Enduring tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are creating a critical test for European policymakers. Recent responses to Turkish actions have demonstrated uneasy divisions as the EU continues to struggle to forge a unified foreign policy. The consequences of continued inaction could be serious, both for the Union itself and the stability of its periphery. Will the big European nations stand up for the rule of law and the sovereign rights of their smaller partners, or will they bow to economic and diplomatic pressure from Turkey?
The list of problems between the EU and Turkey keeps expanding. Late last year, Turkey and the government of Libya signed an agreement establishing maritime boundaries and economic zones that ignored territorial waters of Greek islands. The Oruç Reis exploration vessel — named after an Ottoman pirate and slave-trader — spent much of the summer in disputed waters near Cyprus and Greece. Turkey carried out a live-fire naval exercise off Cyprus in September. Turkish warplanes routinely violate Greek airspace and engage in mock dogfights with the Hellenic Airforce. Greek and Turkish naval vessels even collided in mid-August.
French president, Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in condemning Turkish behavior. In September, he went so far as to declare that Turkey was “no longer a partner in the Mediterranean region” and called for a more coherent European policy. Relations between France and Turkey remain strained, with both sides clashing over the flareup in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Macron going so far as to accuse the Turkish government of shipping Syrian mercenaries to serve in Azerbaijan’s campaign.
Earlier this week, the Turkish press announced that further geological surveys would be conducted around Crete. Additional live-fire naval exercises will be conducted in late October at the heart of the Aegean to coincide with the Greek national holiday commemorating Greece’s resistance to Fascist Italy. These provocations should come as no surprise since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has explicitly warned the EU that Turkey will continue to press its perceived rights to hydrocarbons with or without diplomatic settlements with Greece and Cyprus on the issue of exclusive economic zones.
During these uneasy times, Greece and Cyprus have also reaffirmed their transatlantic relationships, trying to wedge themselves into the growing gaps emerging between the United States and Turkey over a number of issues. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Nicosia and his subsequent trip to Souda Bay, Crete were emblematic of these improved relationships and of the United States’ desire to work for stability in the region. Such interventions, by themselves, however, will not prove sufficient to end the standoff, particularly with the American election less than a month away.
The greatest responsibility for keeping peace in the Eastern Mediterranean and protecting the rights of its members remains with the European Union, but its response has been halting. The Union’s two largest powers, France and Germany, have failed to coordinate a response. Macron’s blunt rhetoric has been counterbalanced by German reluctance to take a muscular approach, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushing to resolve the conflict through broad calls for more dialogue. Her caution may be primarily tied to worries about upsetting the refugee deal she had inked with Erdoğan in 2016.
This deadlock at the EU level is a growing source of frustration. President Anastasiades of Cyprus recently renewed his calls “for a more concrete and effective stance” from the European Council. For many Greeks and Cypriots, relations with Brussels frayed during their respective financial crises in 2009-2018 and 2012-3 when they were subjected to EU-imposed austerity measures, and in the case of Cyprus, a bank depositor bail-in to balance the books. Sizeable portions of the Greek and Cypriot publics emerged from the crisis skeptical over the value of EU membership and the wider European project. This crisis is only strengthening the hands of Eurosceptics across both societies.
The consequences of inaction also invite rivals to more mischief. Russia and China will look to exploit gaps in both the EU and NATO. Cyprus and Greece may well be receptive to such overtures. They could look to conclude economic agreements with other major powers. If Turkey can buy S-400 missiles from Russia despite NATO opposition, what payoff might Greece negotiate through the threat of a closer relationship with Russia? In the EU’s absence, could Greece and Cyprus leverage further Chinese investment, further entrenching Chinese political influence? None of these outcomes is a foregone conclusion, but strategically-minded Europeans ought not to be complacent.
The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean is not only challenging regional security, it is testing the EU’s willingness to defend the values it claims to cherish. To preserve its legitimacy, the EU must act cohesively and decisively. European policymakers need to remember that diplomacy is not just open-ended dialogue. And this dispute is not merely a parochial territorial squabble, but a fight over how the rule of law will figure in Europe’s neighborhood for years to come. This is no time for prevarication. Real values are at stake.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.