s intervention on the issue of Eastern Mediterranean. Several arguments from Turkish officials were put forward: the EU cannot play a part on this issue since it involves one member state against a non-member one; it is not the EU’s competence to solve the maritime issues, but it is the one of the international courts; it is up to national governments to decide on border disputes.

On the spotlight of the recent events, the EU considers the application of further sanctions towards Turkey for unauthorized and illegal drilling efforts in the Mediterranean. An extensive report is expected to be delivered by EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell at the March summit. During his recent visit to Brussels, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu highlighted the fact that if the EU would resume the accession talks and avoid sanctions, Turkey would be interested to meet all the criteria. This and above-mentioned reactions by Turkish officials show an interest towards a closer cooperation with the EU, which could lead to the de-escalation of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, if the EU members also show interest on the cooperation.

Unsurprisingly, EU member states had different reactions to Turkey’s recent efforts. During the peak of the confrontation, Berlin initiated mediation efforts between Ankara and Athens in August. On a video conference with her Turkish counter-part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the importance of making progress in dialogue. She also talked about how she welcomed the recent developments and positive news in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On the other hand, Macron’s call for a Pax Mediterranea was successful, with a clear Egyptian opposition towards Ankara’s foreign policy and Italy’s endangered energy interests in Libya and Cyprus. Macron’s clear opposition towards Erdogan’s foreign policy is making the matters worse than it is. France already dispatched several warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to show its solidarity with Greece Opposite positions in the Libyan Civil War also play their part in the relations of the two countries. It seems like the confrontational national interests of France and Turkey in the region will prolong the Eastern Mediterranean crisis for now.

Conclusion

The resolution of the conflict heavily depends on the vis-a-vis relations of Greece and Turkey. The complexity of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean demands some compromises. Both parties should be ready for some concessions if they want to find a peaceful solution and coexist in the Mediterranean. Otherwise, they will have to get ready for future confrontations, that will eventually emerge because of the proximity of Greek islands to the Turkish coast.

Turkish exclusion from the regional cooperation is also a problematic issue. The EMGF should include Turkey as a member state, since it is one of the stronger powers of the Mediterranean. Discussing energy related issues together with other countries such as Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on a common platform might also help to find a common ground on maritime borders.

EU’s mild approach towards the parties could be useful, but too much involvement is also risky since Turkey does not see EU’s involvement in the region as appropriate. What the EU can do is keep close cooperation with Turkey on a European scale. Introducing more sanctions would agitate Turkey even more, and rather than looking for a common ground, Turkey might become more violent and expansionist. Instead, by cooperating further, the EU could strengthen the mutual relations with Turkey and achieve some positive results.

Abbas Zeynalli
Abbas Zeynalli
Abbas Zeynalli is the MA Student of University of Bologna and the Research Fellow from Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His areas of interest cover Middle East, Chinese foreign policy, South Caucasus and European integration.

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